Kanye Unfinished: The Evolving Life Of Pablo
[Originally posted on TIDAL Read, April 1 2016 by Ryan Pinkard & Trey Zenker]
On Friday, March 18, The Met Breuer of New York City opened its doors to the public for the very first time. Housed in the former Whitney Museum of American Art, the Marcel Breuer-designed marvel serves as The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “new space dedicated to modern and contemporary art.”
For those familiar with The Met — a museum on level with The Louvre in Paris and The Prado in Madrid — the move marks a welcome change, as prior to establishing this focused and isolated annex, one of the world’s most enviable collections found itself scattered amidst the iconic museum’s colossal expanse. Moreover, The Met Breuer is a work of art itself, unmistakably towering as one of the foremost examples of mid-20th century brutalist architecture. To see the building is to remember it forever.
Approaching the elegant slate-grey mass, I (Trey) found myself speculating as to the very nature of the Breuer’s marquee inaugural exhibit, titled, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. Entering the show deliberately uninformed, I partly hoped to isolate my initial reaction from extrinsic impressions. But between a busy work week and high hopes of scoring some apparel from Kanye West’s pop-up shop, open that same weekend in SoHo, research wasn’t in the cards anyway.
Up on the wall, at the show’s entrance, the description began: “This exhibition examines a subject of enduring appeal, fascination, and pleasure, but also of rejection, dislike, and anxiety, among artists, critics, and viewers: the unfinished, or seemingly unfinished, work of art.” And that’s when the music began. The Life of Pablo, to be specific. I heard it again upon returning a week later. What’s more, thinking back on the exhibit now, I hear it still.
At this point in his career, a new Kanye album is not just a date but a cultural event. And since The Life of Pablo’s release a month ago, the record has spurred more conversation than just about any album in recent memory.
Among critics, the response has been unquestionably positive, if veiled by a general consensus that the album, not unlike its creator, is so multifarious it’s futile to fully wrap your head around. Rolling Stone called it “a complex, conflicted masterpiece.” The Verge called it a “radical act of creative transparency” and Yeezy’s “most complicated album yet.” In a review for The Vulture, pop critic Lindsay Zoladz called it a “brilliant work-in-progress.”
That last sentiment hits on something essential to understanding The Life of Pablo on a abstract level. Of the innumerable dissections of the deep and rich wonder contained on Pablo, one of the most popular narratives to emerge has been that of the album as a work in progress, a record in a malleable, workable state of finish.
Thanks to the insatiable hunger for new Kanye material, The Life of Pablo was born into the world way back in November 2014, when Yeezy first claimed to be working on his seventh studio album, initially titled So Help Me God. With the whole world watching Kanye’s every move, the long, drawn-out waiting period for the album was reported on with the sensationalism of a soap opera. Largely through the lens of his own Twitter feed, we, Kanye’s fixated audience, were given an unprecedented view into the artist’s creative process. From the repeated name changes (first to SWISH, then WAVES, before settling on The Life of Pablo mere days before release) and numerous singles (only some of which made it onto Pablo), to the great unveiling at the Yeezy Season 3 show at Madison Square Garden and the last-minute track additions after that, it was a wild ride for all those tuning in.
Although we weren’t fully conscious of it at the time, the biggest artist of our time was allowing us to witness a part of the art-making process that most artists leave concealed. On any given album, who knows how many times The Beatles changed album titles, track listings, cover art, mixings, release dates and countless other details that now appear as so confident and certain? The difference between Kanye and the majority is that most artists choose not to broadcast that part of what they do. By way of his public visibility, he has, in essence, made his process and unfiltered persona, a part of his art.
In the traditional way of thinking, the album is regarded as the finished, definitive work, with the leftovers and in-progress iterations discarded like loose scraps, or stashed away for inclusion on a deluxe version or rarities compilation (if the album proves successful). With the small but symbolically significant couple of updates Kanye has made to the album since officially dropping The Life of Pablo, he has refuted the presumptive rule that a work is finished once it’s been shared with an audience.
As masterfully demonstrated by the Unfinished exhibit at The Met, there is a long, vibrant tradition of the intentionally unfinished, non finito aesthetic in art, stretching from the Italian Renaissance to the present day. From Titian and Rembrandt, to Turner and Cézanne, to Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst, some of history’s greatest artists have embraced such an approach.
When the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin (“The Thinker”) traveled to Florence in 1876, he was profoundly affected by Michelangelo’s so-called Medici Madonna, an unfinished work from the mid 1500s that prompted him and subsequent modernists to consider the aesthetic consequences of an unfinished sculpture. In the 20th century, iconic artists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg blurred the distinction between making and un-making and extended the conceptual boundaries of art into both space and time.
In a very thoughtful new video on the popular YouTube channel The Needle Drop, prolific music reviewer Anthony Fantano poses some interesting questions, pondering whether the Pablo edits are a sign that Kanye isn’t 100 percent satisfied with his artistic statement, or whether ”he cares about this artistic statement so much that he would continue to change it…” Fantano continues, “Can the album become this living, breathing ever-evolving thing, or should it kind of be like a test that an artist works hard on away from his or her audience and then hands it in…”
In yet another grand feat by Kanye West, it seems the commentary around his album has evolved from one concerning the music itself to an existential debate on popular music as we currently define it.
For reasons we can all empathize with, a few music listeners feel confused or even threatened by the idea that an album they know, particularly one they love, could be altered. In another take on the debate, Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene considers that, “At a certain point, music listeners start deciding when an album or song they enjoy is ‘done’; once they fall in love with one version of an idea, that’s the canonical one.”
Greene’s concern is that the audience’s connection to a particular version could ultimately change what they feel for subsequent updates, but it’s an overreaction to decry this as a real threat to music as we know and love it. Furthermore, it’s close-minded to discourage an artist from disrupting norms that have been subjectively-constructed by a century-old music industry that has never had the art or the artist’s interests principally in mind.
When Leonardo Da Vinci said “a work of art is never finished, only abandoned,” he did so from a technologically disadvantaged position. The fact of the matter is that since the dawn of time, music, like society itself, has been shaped by the marching advance of technology. But where older technological milestones like the phonograph or the radio have primarily forwarded music’s communicable and commercial reach, and created a number of accepted formats that have both curbed and spurred creativity within them, others advancements have helped to put control and possibility back in the hands of the artist.
Consider the relative affordability of home recording and distribution. The Ramones famously recorded their seminal debut album for a remarkably modest $6400, but today one can install Logic Pro for $200, learn to use the program step-by-step on YouTube, and go on to record, mix and distribute their music themselves. That’s just one example of the myriad ways in which the Internet has destroyed previously insurmountable barriers to entry. These truths are in no sense new, but they are revolutionary.
When TIDAL first launched one year ago today, we promised an immersive and evolving platform by artists, for artists; one that “reflects ideas contributed directly from artists, providing an enriched experience: music presented and heard the way the artists intended.” In utilizing TIDAL as a medium for exacting his artistic articulation in real time, Kanye West has simultaneously realized this progressive creative vision and recognized a tremendous opportunity only recently afforded by this brand new age of streaming.
Rather than seeing TIDAL as a mere product or service, Kanye has broken ground, yielding it as a tool in and of itself. Rather than obediently clinging to the limiting standards previously enforced by the hardened nature of physical albums, Kanye has capably embraced the flux of the future, transforming what could be a digital frame into canvas for empowering art itself.
In this way, Kanye is bearing a torch carried by the great, aforementioned and one-named masters featured in Unfinished: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, Rodin, Cézanne, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Picasso. While name dropping is often neither tasteful nor flattering, a shared fascination with the unfinished and ongoing by a group considered to be among the greatest artists in the history of western civilization matters.
Regardless of the music itself, The Life of Pablo has not only positioned Kanye in this pantheon of greats dissatisfied with the status, but also advanced the way we might approach, perceive and express art entirely. By replanting this seed — the idea of the empowered and unrestrained artist in full control of their art — Kanye could help change everything.