Few musicians can evolve their sounds as fully and quickly as Kanye West. He managed one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially loved string of albums between 2004's "The College Dropout" and 2013's "Yeezus." Each album seemed to capture a fully formed idea about what the music should sound like, and more importantly, feel like. Each album acted as a seemingly clear snapshot of Kanye's mind, interests, and life at a given moment in time. But "The Life of Pablo" seemed scattered, shockingly raw and even marketed as "unfinished." Five years later, the dust has settled, and "The Life of Pablo" stands up as a testament to Kanye's varied musical guises, an ode to manic creativity and a commentary on music in the streaming age that still fascinates.
The timeline of events between Kanye's announcement of a "Yeezus" follow up and the album you can now listen to on Spotify or Apple Music is complex. Kanye announced the album under different names before settling on "The Life of Pablo." It was first "So Help Me God" but was renamed "SWISH," which was then changed to "Waves." Leading up to the album release Kanye was, unsurprisingly, involved in a Twitter controversy with Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose. He also posted tweets asserting Bill Cosby's innocence. He premiered the album at a Yeezy clothing show three days before the album's scheduled release, then announced he would be altering the tracklist. The album was released, but initially only to Kanye's, at the time, new streaming service Tidal as a Tidal exclusive. It was, of course, released on other streaming platforms two months later. "The Life of Pablo" manages to sound as abrasive and haphazard as its rollout. The mythos around its release has only heightened its impact.
Kanye calls this a gospel album. In reality, the album is far broader than that. "The Life of Pablo" acts more as a recapping of many of Kanye's musical indulgences. The aggressive industrial type sound of "Yeezus" appears. The "chop up the soul Kanye" also makes appearances. There are references to "808s & Heartbreak" and Kanye's breakthrough and expressive use of autotune. The many personas of Kanye are pieced together in a collage. Many different and opposing sounds appear on the album that it could have appeared scrappy, but by some form of magic, it feels intentional in its mess. It is not straightforward, and it is not concise, but that gives it a certain charm unique to Kanye's discography.
One of the most notable aspects of the album is how the tracklist was updated for four months following its initial release. Lyrics were swapped out, some songs were reworked and other songs were added to the album entirely. Kanye himself described the album as a "living breathing changing expression." It is something that added immensely to the chaos and apparent recklessness of the sound. It was a fully unprecedented move to continue altering an album after its release. As a creative expression of consuming and releasing music in the digital age, the idea of post-release updates is still shocking and fascinating. It is an incredibly bold move from a fearless artist, and similar moves are not attempted in the music industry now.