I was at the debut of Kanye West’s ninth album The Life of Pablo, but I wasn’t at Madison Square Garden. While New Yorkers filed into their stadium seats, a leisurely after-dinner drink in hand, I watched from a Hoyts cinema in the middle of Melbourne at 8 o’clock in the morning. Safe to say, this made for a very different experience.
The launch of T.L.O.P and, somewhat less importantly, Yeezy season three was so laden with hype that it almost seems redundant to note. After a year of speculation about what direction the Yeezus follow-up would take, a fun game to play because no-one ever guesses right with Kanye, the last few weeks were marred with controversy. Twitter beefs, ruthlessly misguided attacks against ex-girlfriends and a bizarre shout of support for someone generally considered to be a despicable criminal, muddied a time that was supposed to be so exciting. This coupled with erratic name changes (Swish! Waves! Ah, who is Pablo?) and several tweets of changing tracklists, made it seem like Kanye was still kind of making it up as he went along. By the morning of the launch I think the feeling among a lot of fans was, ‘Oh god, I hope he can pull this off’.
I arrived at Melbourne Central at about 7.30am and already, the McDonalds near the cinema was buzzing. While waiting in line with people (almost all of whom were wearing Yeezus merch in case anyone got it twisted. I also bumped into someone who had accidentally worn head-to-toe Nike and was feeling very nervous about it) I thought about how remarkable it was that T.L.O.P hadn’t leaked yet. We’ve become so accustomed to the fact that release dates barely mean anything anymore, which is probably why this kind of international event is appealing to Kanye West. If you didn’t know Kanye you may think this is a celebration of the old model of album releases in the ‘good old days’ (ie: ‘90s), but really it’s just about launching an album/new season in a way that no one has before, in a way that Kanye can totally control.
People started lining up for the cinema, with a lone and very stressed Hoyts employee checking everyone’s tickets and hurriedly telling them which cinema to go to. People of all ages, some obviously wearing their work clothes and planning 8.50am texts about late trains, checked their phones nervously for updates. I saw a teenage boy being dropped off by his dad, who said, “Have a nice time!” and waved as he scurried towards the line. When we walked into the cinema, it was already streaming video of people’s feet entering Madison Square Garden (most of them wearing Yeezys, obviously). This went on for a while and the crowd was getting restless. I heard one Hoyts employee say on his walkie talkie, “Yeah, I don’t know what’s happening… there’s just a lot of shoes”.
Finally at about 8.20, the lights went down and the show started – well, kind of. For a while all we could see was a few fluttering spheres that looked like the set of a contemporary dance piece about Macbeth, that actually had models cowering underneath the entire time. The first audible reaction from the audience was when the stream focused on the Kardashians, all dressed in blinding white custom Balmain and some in enormous white fur jackets, took their seats in the stadium, followed shortly by Lamar Odom and Kanye West.
After hugging Pusha T and fiddling around with his laptop (the one his cousin stole?) Kanye spoke to the crowd and gave them permission to dance and cheer, something that a pre-9am Melbourne audience were not psyched to take part in. Then track one, ‘Ultra Light Beams’, began. You have probably read a million thinkpieces about the content of the album before lunch, so I won’t go into it here. What I will say, is that in between shots of bored, beautiful models looking for an opportunity to sit down, whenever Kanye came on the screen nodding furiously or wilding with the famous people standing behind him, the crowd chuckled approvingly.
Of course, it wasn’t all “Aw, Kanye!” moments. During ‘Famous’ when he asserted that he might still have sex with Taylor Swift and oh yeah, that he made her famous, the cinema was full of groans and that nervous laugh people do when they’re uncomfortable. Great, he’s said something shitty about a woman once again. More than the other gasp-worthy lines (like Kanye’s assertion that he and Ray J could have been friends – let it go, man) this caused the biggest reaction. It was interesting to be in a communal environment with other Kanye fans while hearing stuff like this. There’s a small comfort in knowing that other people have a hard time negotiating the problematic way Kanye talks about women too.
(The only other line that got a giant reaction was when he rapped that “Blac Chyna fucked Rob” and was “helping him with the weight”, but this was less about it being particularly scandalous and more that this event happened in the last couple of weeks – how much of this album was changed at the last minute?)
The most energetic the audience was, was during Kanye’s album freestyle, a funny examination of how perplexed he is when fans “miss the old Kanye, miss the sweet Kanye”. In his owns words, it would be “so Kanye” to write a song about himself. “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye!” he mimed, with his arms raised. Everyone in the cinema clapped, because this is the funny and self aware Kanye we all like. It’s the Twitter Kanye that fucking sucks. But maybe this was his point; he’s always been this way, there just wasn’t Twitter when College Dropout came out.
After the album finished, Kanye thanked adidas and Carine Roitfeld for being a “real bitch” and defended Michael Jordan to a heckler. That’s when it all turned into a house party with too many dudes with iPhones and AUX cords, and then with one Donda West-inspired video game, it was over.
You’ll never be able to recreate the energy in Madison Square Garden, but everyone sitting in Hoyts Melbourne Central knew this. But maybe being away from the smoke, lights and Gigi Hadid makes you appreciate the event as highlighting the artifice of the conventional album release and how much the nature of that first listen can affect our relationship with music. Did Kanye maybe reveal a little too much in the lead up to T.L.O.P and risk listeners becoming exhausted before they’d even settled into their seats? Maybe. Does an event like this make more of an impact on your appreciation of an album, than say a surprise drop where you go in raw? I suppose it depends on why you chose to consume it this way. For me, I wanted the spectacle of seeing whatever crazy-ass shit Kanye had decided was necessary viewing with the album and having the rare shared experience of having a first listen with a room full of other excited fans.
“Tell me I delivered on the promise for this album,” Kanye asked the stadium. Let’s take the weekend to let it marinate, and see (so please no one text me or ask me for anything until Monday).