Kanye West Is Fixing His Album in Public

When Kanye West first tweeted a handwritten 10-song tracklist for his seventh album, “The Life of Pablo,” late last month, the photo was captioned, “So happy to be finished with the best album of all time.”

Best? Could happen. Finished? Not even close.

Instead, the rollout of “Pablo” has been an unprecedented public marathon, with Mr. West adding songs, revising lyrics on quick notice, adding and dropping contributors, changing the album’s title and release date several times, and gabbing about it all on Twitter. The process has also included televised live performances, public squabbles, unauthorized leaks of demo recordings — the sort of stuff Dylan archivists typically wait decades to hear—and a fashion show with 1,000 models.

This turned the album release process — historically a predictably structured event, and lately rewritten by stars like Beyoncé as precise, sudden assault — into something much more fluid and invigorating.

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The result is an exemplar of modern celebrity musicmaking: a dramatic, rococo, ongoing (possibly still ongoing) narrative taking in music, fashion, theater and politics. Rather than a single isolated event, the release of “Pablo” has become a public conversation, one taking place on Twitter, YouTube, Periscope and in Madison Square Garden as much as in the studio.

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With flux embedded in its DNA, “Pablo” is crisply alive, like water that’s still boiling even though the flame is off. Pay close attention to the multiple iterations, and you hear an artist at work, as well as a celebrity tending his image. It’s everything bared — process as art.

What is “The Life of Pablo” then? Is it one of the notepad-scrawled track listings Mr. West released on Twitter? Is it the nine-track version of the album that played at Mr. West’s Madison Square Garden extravaganza, illegally ripped and made available for unauthorized download soon after the show (which some critics chose to review)? Is it the 18-track album that was very, very briefly made available for sale early Sunday morning, for $20, via Tidal (which included an incorrect file, a duplicate of one song)? Is it that same (now corrected) version, now not for sale anywhere that remains available for streaming on Tidal (though even Tidal has referred to this version as “partial”)?

Is there even a finished version of “Pablo” that will stand still long enough to comment on?

That’s especially relevant given that Mr. West seems to already be building outside feedback into the process of making this album. Take, for example, the saga of the song “Famous.”

Two days before Mr. West played “Pablo” for the world at a Feb. 11 fashion show at Madison Square Garden, he held a listening session for friends, family and representatives of his record label. The next day, a Reddit user began a thread titled, “Rumor: Kanye West is going to diss Taylor Swift on his new album.” The post went on to detail the opening lines from “Famous:” “I feel like Taylor Swift still owe me sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.” He also made an insulting reference to Amber Rose, an ex-girlfriend.


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But the “Famous” Mr. West played at Madison Square Garden two days later was different. The reference to Ms. Rose was gone, and the line about Ms. Swift was clunkier: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex.” (The “owe me sex” conceit was a callback to Mr. West’s verse on Young Jeezy’s 2008 hit “Put On.”)

So had Mr. West toned down the lyrics? The answers weren’t clear until Thursday, when a demo version of the first verse of “Famous” leaked online, with the lyrics as the Reddit user reported them. That means that at some point, quite possibly between the night of Feb. 9 and the afternoon of Feb. 11, Mr. West decided to soften the blow.

With other songs, it seems like Mr. West’s own opinion on them is shifting. On Feb. 14, after the album was finally released on Tidal, Mr. West tweeted “Ima fix wolves” but didn’t elaborate.

“Wolves” shows just how long creative ideas gestate in Mr. West. The original version of the song debuted in February 2015 as part of Mr. West’s first fashion presentation with Adidas, called Yeezy Season 1. It featured the rapper Vic Mensa and the singer Sia. A few days later, the three performed the song on the “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary show.

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