Photo: Tyler the Creator

Time of Absence: Documenting Kanye West’s ‘Life of Pablo’

The Life of Pablo is an ideological attack against the pop institutions that continually try to mystify art and control the artist's identity for profit.
Kanye West
The Life of Pablo
Def Jam

The Rapper and the Russian-Born Philosopher

We misunderstand Kanye West. Hearing only his public boasts and taunts, it’s easy to identify him as the purest embodiment today of American celebrity taken to its self-absorbed extreme. We understand this version of West because it fits neatly into the self-absorbed celebrity culture we gobble up like kids during this eternal Halloween of our own making.

Instead, what if West is the Marcel Duchamp-meets-Andy Warhol of our day? What if West is not just the epitome but the fruition of the avant-garde’s desire “to reveal the factual, material, profane dimension of art”?

Those words come from a recent article by the philosopher Boris Groys titled “The Truth of Art“. Among other concerns, Groys describes how, historically, the avant-garde has been thwarted by the art world and its institutions; every attempt to take art ‘out’ of the museum was absorbed, “re-aestheticized”, he writes, by other artists, critics, curators and art institutions.

Then came the internet. For Groys, the internet has succeeded where the avant-garde failed by turning art into the everyday, the practical as opposed to the sacred — this is what he means by “profane” — because “(i)n our contemporary world the internet is the place of production and exposure of art at the same time.” Whereas, in the past, the artist would create work during a “time of absence”, today that work is often exposed as it’s produced: documented in real time, or at the very least, the documentation always accompanies the work.

I don’t know if Groys is right, but I do know that when I read “The Truth of Art” I thought of West’s latest work, The Life of Pablo, a 19-track album that’s been out for nearly two months and still might not be finished. Since releasing it in February on the streaming service Tidal, of which he’s part-owner, West has continued to re-record and remix the album, altering lyrics and adding new feature vocals by the likes of Sia, more or less revealing the album as it’s being made. Meanwhile he’s been documenting his work via Twitter, where he called The Life of Pablo a “living breathing changing creative expression” and added “#contemporaryart”.

In the media, few if any seem to think this is truly strange. The attempt to pass this off as normal is, in fact, a perfect example of how cultural institutions resist and absorb the avant-garde. Sure, West’s updates have been dutifully reported, but only in bite-sized blurbs that look and read like any other pop music news. West’s potentially revolutionary process is subsumed into his celebrity persona. It’s just Ye being Ye: contradictory, impulsive, capable of 180-degree turns. Or it’s all about marketing, rollout, social media, and the business of music.

After he released The Life of Pablo, West wrote, “My album will never never never be on Apple. And it will never be for sale… You can only get it on Tidal.”

That lasted for about a month and a half.

On April Fool’s Day, The Life of Pablo appeared on Apple Music and Spotify. Everyone got the joke, especially those Tidal subscribers who thought they were getting an exclusive.

No one wondered if the meaning of the release date might have held an even deeper meaning. No one wondered if perhaps West knows that in medieval times, The Feast of Fools was a ritual of social upheaval and role reversal, the young taking on the robes of the high clergy and mocking the institution of the Church.

We think we understand what West is doing, but the truth is that we haven’t even begun to ask the right questions. We can’t even think of his actions as art.

Real Time

The Life of Pablo‘s changing nature concerns the marriage of art and technology, specifically the use of digital formats to release and update music. We can begin here.

The documentation of a recording process is not new, but usually the public release of that process is presented as an archival release of historical importance. Case in point: the recent Bob Dylan box set, The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, which collects demos and outtakes from the studio sessions for Dylan’s pivotal trio of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. The 18-disc Collectors’ Edition cost something like a bajillion dollars and is now sold out.

Comparing that behemoth to West’s ongoing project may be the clearest way to understanding the differences between then and now — between, in fact, one version of now and another version of now. Dylan and his musicians did their work in a “time of absence”, his record label released the best of that work, and because of his stature and the power of his art, what remained in the vaults took on the aura of a sacred mystery, one kept hidden by commercial realities — they weren’t going to continually press updated vinyl records just because Dylan kept tweaking the mix on “Visions of Johanna” — and the artist’s desire to move on. Over time, those albums have been remastered to suit digital sound, outtakes have been released, et cetera.

The key word there is “time”. West has shortened (to the point of negating) the process of this archival documentation, reducing the time between production, exposure, and what we might call productive exposure: the full reveal of how the work of art was made. Now we watch it being made in real time. It’s suitably Kanye-brand egotistical, I suppose: I’m going to show you everything and you should listen to it. On the other hand, West is simply working at the pace of our contemporary moment.

This would be impossible if West was restricted to the traditional means of distribution, i.e., the compact disc. Even if he were to document The Life of Pablo as it was made and, let’s say, stream his recording sessions live, the cost of pressing the finished product, the marketing and so forth, would not only make it incredibly costly to revise the finished product, it would also reduce his live documentation to mere documentary, not art itself.

That, then, is another key to West’s project: the entire process is the art. In “The Truth of Art” Groys quotes Nietzsche: “[T]o be an artwork is better than to be an artist.”

Writing about The Life of Pablo‘s revisions in The Guardian, British electronic musician East India Youth, aka William Doyle, is one of the few to seriously consider the implications of The Life of Pablo. Noting that West’s revisions depend on the digital format and the internet, Doyle writes:

We live in a world where everything is edited live, where our biographies and avatars on all social media networks are a revolving door of updates, where our contributions and musings are constantly reshaped and reinterpreted. Change is the new constant. So surely it stands to reason that new artworks released in this world should be afforded the same malleability?

The jury’s still out. For many of us, the allure of popular music is its immediacy, the way a song hits our bodies and minds with a beat, a voice. Acceptable ambiguity, even confusion, is limited to what a song means, not how it works. Pop music is also practical. It travels with us intimately through headphones and in our cars. The commercial culture in which it operates is the same one in which we buy self-help books, washer/dryer sets, and pornography. When we need music, it’s there in recognizable form. We do not yet experience a situation, very often, where we say, “I’d like to listen to Justin Bieber’s latest album, Purpose,” and someone responds, “Which version?”

West is exploring the limits of our patience and our attention to detail, enough so that The Life of Pablo feels like a curated experiment aimed at a wide audience. How much does that audience care that the Frank Ocean snippet formerly at the end of “Wolves” is now its own track? The hardcore fans at the sub-Reddit HipHopHeads have carefully documented West’s changes, from the mix of the vocals in “Highlights” to Chance the Rapper’s extra line in “Ultralight Beam”, but will even they reach a level of frustration if West keeps tweaking the album?

The Great Destabilizer of Our Time

According to Tidal, no. Prior to the album being made available elsewhere, the company reported that The Life of Pablo‘s songs had been streamed 400 million times. More than half of those listens came within the first two weeks of its release in February, but still, 150 million streams in a month ain’t shabby.

We forget that West aims for more, that he wants to be the great destabilizer of our time, the Lord of Misrule in a permanent Feast of Fools, and the pinnacle of pop avant-gardism.

As Doyle suggests, the aesthetic impact of The Life of Pablo may come down to whether or not we fasten upon the idea of there being a “true” or “finished” version of it. It’s telling that Reddit user JayElect, who assembled the list of the most recent edits to the album, defines it as “Patch 1.2”, as if The Life of Pablo is software.

More to point, a video game. The recording, mixing and mastering process which usually goes on during the “time of absence” has, with The Life of Pablo, become more akin to the continual, downloadable updates that are supposed to improve the user’s experience in a game. But even with such games, eventually an end point is reached. Writes JayElect, “This is most likely the final mix down.” But we don’t really know, do we?

Thinking The Life of Pablo through the model of a video game also raises the question of authority. Game designers and the companies they work for claim to welcome user feedback. So far, it’s difficult to tell whether or not West has been affected by his fans’ reactions. In his Guardian article, Doyle compares The Life of Pablo to electronic music designed to generate random or user-directed variability that depends on special apps, like Bloom, created by musicians Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers, who’s also a software designer. The difference, though, is that for its variables, The Life of Pablo is still being directed by West.

As much as he engages with collaboration and new media, West is, at heart, the kind of musician who wants to be front and center, leading the orchestra.

Real Person, Real Art

Few musicians today are as wildly intuitive and as successful following that intuition as West. The second question, then, about The Life of Pablo‘s revisions concerns the aesthetics, not the business model, of West’s actions.

Groys argues that historically avant-garde artists tried to change the mind of the viewer and then the conditions of the world in which that viewer lived by exposing the truth of art outside of art. Both utopian projects failed. Today, says Groys, the artist focuses on defining herself. The right to self-identify has always been championed by the avant-garde, but that work is now taken up not against ideologies and institutions but against democratic culture as represented by the internet. The artist is no longer granted special privilege since everyone is making art on the internet; this identity has to be earned.

This affords a certain opportunity, too. Identity is power, the power to say “No”, what Groys calls “nonidentity” — “Art says to its spectator: I am not what you think I am…” We are trapped in a culture of our own reflections and strive to take hold of them through the technology of art.

There’s undoubtedly a pessimistic tone to this, a sense that all an artist can do today is try to control the means of her own production and that the art itself is reduced. In a withering aside, Groys writes, “The actual work of the contemporary artist is his or her CV.” At the end of the essay, though, Groys notes that the internet provides a way for contexts to be reorganized by its users: “…the internet gives us more chances to follow and understand the artistic strategies of nonidentity than traditional archives and institutions.”

Presumably the artist has more chances, too. Is there an artist who has seized the chance to embrace nonidentity, who consistently says “I am not what you think I am” more than Kanye West?

West is not alone in refusing to accept the identities prescribed for him, of course; he’s not alone in seizing the means of production as a way of writing his own identity, either. That’s what Tidal represents, at least, even if its launch seemed like a tone-deaf display of solidarity by multimillionaires.

What’s different about West is his volatility, his instability, his presentness as an artist. We never know what he’s going to do next because he doesn’t know much further ahead than us. For this reason, The Life of Pablo is perhaps his most honest album. Instead of being about Kanye West, instead of being merely honest in its representation of him — which is always, to some degree, a lie, incomplete and belated once the album is out — The Life of Pablo, evolving, is Kanye West. This is nonidentity as suspension and constant change, as “I don’t have to choose or declare” and, “Who I am now is not who I may be tomorrow”.

There’s a significant and simple difference between the visual artworld Groys is describing and the music West is creating: The visual art we find online refers to a meaningful, singular, physical object. Even if, as Groys seems to suggest, the online representation of that art is becoming what we value, it still has some value because it refers to an original.

On the surface the comparison to music seems apt, since the digitalization of music is decreasing the necessity of the physical artifact. However, the physical artifact was only ever the carrier of the sound, the music, we wanted to hear. Arguments about vinyl and sound quality aside, the music you hear from a CD in your car stereo (if you still have one) is recognizably the same as the music you hear from your laptop. A 4×4-inch image of a ten-foot square painting is substantially not the same.

Yet, writes Groys, on the internet such “artwork becomes ‘real’ and profane” anyway, “because it becomes integrated into the information about its author as a real, profane person. Art is presented on the internet as a specific kind of activity: as documentation of a real working process taking place in the real, off-line world.”

Despite the differences between visual art and music, this is exactly what West is doing with The Life of Pablo. By documenting the evolving nature of the album via the internet, West claims the inseparable connection between the real, profane person and the real, profane art. In this way, the album is more than the “bricolage” and “Tumblr-as-album” Jon Caramanica described in his New York Times review of The Life of Pablo. Instead, it’s an ideological attack against the pop institutions that continually try to mystify art and control the artist’s identity for profit. The process of creating the album is turned into an ordinary thing, an everyday occurrence.

West gambles that demystifying the process, giving instead of withholding, won’t satiate our desire. In a way, it dares the music to be good enough that we’ll continue to follow its development.

The reason we overlook all of this is also one more reason West is so singular. Unlike the typical avant-garde artist or musician, West entrenches himself in consumerist pop culture on a wide spectrum, from reality TV to fashion to his trashy feuds/not-feuds with Taylor Swift, and never disavows his materialism or his desire to be adored. This is the part of West that we know, partly because he never shies away from it.

We forget, however, that he aims for more, that he wants to be the great destabilizer of our time, the Lord of Misrule in a permanent Feast of Fools, and the pinnacle of pop avant-gardism. We forget that while he worked on Yeezus, he visited the Louvre for inspiration. We forget that West attended art school, or that he said in a talk at Oxford in 2015 that, if he could do it again, he would have gone to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Or that, if he was going to do “fine art”, his “goal… would have been to become Picasso or greater.”

“That always sounds so funny to people,” he continued, “comparing yourself to someone in the past that has done so much, and in your life you’re not even allowed to think that you can do as much. That’s a mentality that suppresses humanity.”