Disclaimer: This is not so much a review of Kanye’s updates, rather an examination of the practices, rationale and implications of the changes.
The hip-hop album. For decades it provided concrete, unequivocal and unchanging evidence of an artist’s capability. The greatest of which, the ‘Illamtic’s, the ‘Ready to Die’s, the ‘Reasonable Doubt’s etc. exist as pillars in the world of hip-hop. They are often used as standards against which we can measure the aptitude of those who’ve followed in their footsteps.
These once very solid notions of what an album defined, have been warped greatly in recent years. This could be attributed to a variety of things, to name a few: the mass expansion of the internet and internet culture, the decline in sales of physical copies as well as the rise in popularity of streaming services. It is via the aforementioned streaming medium that one artist is attempting to shift the paradigm of albums as a static monument of artistic creativity. In doing so, he could very-well be destroying the wholesome sanctity that a hip-hop album once represented. All this wrapped in the proviso of “living breathing changing creative expression”.
Really… Who else but Kanye?
The puzzling and drawn-out release of West’s latest studio album release, ‘The Life of Pablo’, was thought to be over on the 14th of February, when the man himself announced on Saturday Night Live that the album was available for streaming as a Tidal exclusive. This marked the end of months of anticipation for Kanye fans. It was a period littered with name changes, track-list changes, cover-art changes and although this wavering indecision was a bit disconcerting for eager fans, at least we now had the music. We could finally turn off our Kanye Twitter notifications, plug in our headphones and take in what Yeezy himself described as, “the album of the life”.
Barely through my first listen however, on that very same day, West stated via Twitter, “Ima fix wolves”. This raised many eyebrows. Granted the version first served up to us on ‘TLOP’ was underwhelming compared to the Sia and Vic Mensa assisted original rendition we got in early 2015, but surely you can’t just change a song that’s already been released?! The only time we’d really seen this type of official post-release alteration is with remasters or remixes, but even then these songs are packaged differently to their original predecessors. In this case, Kanye took advantage of the streaming medium and altered the record, slotting the revised version quietly back into place.
But why do this? Admittedly, the song itself wasn’t met with the warmest of responses with the absence of its original collaborators (see the change.org petition here). But why wouldn’t Kanye take this mild criticism on the chin and do as he and all the artists before him had done in years past and stand behind the work he put out? This man made ‘Yeezus’ for goodness sake! One of the most polarising albums hip-hop has ever seen and all of a sudden he’s taking artistic direction from his fans? For better or for worse, recent Kanye behaviour somewhat supports this trend.
We need only look back as far as Kim Kardashian-West, Kanye’s wife, sending out a Twitter poll asking, ‘Which album title do you like best?’ In a later radio interview with Real 92.3’s Big Boy, Kanye himself described this as “research” and an effort to “involve (the fans) in the creative process”.
While this idea of a democratically produced album is a romantic one even in spite of its intrinsic contradictions to what we know of Kanye as a creative, it still cannot holistically justify Kanye’s approach to the album. For example in said poll, ‘So Help Me God’ was chosen over ‘Swish’ and ‘Waves’ as the public’s favourite album title, but instead we were given the title ‘The Life of Pablo’. With this in mind, Kanye’s reasons for his most recent alterations to ‘TLOP’ are left looking a bit more arbitrary.
WAIT new poll. Which album title do you like best? @kanyewest
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) February 1, 2016
April 1 saw the album’s widespread release across other major streaming services, including Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play. With this came an opportunity to absorb the entirety of the alterations Mr West had brought to the table in the weeks prior. For example:
Ultralight Beams? Grander.
Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1? Crisper.
While the culmination of these often subtle production-based tweaks definitely improve the album as a whole, one is left wondering… are they acts of dynamic expression or merely the equivalent of software patches covering up the flaws in a video game? Given however, that none of these updates (sans Wolves) drastically alter the manner in which the listener consumes the album, I’m inclined to feel the latter.
This raises a multitude of questions… Why would Kanye put out a project he thinks requires improvement? Are these updates simply marketing ploys intended to grasp the public’s attention with every change? How far could these alterations go? Will an upcoming amendment spare us from that cringe-worthy line at the start of Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1? (Cross your fingers and pray to Yeezus on that last one). With all this taken into account, you get the impression that no-one, not even Kanye, can predict where exactly these revisions will go.
One thing about this album that we can seem to take as gospel is that it is constantly evolving and changing. Whether this first set of minor tweaks is just an appetiser for grander changes to come or Kanye has something else in store, will remain to be seen… but with Def Jam, West’s label, promising “new versions and new iterations” in the months to come, it looks like the wave is only just beginning.