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As a genuine certified old person, one who generally doesn’t stream music, who remembers having racks and racks of CDs, and who keeps much of his vinyl sorted both alphabetically and by genre, my iTunes is a relatively well-organized space. I purchase full albums and keep all the tracks, seek out album art when it’s not provided (or, for whatever reason, wrong). I rename tracks with guests “(f/ NAME)” to keep all songs in a particular artist’s folder. Then there is my Kanye West collection, where things go all to hell.
It’s been over four months since Kanye West initially released The Life of Pablo, his seventh studio album, and he’s still releasing it. On Tuesday night, he added a 20th and final—for now, anyway—track, “Saint Pablo,” pushing the runtime over an hour. The original track list featured just 10 songs. A month after the album’s initial release, West called the album “a living breathing changing creative expression.” It still lives.
Hence my iTunes problem. Currently I have eight different “Kanye West” entries, some with just one or two songs. I have two versions of The Life of Pablo, neither of which contains “Saint Pablo,” although that’s in there too, waiting to get tacked on. I have snippets that need to be deleted and multiple versions of “Wolves.” It’s a mess.
Songs have always been mutable. In the earliest days this was simple, as the only way to hear music was when it was played live. Every performance was different. Later, some jazz musicians re-recorded songs over and over, releasing them multiple times. Thelonious Monk, for one, recorded “Brilliant Corners” for the album of the same name in 1956, then re-recorded it for Monk’s Blues 12 years later. Additional versions of the same tracks unearthed later are commonly released on re-issues as alternate takes. But usually the original remains canon.
Part of the reason we listen to Kanye is that he listens to us. We ask him to fix “Wolves,” and he fixes it. Eventually.
What West is doing—adding new tracks and replacing old ones with updated versions—is different. For those who rely solely on streaming, and as of yet there has been no physical release of TLOP, the album you listened to last week isn’t the same album you’ll listen to this week (and what a headache this creates for album reviewers). For traditionalists this is an odd feeling. Albums didn’t live, albums didn’t change. The Life of Pablo is less album than app, a product to be kept up-to-date that lives on your phone. It’s ephemeral. “Regular” albums are anchors, solid objects forever linked to a very specific time. For the artists, they represented the end of one project, one phase, and the start of another. They were tangible things. Think of It Takes A Nation of Millions… or Illmatic. As great as those albums are, no doubt there were things that Public Enemy and Nas would have changed, had they gotten the chance. But they moved on.
West’s apparent refusal to do so, at least up to this point, changes not only the definition of what an album is, but our relationship to it as well. If it’s not a static product, there’s less of a need to treat it as such. If West can change the track list or present new versions of songs, the order and track list itself becomes less important. And if he can add a new track like “Saint Pablo” four-plus months after the initial release, what’s keeping me from deleting (or at least muting) the embarrassingly self-aggrandizing “Facts”? Nothing, that’s what. People could and did do this before, of course, but for Luddites like me, used to hard copies of albums and adverse to buying songs a la carte, it represented a new freedom. Instead of millions of people listening to the same exact album, think about millions of different versions, tailored to individual tastes.
Unfinished works of art are not uncommon. From Michelangelo’s David to Mozart’s Requiem to Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, they span forms and eras. Painters have painted over their own canvases, putting one masterpiece over a could-have or should-have been. Albums have been changed—there is a “naked” version of the Beatles’s Let it Be, with Phil Spector’s orchestration stripped away. Perhaps West’s true precursor is George Lucas and his reworking of the original Star Wars trilogy—remember when Han Solo shot first? Seen in that light, The Life of Pablo isn’t the first piece of living art, just the first of the streaming era.
Even the Grammys, that archaic organization more averse to change than any other save perhaps the NRA, has had to acknowledge the effect of streaming on music as a whole. It was announced today that streaming-only projects will be eligible for awards starting next year, meaning releases like Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book and The Life of Pablo will be given the same consideration as "traditional" albums. Assuming, of course, Pablo is ever considered a finished product. (The new rules don't mention unfinished works.) Right now it's less album and more ongoing conversation.
Part of the reason we listen to Kanye is that he listens to us. We ask him to fix “Wolves,” and he fixes it. Eventually. He responds to fans on Twitter, often enough to make it clear that he’s interested in what we have to say. What started as a Kanye project, a track list simply written out on a yellow legal pad, eventually grew to encompass everyone, or at least anyone interested enough to make their voices heard. The executive producer of the finished (for now) version of The Life of Pablo was all of us.
Already a pioneer in terms of style, perhaps West will also become a pioneer in terms of structure. And instead of wondering what an artist’s next album will be, we’ll wonder what an artist’s album will be next.