NEW YORK • When Kanye West first tweeted a handwritten 10-song track list for his seventh album, The Life Of Pablo, late last month, the photo was captioned: "So happy to be finished with the best album of all time."
Best? Could happen. Finished? Not even close.
Instead, the rollout of Pablo has been an unprecedented public marathon, with West adding songs, revising lyrics on quick notice, adding and dropping contributors, changing the album's title and release date several times, and gabbing about it all on Twitter.
The process has also included televised live performances, public squabbles, unauthorised leaks of demo recordings and a fashion show with 1,000 models.
The result is an exemplar of modern celebrity music-making: a dramatic, rococo, continuous (and possibly still continuing) narrative that spans music, fashion, theatre and politics. West has turned the album release process - historically a predictably structured event and lately rewritten by stars such as Beyonce as precise, sudden assault - into a public conversation, one taking place on Twitter, YouTube, Periscope and in Madison Square Garden as much as in the studio. With flux embedded in its DNA, Pablo is crisply alive, like water that is still boiling even though the flame is off. Pay close attention to the multiple iterations and you hear an artist at work, as well as a celebrity tending his image. It is everything bared - process as art.
What is The Life Of Pablo then? Is it one of the notepad-scrawled track listings West released on Twitter? Is it the nine-track version of the album that played at his Madison Square Garden extravaganza, illegally ripped and made available for unauthorised download soon after the show? Is it the 18-track album that was very briefly made available for sale early Sunday morning, for US$20 (S$28), via Tidal? Is it that same (now corrected) version, now not for sale anywhere that remains available for streaming on Tidal?
Is there even a finished version of Pablo that will stand still long enough to comment on?
That is especially relevant given that West seems to already be building outside feedback into the process of making this album.
Take, for example, the saga of the song Famous. Two days before he played Pablo for the world at a Feb 11 fashion show at Madison Square Garden, he held a listening session for friends, family and representatives of his record label.
The next day, a Reddit user began a thread titled "Rumor: Kanye West is going to diss Taylor Swift on his new album". The post went on to detail the opening lines from Famous: "I feel like Taylor Swift still owe me sex/Why? I made that b***h famous." He also made an insulting reference to Amber Rose, an ex-girlfriend.
But the Famous which West played at Madison Square Garden two days later was different. The reference to Rose was gone and the line about Swift was clunkier: "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex."
So had West toned down the lyrics? The answers were not clear until last Thursday, when a demo version of the first verse of Famous leaked online, with the lyrics as the Reddit user had reported them. That means that at some point, he decided to soften the blow.
With other songs, it seems like his own opinion on them is shifting. On Feb 14, after the album was finally released on Tidal, he tweeted "Ima fix wolves" but did not elaborate.
Wolves shows just how long creative ideas gestate in West. The original version of the song debuted in February last year as part of his first fashion presentation with adidas, called Yeezy Season 1.
It featured rapper Vic Mensa and singer Sia. A few days later, the three performed the song on the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary show. When Wolves was heard again, coming out of West's laptop at Madison Square Garden a year later, it was a different version, without Mensa and Sia but with Frank Ocean. That is the version now streaming on Tidal too.
Over the past couple of days, several demos of unreleased songs and alternate versions of Pablo songs have leaked online. One of those is a version of Wolves that includes Ocean, Mensa and Sia.
All this instability makes for a fascinating close-reading experience, but it also calls into question the ostensible finished version of Pablo as it has been promoted so far.
A couple of the leaked songs are half-song, half-sketch, with West mumbling his way through the melody, moving from scribbled outline to completed thought and back again. These are incomplete, right? Sure. But then, there are at least three songs on Pablo on which West mumbles his way through a sticky portion of a song.
On the album, those moments feel like conscious artistic decisions, but in the wake of these demos, they suggest that perhaps West just was not quite finished, or that being slightly unfinished is the new finished.
If there ever will be a truly complete take on Pablo, it should include all of these things: maybe a collector's edition that includes T-shirts and handstitched tweets and a fashion lookbook and behind-the-scenes documentary video footage and cached Web pages and exhaustive demos documenting the songs at their various phases of evolution.
Thanks to West's living, breathing creative process, the album is no longer just a snapshot, but an unending data stream.
NEW YORK TIMES