Anyone who’s a Yeezy fan remembers the tumultuous period between 2015 and 2016, in the lead up to what would ultimately become The Life of Pablo, when Kanye took to Twitter to announce whatever random sequence of words he thought his Yeezus follow-up would be named. First, it was So Help Me God. Two days later, it was Swish. A month from release, it was Waves. The words “The Life of Pablo” only came into existence three days before the album’s eventual release on February 14th, 2016.
Granted, Kanye’s indecisiveness isn’t limited to his album title. In what he would later deem a “living breathing changing creative expression,” The Life of Pablo would go through an onslaught of obsessive tweaks and tune ups. Yes, Kanye West is this gen’s George Lucas; Pablo is his Star Wars.
Last week, Kanye ever so slightly altered the opening track of his 2017 record, ye. The song, I Thought About Killing You, which finds Kanye at his most cruelly narcissistic, reportedly received a tune up to its second half beat drop. It’s a barely audible change (picked up by forum-trawling sleuths on Reddit and KanyeToThe) that removes an uncleared sample of Fr3sh by Kareem Lotfy, a cut off an obscure compilation album by Berlin-based experimental label, Pan. Though it was originally discovered by the label’s founder the day of ye’s release back in June, it’s taken five months for Kanye and co. to rescind the uncleared sample, longer than it took Kanye to piece the album together in the first place. Studio engineer Adam Wolpert tweeted confirmation on the changes and suggested that the entire album had also received a new, “cleaned up” mix on streaming services.
Cleaned up mix https://t.co/psbkead58s
— Damage Done (@AdamWolpert1) November 7, 2018
Ever since Kanye tweeted the words “Ima fix wolves” back in 2016, the album format we’ve come to know changed drastically. The Life of Pablo’s various obsessive and successive surgical changes ranged from altered lyrics, to a plethora of technical changes, to entire new songs: Frank Ocean got removed from Wolves and then given his own track; Kanye unraveled with a new album closer, Saint Pablo.
It represented a shift in the culture, a kind of moment that only the moment-maker that is Kanye West could put forward into the world. With Yeezus, he killed the CD, famously likening that album’s cover to an open casket; with TLOP, he redefined the album, revealing its fragility, its flexibility – revealing it as just some interchangeable bytes being streamed through the internet. The Life of Pablo was the first streaming-only album to go platinum.
Ever since, artists have begun adding tracks to their streaming albums post-release. In the months following 2017’s back-to-back releases of FUTURE and HNDRXX, Future added five (!) new tracks across both albums. His partner in crime, Young Thug, seemingly adds features to his songs on a whim: Quavo checked a feature on 2017’s Beautiful Thugger Girls a month after release, and Offset landed guest verse on 2018’s On The Rvn EP a few weeks after it dropped. (At this point, we can only hope to see a Takeoff feature to materialise in the days following Thug’s next project.)
In the streaming era, it seems as easy as a few clicks and on-hand autotuned verse to revamp your entire song. Music has become increasingly intangible, fragmented. If you’re lucky, you’ve got your limited vinyl release (for the superfans), your CD (for those who can’t afford the international shipping on the vinyl), and then your streaming version: the primary moneymaker, a digital capsule itself now subject to various patches and updates. The catch: all of these formats could contain a different version of the album.
It’s a headache to tally, and even more agonising trying to figure out which version you’ve got saved to your Spotify library. Ultimately, which version becomes the definitive version? Is there such thing as a definitive version anymore? Who decides? Those who ordered the already-shipped ye vinyl will find themselves with the old mix and uncleared sample. The limited vinyl release of Beautiful Thugger Girls is the only version with a (totally phoned in) Travis Scott verse. It’s a collector’s wet dream, but a purist’s worst nightmare.
Pop superstar Dua Lipa seems to have mastered/gamed the streaming era’s format, using her self-titled album as a platform to collate all her music from one era onto one album. Currently streaming, you can find the already re-released Deluxe Edition hidden behind the sparkling new super deluxe Complete Edition. It’s over twice as long as the edition originally released in 2017 and, despite all this rebranding, still qualifies on the charts as one album. Dua Lipa (Complete Edition) recently clocked in as Spotify’s most streamed album by a female artist, giving Dua another accolade to share to her millions of followers. She understands her fans, their listening habits and the flexibility of the system – why not take advantage of this?
But if God can giveth, God can also taketh away. The precedent Kanye has set with these never-truly-finished works of art opens the floor to something entirely new: this click-of-a-button digital freedom gives artists the potential to try and right their wrongs, the opportunity to rescind prickly lyrics or have their art respond to controversy, effectively in real time. What would Brockhampton’s SATURATION trilogy sound like without Ameer? What if instead of defending the chorus to Girls, Rita Ora just edited the whole thing and uploaded a new version sans controversial lyrics a week later? Would it be an easier world?
All of this brings us back to our relationship with music and art. If something’s not immediately perfect, or retrospectively sounds like an oversight on the artist’s behalf, should it be their duty to rescind this? Ultimately, what would we gain from a SATURATION trilogy re-release? In this instantaneous digital age we demand moral perfection from our stars, and streaming’s flexibility gives them the opportunity to attend to this, but is it their duty? Artists should learn from their mistakes – there’s no growth in pasting over your wrongs. We should work through our art, not patch it up later.
It felt so good being on the stage last night with my brother Cudi. After performing again, I realize the new album I’ve been working on isn’t ready yet. I’ll announce the release date once it’s done. Thank you for understanding.
— ye (@kanyewest) November 13, 2018
After debuting KIDS SEE GHOSTS live at Camp Flog Gnaw this week and having such a great time with Cudi floating above the stage in a giant box, Kanye realised his new album, YANDHI, wasn’t ready for its already amended November 23rd release date. In the tweet, there’s a short-lived bout of hope that the delay will save us from any post-release patches, but we know damn well Kanye’s a perfectionist at heart. Let’s just hope he gets those samples cleared.