Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Kanye West is a polarizing figure. There are some people who believe he’s just another egotistical rapper in a long line of egotistical rappers who only happens to stand out because of his constant “in your face” presence either on social media or in public at awards shows. There are others who believe he’s a genius, creating masterpieces every time he stands in front of the mic, every time he puts pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or however he writes his music.
While I believe there’s something unique about the man, that he’s not just another cookie cutter rapper, I certainly don’t believe he’s a genius.
The most recent example of his brilliance, according to those drinkin’ the Kool-aid and lovin’ every drop, comes in the form of The Life of Pablo, Kanye’s most recent album. Not just because of the music, but the process in which it’s being released. You see, the album isn’t done yet. Oh, Kanye released it, but who lets a silly little thing like a release date get in the way of deciding that an album is finished? It was officially available and for sale on Tidal on February 14th for one day, with one of the tracks repeating itself and featuring a glitch in the audio of another. He then removed the option to purchase the album, making it only available via streaming.
Since then, he’s updated it numerous times with changes to the songs including edits to the music, the lyrics, and even adding new tracks to the album. This is being seen in the industry as a game changer and an incredible innovation.
Vulture’s review of The Life of Pablo, which called the album “a brilliant work in progress,” said:
“There’s absolutely something noble about his endless tweaks to this piece of work, the many title changes and track-list swaps, inching ever closer to his idea of perfection.”
And The Verge said this of “Kanye West’s radical act of creative transparency”:
“It’s made a traditional release — picking a dozen tracks that fit well together and releasing them in one clump for purchase and evaluation — seem almost antiquated. You have to hand it to West: even when it feels like he’s running around like a chicken with his head cut off, he finds a way to stumble into innovating.”
Are you shitting me? “Something noble about his endless tweaks”? Makes a “traditional release seem almost antiquated”? You’d really have to be on board the hype train for the whole trip to arrive at these stops. He put out an unfinished, broken piece of entertainment, and he’s fixing it. That’s what happened. No more, no less. This may be new to the music industry, but it certainly should not be a move that people want to see happen more and more. And this isn’t new to the entertainment industry as a whole. In fact, this is something that has been going on in the video game industry since PCs and consoles could be reliably expected to be connected to the Internet for long periods of time.
In the gaming biz this is seen as lazy and frustrating, rushing to put out a game to appease shareholders or a marketplace full of people who won’t stop hounding you just so you can shut them up and collect the money in advance, knowing there are problems to resolve, bugs to be worked out, even additional content to tack on to it. These are things that gamers have come to begrudgingly accept to varying degrees, but no one truly likes it. No one thinks it’s “brilliant” that Batman: Arkham Knight was unplayable on the PC on release day. No one calls Bethesda “geniuses” every time they have to wait 20 minutes for a new patch to download so they can play a game they paid full price for and just want to enjoy. These things are seen as an unfortunate byproduct of an industry trying to create something so complex that it essentially requires its audience to become beta testers at a certain point in order to get it in full working order.
“Yeah, but The Life of Pablo is so complex that there’s no way we could be expected to wait until he’s finished it!” I’m sure someone believes that, someone who just couldn’t wait for Kanye’s next so-called-masterpiece. I’m not that person. It’s an album. A collection of songs by a musician or group of musicians. The basic process hasn’t changed for nearly a century: write, record, produce, master, release. In that order. There’s no reason for him to continue tinkering with it (they call it “patching” in game development), like he’s George Lucas trying to get Star Wars to meet his “true creative vision” (and ask fans of Star Wars how much they love all those changes and how much of a “genius” they think George Lucas is now).
If it wasn’t ready, if he wasn’t happy with the finished product, he has all the time in the world to fix it before making it available to the public. That’s his job. It’s what he does, that is, when he’s not distracted with tasks like deciding what color his $600+ Yeezy hoodie should be. The day this business model becomes standard, basically releasing your unfinished demos for money and then pissing around with them until they’re finished (if you ever decide to finish them, why bother, you got the money now, right?), that’s the day the music industry loses what little goodwill it had left from fans, and the day profits drop even more. And if you still think he’s a genius when his business decision to only release TLOP on Tidal as a streaming product resulted in it becoming one of the most pirated albums of all time and an estimated $10 million dollar loss in sales, well… I’m afraid we have different understandings of the word “genius”.
I think it means someone who is smart. You clearly don’t.
NOTE: Buckley reserves the right to edit this article until it’s considered perfect. Please let him know how much of a genius he is for this decision in the comments below.
Image by Robbie Sproule, altered under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0).