Time of Absence: Documenting Kanye West's 'Life of Pablo'

Photo: Tyler the Creator

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.

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?

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