The lead up to the release of Kanye West’s seventh studio album has been, well shambolic, to be perfectly honest. The fact that it took three years to put out the record when he began work on it soon after 2013’s Yeezus, boldly declaring that it would most likely released the following summer is one thing. The constant changes to the tracklist of the album though, not to mention the regular changes to the album name itself (the final album title was only settled a mere 2 days before the album’s scheduled release date) is quite another. Following on from that aforementioned desire of a 2014 release, all we’ve largely had since then have been a series of mostly questionable singles in the intervening years, such as “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds.” Then, at the end of 2015, Kanye finally seemed to gather some kind of motivation to finish the record, at last.
no offense to anyone… I’m asking everyone DON’T ASK ME FOR ANYTHING TILL AFTER I’M FINISHED WITH MY ALBUM
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) December 13, 2015
That tweet was followed a few weeks later with the release on Soundcloud of “Real Friends.” Now this song was more like it. In many people’s minds, there were now high hopes for the new Ye record. Hopes which were raised even higher after “No More Parties in LA” was uploaded to Kanye’s Soundcloud account 10 days later. A classic hip hop beat, and rap music’s man of the moment Kendrick Lamar on one of the verses made it one of the best Kanye songs since the Watch the Throne album. There soon followed an announcement that the LP would be revealed at a listening party/fashion show, in the form of Yeezy Season 3 at Madison Square Garden on February 11th. The party sold out in 10 minutes, and ended up being watched in cinemas around the world as well as streamed by 20 million people through Tidal’s streaming service. The album showed signs of greatness, even on the first listen. Otherwise though, almost everything else about Yeezy Season 3 was very weird or puzzling in some way. A combination of Kanye passing the auxiliary cord of the soundsystem to his entourage to play their mostly shit music after Pablo finished playing, along with the preview, seemingly out of nowhere, of Kanye’s previously unmentioned video game of his mother’s entry into the gates of heaven, as well as other ramblings from Kanye on the microphone before he headed backstage made it a very surreal, seemingly poorly planned experience overall. Then there was the fact that, while the album was supposed to be released on the day of the MSG listening party, there was still no sign of it that night or the next day. To cut a long story short, the tracklist was changed yet again, more tweaking was done, and the album was finally released on Sunday, February 14th (or Valentine’s Ye, if you will) exclusively to Tidal. Incidentally, as of just under 24 hours ago at the time of writing, it may never be released officially elsewhere, according to a recent tweet from Kanye.
My album will never never never be on Apple. And it will never be for sale… You can only get it on Tidal.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 15, 2016
Now, I can understand supporting Jay-Z’s streaming venture, given that he’s a close personal friend of Ye’s, but it still makes the release of The Life of Pablo ever more strange. Surely if you’re (as Kanye regularly reminds us) a creative genius and the world’s greatest living artist, then you’d want as many people to hear your album as possible? Surely you’d release it on every format imaginable? Stand up comedian Hannibal Buress probably put the whole situation better than anyone else did over the weekend.
Intriguing rollout strategy sir. https://t.co/ixajbqRKmw
— Hannibal Buress (@hannibalburess) February 13, 2016
All of this points towards an album that’s most likely an unfocused, potentially nonsensical mess, made by an artist that has no idea what direction to take his music, right? Well, therein lies the biggest surprise of The Life of Pablo. As a record, it actually works. It flows incredibly well, it’s eclectic as you could possibly imagine it would be, and it’s Kanye’s best album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. If it’s a mess, it’s a positively glorious one. Tracks like “Ultralight Beam,” “30 Hours” and “Feedback” are among the best songs Ye has ever made. Much like Dark Fantasy, Pablo manages to frequently juxtapose crass, brutal, sometimes even reprehensible lyrics alongside beautiful music and heart swelling melodies. The much spoken about lyrics referencing Taylor Swift on “Famous” are obviously unnecessary, and something the song and album could have easily done without. The song still manages to be one of the highlights of the album, though. Speaking of “Highlights,” that song even name-drops Kanye’s wife’s ex boyfriend.
“I bet me and Ray J would be friends
If we ain’t love the same bitch
Yeah, he might have hit it first
Only problem is I’m rich”
West has previously mentioned a desire for artistic freedom, a desire to be uncensored and to be able to express himself in his music however he saw fit. On one level, he’s absolutely correct to aspire to that notion. Musicians and recording artists should be given free reign to create their craft as and how they wish, without giving into what their record label, their peers, society or even their fans expect of them. However, while Kanye’s lyrics in the past have been gruesome, sometimes to the point of black comedy, at least whomever he was singing or rapping about was left anonymous. Whilst looking through social media sites for information on a release date for Pablo in the days after the Madison Square Garden listening party, any searches for Kanye resulted in a saturated abundance of Taylor Swift Vs. Kanye articles. And this is where The Life of Pablo seems doomed to dismissal out of hand by many people. A problem which has plagued Kanye West for much of his career, in fact. His antics, his outbursts, and the ludicrous tweets he has sent over the last few weeks and months have given his many detractors an awful lot to shout about. The circus surrounding the lead up to the album’s release has overshadowed the actual album itself by this point, in many ways. The trainwreck is still ongoing, too. The aforementioned LP release to Tidal is apparently not the final version of the record either; Kanye is reworking many of the LP’s tracks again, with a final version apparently arriving in the next several days.
Now, I have to imagine that most bands and solo artists probably tinker with album titles, tracklistings, production and artwork and everything in between on a frequent basis before putting out their final product. Most people though, wisely I might add, choose not to announce these changes mere weeks or even days before their albums are due to be released. In fact, your average musician would probably opt to keep all that information to themselves, rather than sharing it with the world by Twitter. And I can’t think of any other artist out there who has released their album and literally unreleased it on the same day, in order to tweak with it even further. The Life of Pablo’s current state of release is quite frankly baffling. Expecting people to subscribe to a paid monthly music streaming service like Tidal purely to hear one specific album is absolutely grotesque. It’s no wonder hundreds of thousands of people are going elsewhere to get their Pablo fix.
As for West’s reasons for the seemingly last minute dash and the last minute series of changes whilst getting the album out is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s because this marks his longest gap between albums to date and he just wanted to finally get it out; his initial 9 year run saw 6 solo albums and one colaboration album with Jay Z. Or maybe it’s because he was so excited about what he was creating that he wanted to share it and share details of it with the world in real time. Or it could be because he’s currently $53 million in debt and he needs the cash. Or maybe it’s all of the above. Except the debt theory, probably. After all, if you want your album to make money, you need to actually sell the thing, rather than insist on leaving it exclusively on one streaming platform.
When you see past the cloud of inane absurdity surrounding The Life of Pablo though, you’re left with one of the finest albums Kanye has ever released, most likely one of the best albums you’re likely to listen to this year, and certainly one of the most talked about albums of 2016 to boot. The essence of The Life of Pablo can be succinctly captured among the lyrics of “Feedback.”
“I’ve been outta my mind a long time
I’ve been outta my mind a long time
I’ve been saying how I feel at the wrong time
Might not come when you want but I’m on time”
Sadly, there’s obviously no Spotify link right now. In the meantime, here’s the playlist from my previous Kanye album ranking article