Has Kanye West killed the album? | Virgin Media
Has Kanye West killed the album?

Has Kanye West killed the album?by Matthew Horton

16/02/2016Music

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When Kanye West declared recently that his seventh album would be the "greatest" of all time, reactions were fairly standard. Good old Kanye, shooting his mouth off again. Or, ooh, isn't he arrogant, from the kind of joyless lunk who signed a petition to stop him headlining Glastonbury last year. But maybe something was lost between brain and lips? Because Kanye may well have made the ultimate album. In other words, the last album.

The Life Of Pablo eventually inched into the public sphere at New York's Madison Square Gardens last Thursday (11 February) in something akin to one of those album launches where everyone mingles awkwardly before the eager act appears to play a few tracks. This being Kanye, things were a little different.

Obviously it was combined with a fashion show, an opportunity for models to stand around in Kanye's creations while rapt fans and hangers-on, well, stood around as Yeezy himself prodded a few buttons on a laptop. This being Kanye, again, he spoke for eons before most tracks, giving us background we'd mainly already gleaned from tweets and endless unsolicited glimpses of the West psyche. The music sounded good, if fragmented.

The disjointed nature of the evening was typical of the campaign. We've been waiting for So Help Me God (The Life Of Pablo's early working title) since West released Paul McCartney/Rihanna collaboration FourFiveSeconds at the start of 2015, closely followed by Only One, another hook-up with McCartney. Other tracks have appeared since, including Real Friends, No More Parties In LA (with Kendrick Lamar), Fade, Wolves (with Sia), all of which appear on the 'finished' album, and All Day, which doesn't. The arrival of each gave a glimmer of hope that the album might be hot on its heels, but no such luck.

Then there are the name changes, and the tracklist 'remixes'. At some stage So Help Me God became Swish and it still was as 2016 dawned, but the scrawled tracklistings have shifted dramatically. A couple of weeks ago, barely a day would go by without a new line-up of songs (Nina Chop disappeared, only to turn out to be Famous; Ultralight Beam came from nowhere after a couple of iterations and went straight to the front of the album) and another change of title (Swish became Waves, Waves became T.L.O.P.). The album was in flux right up to release.

By the time The Life Of Pablo made it onto streaming service Tidal (exclusively, for now) at the weekend, it had bloated to 18 tracks and West was still tinkering. He's promising to "fix" songs that sound unfinished, even though the album's not only being streamed, it's being sold too, and who knows how the running order will end up when Tidal/West finally allow it onto iTunes, or even CD.

If anyone else had taken this scrappy approach to a release campaign it'd look like career suicide, but West has power and perhaps too much. What he's ended up creating (accidentally or otherwise) is the album as river, a piece of art forever evolving. He's exploring what musical releases in the digital age can mean. Why should an album be a fixed object? We can update software, patch bugs, track changes, so what's so different about a few audio files?

And certainly, if an album's running order is changed so drastically in the moments before (soft?) release, then it's hard to argue there's an overarching concept, or even a unifying feel. And what else is the album held sacred for? Unbundling tracks was the start; the end is tracks that swap in and out and shift around.

Right this minute, we've got 18 of the things, ranging from a clutch of interludes and barely-more-than-interludes (Highlights, Freestyle 4, the knowing and funny I Love Kanye, Silver Surfer Intermission, Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2) to the songs we know already. Of those, No More Parties In LA is outrageously good, Kanye and Kendrick freestyling over a Daisy Age groove; Wolves, with a hardly recognisable Frank Ocean, sounds a mess, albeit a compelling one.

Elsewhere, Fade rides vintage Chicago house into the sunset, Ultralight Beam flirts with gospel, Low Lights reconfigures Cameo's Candy and Famous makes low-key use of Rihanna but just plain uses Taylor Swift in a tasteless lyrical game amply reported across social media. Real Friends ("I hate family reunions) is Kanye the moper, standing apart, beating himself up, while Feedback, all depth-charge bass and siren electronics, is Antipop Consortium, hip-hop from the edges of the avant-garde (or the early noughties at least).

Plenty to admire, plenty to frustrate, but what The Life Of Pablo will be when (if) it's finished is anyone's guess. The smart money suggests that if it's ever definitive, it will never feel like it. Kanye has made us doubt our minds. Will anything be the same again?