“Released” February 14, 2016
58 min, 2 sec
It’s been a bizarre week in the world of Kanye West, even by the already-skewed standards Kanye operates on.
February 14 marked, finally, the apparent culmination of a year-long saga regarding the follow-up to 2013’s Yeezus. Minutes – or, more accurately, half an hour – after Kanye wrapped up his latest Saturday Night Live, he hastily announced that the conclusion of that project, The Life of Pablo, would be streaming exclusively on Tidal, Jay-Z’s music streaming service that relaunched in 2015 (which, not so coincidentally, Kanye owns a stake in), which somehow isn’t even the latest wrinkle in the story surrounding The Life of Pablo, an album that began in a wildly different state in 2014 as So Help Me God.
The earliest indicators of a new album came in August 2014, where a hilariously low-fidelity recording of a demo Kanye had been working on surfaced. That song – released in March 2015 as “All Day” – was a far cry from what we eventually got on the final album, and even far away from tracks released just four months later. Those tracks – “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds” – were quieter, more introspective. “Only One” is a tribute to Kanye’s mother and daughter, a song written from Donda West’s perspective, addressing Kanye’s then-infant daughter North West, imploring her to always remember Donda. The other, “FourFiveSeconds,” is primarily a Rihanna track, and is simpler to explain – Rihanna and Kanye are freaking the fuck out because you’re a piece of shit. These two singles, eventually orphaned from what would become The Life of Pablo, come from a single, two-day September 2014 writing and recording session with a plethora of musicians, the marquee name being…Paul McCartney. An unexpected collaboration to be sure. But McCartney’s contributions were understated, subtle, and yet still essential to the publicly released songs – “Only One”’s distinctive synth-line that forms the backbone of its instrumental is performed by McCartney, while “FourFiveSeconds” contains only the sounds of Rihanna and Kanye’s voices backed by McCartney’s acoustic guitar line. (McCartney also contributed to “All Day,” re-recording an obscure song he wrote in 1969 to be sampled.)
After missing a tentatively projected release date of 2014 (and honestly appearing to be nowhere near completion that year anyway), So Help Me God was renamed SWISH in May 2015, five months after the release of “Only One,” two months after theoretical lead single “All Day,” and with no actual release date in sight for 2015. 2015 would pass with little in the way of official news from Kanye and his enigma of an album, aside from the interesting detail that the album had been completely scrapped and restarted at some point early in 2015. Kanye premiered “Wolves” on SNL around the time the album was renamed, featuring Vic Mensa and Sia – neither of whom would make it onto the studio version for The Life of Pablo. Kanye West and SWISH in 2015 were works-in-progress, as Kanye seemed to struggle with what he wanted to do for the album. “Wolves” was a fan favorite from the get-go, and yet it was torn to shreds and completely rebuilt by the time it finally arrived on The Life of Pablo. “All Day” didn’t even make the cut, and reportedly only one other song (“Famous”) from the original album survived alongside “Wolves.”
As the album’s completion approached, Kanye gave us the generous – if dubious – opportunity to get a glimpse into his creative process, routed through his always-eccentric Twitter account. On December 31, Kanye dropped “Facts” out of nowhere, repurposing the beat and rhythm of Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” for a three-minute verse that Kanye appeared to have written that month, if not that very week. Though initially it seemed to be a throwaway for the end of the year, it instead signaled the final stages of the saga of SWISH; another song, “Real Friends,” dropped the next week, after Kim Kardashian declared that GOOD Fridays had returned. “Real Friends,” a lamentation of fame and the effect it has on interpersonal relationships with friends and family, contained a snippet of the next GOOD Fridays track, “No More Parties in L.A.,” tacked onto the end of it. That track, delayed by three days, was yet another divergence from what had come before it, as Kanye and guest Kendrick Lamar each burned through single long-form verses about the party life and the first-world problems that come with it.
In the middle of all that came a tracklist that would soon be thrown out entirely and another change to the album’s name – from SWISH to Waves. At this point, so close to the end of the record, Kanye seemed to become embroiled in the perfectionism and indecisiveness that had characterized My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus. The tracklist changed several more times (with “Facts” remaining absent and “No More Parties in LA” being scrapped), GOOD Fridays fell by the wayside, Waves was retracted as the album name and finally replaced with The Life of Pablo. The indecision and rapid changes that characterize the closing of an album cycle usually play out behind closed doors, with the audience only seeing the end product, but Kanye seemed eager to share his rapidly changing mind with the world, writing new tracklists every few days on the same notepad and posting them on Twitter, going on several questionable rants, and generally being volatile and unpredictable at every turn. And through all that, February 11, 2016 – a date Kanye had announced with no context beyond “SWISH” – loomed in the distance.
Context came on February 1 with the announcement of the third run of Kanye’s clothing line, which would presumably carry with it the world premiere of Waves (which would receive its final name change a week later). February 10 brought the “final” tracklist for The Life of Pablo, which would be scrapped and retooled just two days later (“Facts” and “No More Parties in LA” still nowhere to be found), and February 11 brought a disjointed, surprisingly casual listening party broadcast worldwide via Tidal. That, of course, wasn’t without its hiccups; it was freely broadcast to everyone, but the stream quality was incredibly erratic and inconsistent, creating another frustration for fans wondering what was going on. Was the album going to come out on time? Was February 11 the date? Where was it? And this wasn’t even touching the bizarre avant-garde album covers that appeared to be made by Kanye himself in Paint (they were actually made by abstract artist Peter de Potter).
The premiere came and went with no official release. The next day, Kanye added six more songs, completely reshuffling the allegedly final tracklist (which finally brought “Facts” and “No More Parties in LA” back into the fold at the end of the album) and promising that the album would be out on February 12.
February 12 came and went.
Overnight, Kanye blamed Chance the Rapper (and Chance admitted it himself), stating that “Waves,” which had been cut from one of the earlier tracklists, had been forced back onto the album by Chance, who had spent the entire night finishing the track. Now, another SNL performance loomed over the album, and Kanye seemed unwilling to commit to another potentially-missed release date. Finally, after an incredible performance of “Ultra Light Beam” (and a less-incredible version of “Highlights”), The Life of Pablo appeared on Tidal, ready for streaming, at 1:45 Sunday morning. So that’s it, right?
Tidal, as you may know, is a disaster whenever it has to handle more than its usual userbase (which is hilariously small). The rollout, already half an hour late after Kanye’s likely-unexpected declaration that the album was “streaming now,” crumpled under the weight of thousands and thousands of diehards trying to figure out a way to buy the album. A $20 option appeared, with no context for the increased price (this would later be revealed as a FLAC format download; the MP3 download wasn’t ready), and Kanye’s website, which Kanye had said would be the exclusive retailer of the album for the week, was utterly MIA. Fans needed to cash in on their Tidal free trials, and battered the site from every direction. Someone eventually discovered that you could download the album for free from Tidal by slapping in any random, incorrect credit card information, so long as the number was 16 digits, because Tidal didn’t bother to verify the card information before happily providing download links in MP3 and FLAC. People with more honor than that were rewarded by being fucked out of $20, with no download links nearly two days after paying for the album.
And now, Kanye has rescinded all purchase options for the album, appearing to get cold feet about what he had committed to as the final version of the album, declaring that it would never be sold and would remain exclusive to Tidal, that he would be remastering it (“Wolves” in particular), and engaging in yet another Twitter meltdown in the wake of the album’s release. It remains to be seen if version 2.0 arrives this weekend, or if Kanye will see reason and provide the album to other digital retailers and keep his hands off of the now-released product.
The indecision, rapid tracklist changes, and awkward rollout all combine to provide a rocky experience. The Life of Pablo is touted by Kanye as a gospel record; and there are certainly elements of that strewn throughout, particularly “Ultra Light Beam” and “Low Lights.” But the album’s sequencing lacks cohesion. Kanye jumps from topic to topic seemingly at random, and the out-of-place (but hilarious) “I Love Kanye” interlude is one of the worst offenders, kicking off a three-track sequence where Kanye goes from fun-loving (“I Love Kanye”) to exaltant (“Waves”) to despondent (“FML”, “Real Friends”, and “Wolves) far too fast for anyone to truly appreciate. Earlier tracklists alleviate this, and also identify “Acts” that were torn apart in later revisions, with the exception of the despondent core mentioned above. Those three tracks constitute the strongest swath of the album, with all three tracks being thematically linked, “Real Friends” and “Wolves” in particular being two of the album’s stalwart tracks. And how appropriate would it be for Frank Ocean to get his traditional Kanye feature in there as the final voice of the album. Speaking of that, where’s the album, Frank? July was a long time ago fam.
The last section of the album – the section tacked on in the second-to-last tracklist revision following the album’s premiere – is a curious addition. The Yeezy Season 3 tracklist is a full album – incredibly short, yes, but a full album with a satisfying opening and conclusion, if a bit messy in the middle. But the tracks starting with “Silver Surfer Intermission” are even less cohesive than the rest of the album. And Kanye says as much in the monologue at the end of “30 Hours,” reminiscing about the era of albums with bonus tracks tacked on at the end, doing that himself with the final five tracks. This is where GOOD Fridays tracks “Facts” and “No More Parties in LA” find their home, with “Fade” as the final song of the album. The tracks at the heart of the album are strangely short – most of them are under three minutes in length, and most of them feel disjointed and non-sequitur-esque. Many people described it as a greatest hits album full of hits no one’s heard, and that doesn’t seem inaccurate to me.
But this is Kanye’s mindset. This has always been how he operates, from College Dropout all the way to Yeezus. Kanye’s never played by the rules of his contemporaries – in fact, his music created contemporaries in the first place. Kanye West always does whatever he thinks is the best thing to do in the moment – his Kanye Best, if you will. (I’m sorry.) And if this results in rapidly changing everything about his seventh album, all in the public eye, literally days before it’s supposed to be released (I can’t even imagine what sort of physical release this will get, if any), then so be it. Kanye lives in the moment, and doesn’t regret anything until years after the fact, if he ever does. Things like the Taylor Swift line in “Famous” may come back to bite him, but he won’t care. Fans may be in uproar over his obsession with propping up Tidal, but he won’t do anything unless he wants to.
Because, after all, even a messy album from Kanye is still a Kanye West album. He’s still one of the best artists in hip-hop, and The Life of Pablo is yet another affirmation that Kanye West, finishing albums on the fly, taping together a tracklist to fit in as many songs as possible, still sits on top of the hip-hop throne. He does this shit because we can’t get enough of it, and we never will.
And neither will he.