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How Kanye West’s 'living breathing changing creative expression' means his album still isn't finished

Melody Lau

On Feb. 11, Kanye West premiered his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, in an ostentatious event at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

After almost three years, four album title changes, various song previews (some of which didn’t end up on the “final” tracklist) and countless tweets, that day last month was supposed to mark a deadline of sorts for West. Details were to be finalized and presented in conjunction with West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion presentation, which took up most of the arena’s physical space. Swarmed by friends and collaborators next to a sea of models dressed in earth-toned colour ensembles, West took to his laptop and aux cord and finally pressed play on TLOP. But a month later, that version fans paid to see (whether in person or via Tidal’s glitchy stream) is now very different.

In that time, West has added bonus tracks, delayed the Tidal stream, put the album up for sale then promptly taken it down, promised a new version and as recent as 19 hours ago, uploaded a new take of the Frank Ocean-featuring “Wolves.” The track now features Vic Mensa and Sia, two artists who performed on an original version on Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special a year ago. Ocean’s part has been clipped as its own 38-second track aptly called “Frank’s Track.” A few days before that, West changed one line in his song “Famous” — and no, it wasn’t the Taylor Swift one.

To the general public, this appears extremely nitpicky, but West’s fans have become familiar with the rapper’s penchant for last-minute tweaks. His debut album, The College Dropout, leaked months before its release in 2004 and was pushed back three times in order for West to perfect tracks, subsequently remastering many of the songs and removing some from the version fans got a hold of.

The following record, Late Registration, was postponed twice, the second time reportedly because West wanted more time to work on it. Lengthy discussions can be found via online forums discussing the mastering changes on various other records including 2008's 808s & Heartbreaks, 2011's Jay Z collaboration Watch the Throne, 2012's GOOD Music compilation Cruel Summer and West's last album, 2013's Yeezus. The minutia of his unofficial tinkering has probably left a mark on all of his albums.

But with West mourning the death of physical CDs — he tweeted on March 7 that he will only be streaming his music from now on — TLOP exists solely in a medium that allows West to continue working on it without the strictness of delivering masters to be reproduced and sold in stores. This allows him to take three weeks to “fix” “Wolves” and update on Tidal if he wants to. In a space where an “edit” button is readily available for us to correct Instagram or Facebook statuses, West wants to extend that flexibility to his music. Or in his words, he describes TLOP as not a mere album for people to straightforwardly consume, but “a living breathing changing creative expression #contemporaryart.”

While West’s prerogative to test the boundaries of digital music and completely distort album cycles as we know it is an interesting experiment, it’s unclear what the end goal might be. Is it a marketing ploy to get fans to continue renewing their Tidal subscriptions? (Vulture cleverly noted that "these updates have begun surfacing near the end of the free Tidal trial you might have signed up for.") Is he attempting to inspire other artists to work outside the confines of the rigid music industry rules? Or perhaps it’s all self-serving and West is simply trying to redefine rules for himself. It’s clear that he wants to help others and change the world, but giving us a new version of a song simply only serves his core fanbase.

Unfortunately, the downside of relocating your life’s work to the internet is its vulnerability to piracy. Just two days after its Tidal release, TLOP had been illegally downloaded over half a million times already. You could say many of those were curious listeners, people who may have never paid for music in their lives, and will ultimately be content with their Vic Mensa and Sia-less versions of the album. Most importantly, that's not even the confirmed final version. Will we ever see the final Life of Pablo? That's certainly up in the air, especially if West continues to feel the urge to adjust details, which is a common neurosis among musicians and their works — but most still maintain their deadlines.

This is not to say people and publications haven’t reported on these minuscule tweaks over the past month, but at the end of the day, many have already formed their opinions on the album. TLOP is arguably good (it has received mixed reviews; I personally liked it), but conversations, just like Twitter timelines, will continue to move along. As much as West wants to remind us of his album’s continual process with the copious amount of updates, people’s interests will wane with time. We are also living, breathing creative people who constantly change.