As you probably know by now, Kanye West has a new project called The Life Of Pablo. Chances are good that you also know that the publication of The Life Of Pablo has been unorthodox. After months of delays, an initial version of Pablo was either leaked or released — it’s hard to tell — right around Valentine’s Day. After many people thought they’d gotten their hands on the new Kanye West album, he withdrew Pablo, remixed some of the songs, and added several cuts (he blamed the switcheroo on junior partner Chance The Rapper, who’d argued for the inclusion of a song that hadn’t been on the first release.) There was also a Madison Square Garden performance that may or may not have been an album release party, some high-profile Twitter battles with other musicians, and angry, early-P.E.-style notes from the artist asking white critics not to review music made by black musicians anymore. When West restricted the release of Pablo to the Tidal streaming service, thousands of fans chose to rip the album rather than buy a subscription. West has refused to report the official Tidal streams to Billboard, so we’ll never know how much money his decision cost him¹. The Daily Mail estimated that he left ten million dollars on the table. I think they’re full of it, since many fans would have swiped the album anyway, but the point remains: Pablo didn’t make the money it could have if Kanye West had released it conventionally.
To add to the confusion: even though The Life Of Pablo has been out for two months and many fans have already paid for it, it’s now clear that West isn’t finished with the album. He’s been tinkering with the tracks, and he reserves the right to continue working on Pablo until he’s satisfied with it. So are you willing to purchase a Tidal subscription to get a Kanye West album that may not be the same as the Kanye West album you’ll get the next time you check in? Or are you going to rip today’s Pablo, call that the album, and hope that tomorrow’s Pablo isn’t substantially improved?
This may sound like a mess to you, and if so, you’re not alone. In the public discussion of The Life Of Pablo, West has been pilloried for the disastrous quality of the album’s rollout. This is supposed to go to character — Kanye is a loose cannon, a screw-up, and a mixed signal-sender who does and says crazy things and gets out of line and hurts Ms. T. Swift’s feelings, and is therefore deserving of a public comeuppance. But wait a second: why the heck am I supposed to care about Kanye West’s finances anyway? What difference does it make to me if his marketing strategy is faulty or weird? I’m not his business manager², I’m just a music fan. As a collector and occasional completist, it annoys me that West won’t release The Life Of Pablo on CD; there’s a shelf in our living room with the rest of his records on it, and it would be nice to add another. As a fussbudget critic who writes essays for fun, I would like Kanye West to finish The Life Of Pablo so I can bloviate about it to friends and compare and contrast it with his prior projects. In other words, the pleasures he’s denying me here are kind of silly, stunted ones. And when I look at the publication of Pablo objectively, I begin to suspect that West, who never encounters an apple cart without trying to upset it or a henhouse without foxing around in it, might be on to something.
By releasing Pablo before it’s done, West isn’t just calling into question whether an album needs to be finished by its publication date. He’s questioning whether an album needs to be finished ever. A collection of songs called The Life Of Pablo now exists in the world, and it always will: once music is released, it can’t be unreleased. But given the flexibility of digital technology, there’s no real reason why an artist can’t keep fussing with — or maybe even radically reinterpreting — an album to his heart’s content. It’s possible that doing so will alienate or bewilder or frustrate more listeners than it attracts. But it’s equally plausible to me that fans of the artist will find the alterations fascinating and want to follow them all in the same obsessive way they might follow his tweets and posts³.
I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to predict that mutability is going to be a major and widely accepted characteristic of art in the 21st century. Nothing is going to stand still for long, and that’s because nothing has to. The hard-and-fast release date was a product of an era that fetishized the physical object: an album had to be released by a certain date because it was contained on a piece of plastic that needed to be manufactured at a plant and distributed to a retail outlet. This isn’t true anymore. I think we haven’t even begun the transformation in artistic forms that are likely to follow the de-coupling of works of art from artifacts. I’m going to guess at the implications — for the world, and for me — in a separate post.
¹Maybe it’s the San Francisco Giants fan in me (or maybe it’s just the song “Barry Bonds”) but I’ve always strongly associated West with Barry Bonds. Their similarities are so plentiful that they kinda demand their own Critics Poll essay; for now, I’ll just say that West’s self-imposed disappearance from the Billboard charts feels very much like Bonds’s decision to withhold his image from baseball cards and videogames. They both believe that their talent entitles them to a different set of rules than the ones that everybody else follows. And if there weren’t a few people around who felt and acted that way, the world would be a duller place with fewer balls in McCovey Cove, and slower croissant service.
²I believe that’s Pusha T’s problem now. I love Pusha T, so maybe I ought to be mad at Kanye on his behalf.
³I can’t help but notice that aficionados love to go behind the scenes, too; if you make music, you’re probably acquainted with people who play around with the stems of Beatles recordings, and the like, in their home studios.