kanye west unfinished albums

Track Changes: How Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo fits into the history of unfinished albums

Kanye West knows albums are not neat, fixed moments in time. They never have been.

- Feb 26, 2016

The rollout of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo might be the most closely watched ever, drawing fans and critics to think about more than just songs, but the way they exist at any given moment. The messy campaign has been called everything from a disaster to “a full-scale attack on the very ontology of the album itself.” Though it’s entirely within the realm of his creative process and Kanye West’s license to do so, his real-time revisioning has even led many unqualified journalists to weigh in on the state of his mental health.

But the very public formation of TLOP is not out of character for Kanye West, or even the recording industry itself. TLOP’s unveiling at Madison Square Garden for the Yeezy Season 3 fashion show, the ‘leak’ of the album’s early demos, the songs altered after the Yeezy show but before the album’s release, as well as Kanye's promise to “fix” “Wolves,” appeals to an even greater history beyond his own. Albums aren’t really these immutable snapshots in time. They never have been.

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Albums were once limited by their physicality — once you pressed your idea to vinyl, it was done. Set. Over time that fixed nature has proven to be less and less fixed, with artists re-recording, remastering and reissuing their work. These changes are often prompted by new technologies, like in the case of Bob Dylan, the first artist to have their unreleased work widely bootlegged.

Through changes in technology, albums have slowly evolved from fixed moments to constellations of them, allowing fans and artists unprecedented access to one another.

In 1967, after a motorcycle accident left him with broken vertebrae, Dylan and his family withdrew to upstate New York to recuperate. Dylan and and his band, The Band, started convening in the basement of a house called the “Big Pink.” The group wrote and recorded constantly, amassing upwards of 100 songs by the time they were through. This new material was the first sign to Dylan fans of activity after his crash, making its way to them mostly through covers by other artists. Soon, the demand for copies of the Dylan originals was high, and in 1969, a number of the tapes from those sessions fell into the hands of Trademark of Quality, a now notorious bootleg label, and the Great White Wonder basement tapes bootlegs were born.

Those songs wouldn’t get an official release until 1975, after being reworked and overdubbed, but by that point, Dylan had already moved on. Once The Basement Tapes got its official release, Dylan’s mental and physical absence during the re-recording was noted, given the odd abundance of Band-only originals and omissions from the original sessions like “I Shall Be Released.”

I Shall Be Released

Still, this marked the beginning of a significant period of bootlegging and is the first instance where a bootleg record provoked a response from the originating artist, influencing their creative process while also acting as a window into it. Nowadays, Dylan's Bootleg Series constitutes some of his fans' favourite albums. Other artists have taken his cue, releasing "official" bootlegs before fans can do it illegally.

The CD boom of the late '80s and early '90s prompted many artists to remaster their earlier records to take advantage of the better sound quality CDs could offer. In 1996, with the reissuing boom in full effect, Columbia Records offered Iggy Pop the chance to remaster The StoogesRaw Power, after his own bootlegged mix of the record had become such a fan favourite. Pop’s new mix was far from subtle. In fact, Raw Power was officially the loudest album ever, as he intentionally kept levels in the red, resulting in tonnes of digital distortion and clipping when the CD is played back.

The Stooges: Raw Power

Though Iggy Pop was obviously a major creative force in The Stooges, many fans and even members of the band have since said that the original mixing job by David Bowie is superior, calling into question which version of the record is the final, authoritative one. The most recent re-release of Raw Power includes both, side by side.

Iggy, The Stooges - Raw Power (Bowie Mix)

Experiences like that of Dylan and The Stooges would further be complicated by the introduction of file sharing and P2P networks at the turn of the century. Albums leaking online sped up the process wherein definitive versions of albums would be challenged by demos or earlier versions leaked beforehand, giving fans access to an artist’s creative process and allowing them to hear a record in progress, potentially altering the course of an album altogether.

In 2003, Kanye West’s The College Dropout leaked. The leak should have sidelined him but he took it in stride, choosing to cut songs, add new ones, and remix and remaster the record several times over until he got it right. The release date would also go through several revisions, pushed back three times until he was satisfied. Whether he knew it or not, Kanye was making his record leak a part of his own narrative, embracing a humbling moment of vulnerability and using the leak to his advantage by letting it inform his understanding of his album.

Kanye West - Jesus Walks (Version 2)

Perhaps he felt pressured to prove that what had leaked wasn’t the complete album, or perhaps the leak made him hear his record differently. Eight albums later, this strategy is Kanye West’s default mode. Leaks are now an inevitability, and Kanye has taken the basic concept of a leak, which is a kind of privileged access, and used it, allowing his audience access while still maintaining control in a way that reveals his process and informs meaning.

Kanye's aware of what he's doing. If he doesn’t like a song, he’ll change it because there’s no reason why he can’t. Since The College Dropout, Kanye's career has been defined by not only how he takes advantage of technology and the level of immediacy it affords his creativity, but also how he uses it to show his audience his work at each step. With each change or edit or adjustment he’s working toward improving his material, while each version and our understanding of it is augmented by the versions that came before.

Albums are not neat “moments in time.” The physical copies may be, but an album itself can change. Each iteration is different (even subtly) than the last. As consumers, we’ve gotten used to these events happening over the span of years, with the passage of time often obscuring how much change an album can actually go through after it's already been published. Through changes in technology, albums have slowly evolved from fixed moments to constellations of them, allowing fans and artists unprecedented access to one another.

Every step of The Life of Pablo's (still ongoing) evolution has acted as a reminder that albums are in fact living, breathing things. For an album that’s both self-effacing and transcendent as TLOP, it’s fitting that the record is as unstable as the artist who made it.

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