Kanye West and Drake fiddle with their songs after uploading
THE SANTA CLARA
April 21, 2016
As music migrated online, record labels became unnecessary, CD sales became meaningless and with the sloppy, stilted release of “The Life of Pablo,” Kanye West pioneered a new change—the in-progress album that gets finished in public.
TLOP got uploaded to Tidal about two months too soon. The sonically astounding album reached potent peaks, but often felt rough and sharp—like a haphazardly sanded wooden sculpture. Over the next couple months, Kanye fiddled with his work. He remixed and changed a line on “Famous.” He redid the beat on “Feedback.” He returned Vic Mensa and Sia to “Wolves” and bumped Frank Ocean to his own track, then added several extra letters to the “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission.”
Dating back to the ancient horse paintings in French caves, most human artwork has been a static creation—especially music, and especially once music had been recorded and released. But Kanye recognized the malleable nature of the streamed MP3, so he bucked tradition and shared his album as he finished it.
Unquestionably, streaming has squashed the value of tangibility. Compared to MP3s, the CD’s only advantage is satisfying the nostalgic human desire to hold things that we like—and even then, a vinyl record is more fitting. Kanye signified the death of the disk with the caustic artistic explosion that was “Yeezus,” which he packaged in a plastic open casket. Mourn if you want, but the change was inevitable since one new CD costs as much as monthly access to all the music ever.
Speaking of “Yeezus,” the Apple Music version is not what rode in my car for all of 2013. Kanye further distorted vocals on “Black Skinhead” and simplified “Send It Up.” And not to be on the outside of any new trends, Drake reworked his new single “Pop Style,” revamping a verse and rounding out the beat’s edges on the track that coincidentally (or not) also features West and Jay-Z, who are listed as The Throne.
To some degree, this fiddling feels sacrilegious. I’ve listened to Yeezus roughly two million times. When I sing along, I like to riff on familiar melodies or lyrics—a participation that fills me with a false sense of ownership. As if, during my one-sided duets, I’m collaborating with West. His changes shred that fantasy.
Though art has overwhelmingly been a static thing once offered to the public, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Sometimes, the artist just can’t look at a piece any longer. Other times, there’s a deadline that must be met and so the work gets rushed out before it’s ripe.
And that’s what happened with TLOP. With his investment in fashion and family, Kanye couldn’t give it the meticulous scrutiny of his other works—an attention to detail that puts him in his own private echelon of greatness.
The work-in-progress rankled fans, but also exposed us to his process. Crafting an album is a near-unfathomable task for laypeople. Kanye’s progression from dress rehearsal to opening night demonstrated just how difficult that work is, and just how much the tiny details matter when they’re not perfectly executed.
And as much as I grew attached to “Yeezus” and rolled my eyes at the TLOP theatrics, I can’t blame Kanye for wanting to tweak his album. I have made countless updates to articles to fix minor errors that could distract from the point I wanted to make. If I had complete control, I would rework dozens of old, embarrassing blog posts—if not attempt to scrub them from the internet entirely.
Kanye, Drake or any other musician should be allowed to be as finicky as they like. It’s their art. They crafted it from start to finish. And if a fan really loves a certain version, there’s a dozens of places it can still be found.
This also opens the door to new possibilities. On the internet, art can become perpetually present—constantly updating to remain relevant. And its moldability allows for a stroke of inspiration to modify a dormant ho-hum work and elevate it to greatness.
But perhaps this is too optimistic. When George Lucas released his 4,5,6 Star Wars trilogy on DVD, he substituted clunky CGI for his gloriously intricate models. The re-edits clashed like black pants with holographic brown shoes. It was a clear misvaluing by Lucas to embrace the campy still-burgeoning style rather than stick with his perfected, but antiquated originals.
Truth is: basically every creative mind spoils as it ages. Excepting maybe Picasso and Paul McCartney, all great artists become a depressing shell of their former self. If they keep creating, most will fail so spectacularly that it’s astonishing they ever made anything decent.
To protect their legacy, maybe we should snatch their internet privileges like you do Grandma’s license after she backs her car into the mailbox for the third time. It’s valuable to maintain an era-defining piece of art, even if its creator wants to remain hip.
But the tarnishing of great works isn’t the most sinister outcome of online fiddling. The printed page is not far behind the CD on the endangered mediums list. It’s an archaic and downright wasteful way to store data, but ink on paper cannot be seamlessly changed. And that’s important.
As George Orwell demonstrates in “1984,” a monopoly on recording the past, gives unlimited justification for future atrocities. Officially-branded lies are indistinguishable from the truth—especially when contradictory evidence gets torched and dissenters face death by rats.
The internet is younger than our president. We don’t know how it will ultimately influence us. Still, this is the planet’s greatest Renaissance. Progress exponentialized as knowledge became universally accessible on this always-editable service. But we must establish limits. Some things shouldn’t be rewritten.
Contact John Flynn at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.