The Life of Pablo is a game changer

This is not an album review for The Life of Pablo — it’s too early for that. It’s likely that Mr. West’s seventh album isn’t even finished, yet it is out there to be heard. That’s worth discussing.

Kanye West - Fani Hsieh - JPEG
Graphic by Fani Hsieh

This is not an album review for The Life of Pablo — it’s too early for that. It’s likely that Mr. West’s seventh album isn’t even finished, yet it is out there to be heard. That’s worth discussing.

The ideas generated by The Life of Pablo are more important than the music itself. Lyrically, the album doesn’t say much, but it still manages to make a statement by its sheer existence. It proposes a new approach to releasing an album in the digital age, while also illuminating our unique perception of the relationship between a rapper and his music.

The Internet is a wild landscape that simultaneously supports and threatens the musical artist. While it benefits by cutting out the middleman, giving fans a direct link to communicating, supporting and purchasing a musician’s work, the leaking of albums is caused by the ease of accessing information. The question is not if the album will leak, it is when.

The Life of Pablo is a sonic Snapchat of Kanye West’s current state. It’s impulsive, disorganized and self-conscious. It doesn’t have the precision of To Pimp A Butterfly nor the charm of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. The album heavily relies on knowledge of Kanye West as a cultural figure and producer. The “release” of the album baffles the leakers and engages the fans.

No one could leak the Kanye’s album because it wasn’t even complete. The album heard at 4 p.m. on February 11 at Madison Square Garden was probably being worked on earlier that day. Even as the album is currently being consumed on the streaming service Tidal, he’s tweeted out that he’s still making adjustments. We’re listening to a work in progress.

Yet that’s a marketing move in itself. Holding front-page celebrity status, any news about him becomes an advertisement for the album. Instead of trying to hide from the Internet, the record relies on it. Taking a page from his wife, the event feels like “Keeping Up with The Life Of Pablo.” Kanye West has redefined The “album” in the Internet era.

The artist’s relationship to his art has always been subject to discussion. In literature, Roland Barthes titled his essay, “The Death of the Author,” implying that when studying a work, we should not connect the author to his creation. Film — the more popular contemporary art form — is rarely considered the projection of an individual. It’s associated with a headlining actor or notable actor yet we judge the movie as a freestanding event.

Music differs from those art forms. The song is the expression of the artist’s personal views and feelings. In the way we judge people by what they say, it makes sense to judge the rapper on what they rap.

Looking at Kanye West’s history, he’s always used his skills as a producer to allow himself maximum expression on social issues. His debut album College Dropout contributed to breaking down barriers of hyper-masculinity within the genre and speaking out on social issues using soulful samples. In 808s and Heartbreaks, he used minimal atmospheric soundscapes to grieve over the death of his mother and split from his fiancée. His last album Yeezus was an aggressive outburst of anger because of being limited in other ventures due to his skin colour.

What’s the Kanye we have on this album? Outspoken, sad, angry, excited, horny and nostalgic — a human being reacting to the chaos of his life. Just like the process of its release, the music itself is all over the place. Often so disjointed and emotional, it gets uncomfortable.

Maybe this album is a masterpiece. Maybe it’s rushed and a poorly planned out album. That’s still up for debate and interpretation. What we do know is Kanye West pushes the boundaries of art, and I respect that.

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