Kanye West Has Changed the Album-Release Process Forever

Kanye West performing "New Slaves" on Saturday Night Live in 2013.
Kanye West performing "New Slaves" on Saturday Night Live in 2013.

It's hard to call Kanye West a genius these days. He says it enough himself for all of us, and who wants to feed his ego by admitting that he's right? Nevertheless, the Chicago kid has grown up to be almost as great as he says he is.

Through charting untested waters musically, changing his style on each record and so changing the rap world with him, he's rightfully claimed the throne he and Jay Z declared that they occupied on 2011's Watch the Throne. Sorry, Eminem. You can release a song called “Rap God,” but Kanye still has you beat.

Kanye lays his claim for brilliance in more ways than one. In 2010, he revolutionized the way albums are released by endeavoring on his GOOD Fridays series, wherein he released a new song every Friday during the weeks leading up to the release of his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The fact that almost none of the songs were actually included on the album served as a unique way to hype up fans for the upcoming release without spoiling it.

Some artists have given away free music, up to and including the album itself, before and after Kanye, but the nature of GOOD Fridays made sure that we were talking about Kanye every week, as if he were an ongoing television series. Marketing the album with real-deal music without actually giving away the album itself? That's genius.

Now, Kanye is taking the album release to an even more abstract place, once again changing how we see the album-release cycle as a whole. When his then-unreleased album was called So Help Me God, Kanye said in an interview that the idea of a release date was “played out.” The fact that his latest work, the rechristened The Life of Pablo, ended up having a release date would seem to contradict what he said. But looking deeper, we see that not only did the album never have a release date, it in fact remains unreleased.

How does that work? As explained in a fantastic piece in The New York Times last week, Life of Pablo exists as a living, breathing document. It directly contradicts everything we thought we knew about the way an album is released.

Many perfectionists like Kanye have spent months and years working on projects, toiling away at refining them. Back in 2007, he made 75 slightly different mixes of his hit single “Stronger.” Most artists simply reach a point where they can no longer keep working, either out of weariness, boredom with the project or record-label deadlines.

Kanye has now flipped that whole idea on its head. Instead of finding a stopping place and releasing the album as is, he's created an album that is actively changing and evolving before our very eyes.

The Life of Pablo is an unfinished work. It may never actually be finished. Throughout the creative process, Kanye continually changed tracks, releasing pictures of different track listings almost daily leading up to the “release date.” The title of the album changed from So Help Me God to Swish to Waves and finally to The Life of Pablo. It might change again.

The beauty of it is that anything can happen at this point. When the actual release of the album occurred, it was only on sale for a matter of hours, before shifting to being streamed on Tidal exclusively. On Twitter, Kanye declared that the album would never be for sale. Instead, it exists in some ethereal state. It is not a possession you can own. Instead, it's a project that exists in the abstract, which lends itself to the insanity of what we've witnessed so far.

Since The Life of Pablo hit, it has already seen tweaks and changes. The initial debut of the album at Madison Square Garden featured nine fewer songs. The Tidal version is still listed as incomplete, and Kanye has said he'll fix portions of it. Demos have leaked, featuring new songs and different versions of ones on The Life of Pablo. GOOD Fridays, relaunched before the release of The Life of Pablo, is still ongoing.

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What all this amounts to is, rather than being your typical physical album release, The Life of Pablo is an ongoing process. And that is interesting for the entire music world.

It means that perfectionists no longer need abandon their babies and release them into the wild. It means that we no longer have to rely on the idea of a release date or a “finished product.” It changes the idea of music as a product into something entirely more abstract. It returns it to its roots as performance art.

The potential ramifications of what Kanye is doing are endless. Could we see others adopt the model? I hope so. No longer should artists have to be content with the outcome of their work, and say in interviews years later that they wished they had done something differently. They can now tweak and edit their work live based on their own whims and audience feedback. A song that wasn't a hit could be turned into one in a matter of days based on crowd-sourcing. Artists can literally take their art back into their own hands.

File-sharing has killed the idea of a finished product anyway. With leaks of demos and endless streams of live performances, we all can have a different favorite version of a song. In turn, thanks to the Internet's preservation of such documents, we can create our own track listings, our own mixtapes, our own albums. We've long had the power to pick and choose which one we like best, with the inherent knowledge that all versions will continue to exist somewhere out on the web, waiting to be heard.

So if an artist runs with Kanye's new model of releasing an album and he or she makes a change we don't like, we can keep the old version. There can exist innumerable versions of albums, tailored uniquely to what we as listeners want from the album. The artist, too, can have his or her own preferred version of the album whenever his or her perfectionist brains are satisfied. In the end, everybody wins.

By being bold enough to lay his album out in its unfinished state, and continue his work on it well after we've all heard at least some form of it, Kanye has just further cemented his own genius as an artist. Love him or hate him, he's set forth a new model that could end up changing the way we hear albums forever.


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