For what felt like an eternity but was actually about two weeks, I was drowned in Kanye West's Twitter waves without even an album to use as an anchor. Constant title changes, Wiz Khalifa attacks, tracklist after revised tracklist, at least on February 11, I hoped to finally take refuge in actually listening to the music. All the controversy and Kim Kardashian announcements would hopefully be drowned out by some incredible music.
Or at least that was the plan. Instead, actually listening to the album became as frustrating an affair as reading Yeezy's timeline, and while I eventually ended up with it on repeat in my headphones (more on how later), it's far too sprawling and scattered of an affair for me to make sense of yet. I'll need more time until I feel ready to offer any definitive commentary on the music, but the one thing I can say with confidence is that especially considering the enormously high stakes, the release of The Life of Pablo has been the most uncoordinated and messy affair in modern music history.
I know we've all become used to ignoring hyperbolic statements that treat the present like the entire span of history—IT'S THE GREATEST MOST TRASHEST ALBUM OF ALL-TIME EVER AND INTO THE FUTURE—but in this case, I believe it really is accurate, although a bit misleading. For the vast majority of modern commercial music's history, let's say from the mid-'60s when albums first started to be sold until about 2000 when Napster first truly emerged, there were only so many ways to screw up an album release: under-shipping to stores, failing to properly promote, burying it by releasing it during the post-holiday lull. Those failings still happen, just ask Jeremih, but the digital age has increased the speed, scale, and consequences of mistakes to an almost terrifying degree. A single accidentally sent email could unleash an album globally in seconds. Bluntly put, in 2016 there are more ways to fuck up worse than ever before, and this last week has seen the always groundbreaking Kanye West redefine what's possible when it comes to disjointed album releases. But the worst? Ever?
As Pitchfork outlined, the Wright Brothers of modern album release disasters happened in 1999, when Capitol Records decided to offer a stream of Radiohead's Kid A to select websites with apparently little understanding of the rip-and-upload culture's emerging power. Within minutes supposedly secure streams of Kid A were flooding Napster, but the album still debuted at number one, perhaps even helped by the buzz generated by the leak. The next few years saw a succession of high-profile album leaks from everyone from 50 Cent to Fiona Apple, but at least those leaks were largely the result of hacker industriousness. The next truly major screw-up to come directly from an artist or label themselves happened in 2009 when Universal's Australian arm accidentally released U2's No Line on the Horizon album two weeks early. Oops, our bad guys. It was a disappointing release by U2 standards, "only" going five-times platinum, although damage was likely minimized by the fact that the majority of album sales were still in physical format.
More recently, we've seen albums from J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Taylor Swift leak early, but leaks are so common now it's almost hard to view them as mistakes. The mistake lies more in how those inevitable leaks are handled, and Cole, K. Dot, and Swift maneuvered through them masterfully. Drake's IYRTITL release was initially a mess, briefly being released for free before being switched over to official sales channels and setting off a wave of conspiracy theories, but the label quickly had the album available universally and breaking records. Rihanna's ANTI release was a disaster, the label and the distributor publicly bickering was not a good sign, but perhaps the largest recent fail was JAY-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail drop. Samsung paid major money for an app that immediately crashed and exclusive rights to an album that was almost instantly available for free download everywhere. In a rare moment of contrition, JAY-Z said of the release, "For me, that's not cool. That's a loss. That has to get better."
But all those pale in comparison with the twisting, still unfolding release of The Life of Pablo. When Kanye announced that he'd be streaming the album during a live, simulcast event I thought it was brilliant. He'd create a moment, have millions listening together in real time, and then, just when the frenzy was at its peak, he'd stop. All of Madison Square Garden would go silent. A single light would pinpoint him and then boom, he'd hit the button and the album would be available online, physical copies would be handed out to the crowd. Holy shit can you even imagine??? It would have been a moment worthy of even Kanye's grandest ambitions, a moment that would have truly changed what we thought was possible with an album release. It didn't quite go down like that.
Instead, everyone left Madison Square Garden with a great memory but no way to access the music they just heard or any idea when they would be able to. Kanye tweeted that he was going to be making some changes, adding a few tracks, and sure, fine Kanye. It was a bit anti-climactic, but he had made last-second tweaks to nearly all of his albums if those tweaks made the album better the wait was worth it.
Two nights later at SNL, he closed out an outstanding performance of "Ultralight Beams" by screaming to the world that the album was now available on TIDAL—it was not. When the album did later appear on TIDAL it was for $20, but the purchases were mired in complications. As the NY Times reported, TIDAL was quickly inundated with claims that the download had either failed or that customers had received a copy missing tracks or with duplicate tracks, prompting the company to issue a statement;
“A partial version of the album is available for streaming on Tidal.com, but the download is currently not available. The final version of the album will be released in the next several days."
Several days? What about the people who had already purchased and received a copy? Had they now paid for an incomplete, unfinished version? And then Kanye tweeted that he wasn't going to sell the album for another week, urging people to sign up for TIDAL to stream the project in the meantime. And then he apparently had yet another change of mind and the delayed album sale turned into a vow to never sell it at all.
Several days have now passed and we still have no idea when this "final" version of the album will be streaming on TIDAL or if it's still coming at all, although we have heard rumors that Def Jam is working on putting together a deluxe physical release, which would both contradict Kanye's promise to never sell the album and effectively punish his fans who have already paid for a stream-only, apparently incomplete and unfinished version of the album. It's no wonder then the album has been downloaded illegally more than 500,000 times and rising with every minute. And all those people who were in Madison Square Garden? They were assured the purchase of their ticket included a pre-order of the album; so far those people have no idea when that album will arrive or if it ever will.
As hard as it is to believe, despite all the conversations about it, despite all the reviews that have already been written, we still can't even say if The Life of Pablo has actually dropped yet, or when it ever will—if it ever will. Kanye's idol Steve Jobs would have been horrified by a product release this anti-consumer.
Incredibly, the failed album release hasn't seemed to matter much. Kanye's still managed to dictate conversation recently, dominating social media and the mainstream headlines, and just like Yeezus, all that attention will likely make an upcoming tour a huge success even if album consumption is relatively low. Unless your name's Adele, in the attention economy everyone's making more money touring than off album sales anyway. People want to see Kanye, hear what he'll say during his next rant, at least as much as they want to hear his music. So far it feels a lot more like he won. Plus, so far this has been all about business, and ultimately, who gives a shit about business? If there is a mom listening to "Lowlights" driving her kids to school and finds inspiration in the words that's what matters, not album rollout plans.
Except there's a good chance that mom isn't listening because she has kids and a job and doesn't have the money to pay for another streaming service she'll barely use and doesn't have the time to navigate a complicated internet to find a download link. And so she isn't listening at all, and she's not alone. What Kanye's done by releasing the album so haphazardly, walling his album off inside TIDAL's little garden, is cut his music off from exactly the kind of people he claims he wants to reach. The majority of people are "lean back" listeners. They don't have the time to keep up with new releases and hunt down new artists, they want to click one button and be able to lean back and have music effortlessly delivered to them. So far this album has been all forward leaning, so while it may seem impossible inside our bubble, there's a good chance the larger world has yet to hear the album at all, and if it never leaves TIDAL, there's a good chance that larger world never will.
What's particularly frustrating about that is that for all his promises to shift the paradigm with his music, when it comes to the actual release of that music, Kanye's in lockstep with corporate traditionalists currently working to fracture and regain control over music access. How could an artist obsessed with every detail of his music, who cares so much about the presentation that a small change to his stage set prompts a meltdown, have so completely abandoned planning the release of his music? If Kanye really wants to revolutionize the music industry culture, he should give the album away for free on every platform, something no artist at his level has ever done. (Cut to Chance using his verse on the album to promise that he'll always make his music free, music industry rules be damned, a stance that makes him far more practically revolutionary than Kanye.)
Or Kanye could sell the album but also bring his music to the people by hiring mobile listening booths to drive to underprivileged neighborhoods; anyone gets to step inside, anytime, and listen in comfort. Or one album could contain a Willie Wonka-esque Golden Ticket to hang out with him personally, or he could beam the album from blimps onto holographic paper in the streets earning millions in the process, or...I don't know, I'm not the greatest creative genius to ever live. But I know someone who is, and if he used just a fraction of his creative energy towards getting his music to the people as he did making it, he might actually have the kind of Earth-altering impact he believes is his destiny.