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 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 4x4-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."

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