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maybe late..

When Kanye West first tweeted a handwritten 10-song tracklist 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 Mr. 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, unauthorized leaks of demo recordings - the sort of stuff Dylan archivists typically wait decades to hear-and a fashion show with 1,000 models.

This turned the album release process - historically a predictably structured event, and lately rewritten by stars like Beyoncé as precise, sudden assault - into something much more fluid and invigorating.

The result is an exemplar of modern celebrity musicmaking: a dramatic, rococo, ongoing (possibly still ongoing) narrative taking in music, fashion, theater and politics. Rather than a single isolated event, the release of "Pablo" has become 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's 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's everything bared - process as art.

What is "The Life of Pablo" then? Is it one of the notepad-scrawled track listings Mr. West released on Twitter? Is it the nine-track version of the album that played at Mr. West's Madison Square Garden extravaganza, illegally ripped and made available for unauthorized download soon after the show (which some critics chose to review)? Is it the 18-track album that was very, very briefly made available for sale early Sunday morning, for $20, via Tidal (which included an incorrect file, a duplicate of one song)? Is it that same (now corrected) version, now not for sale anywhere that remains available for streaming on Tidal (though even Tidal has referred to this version as "partial")?

Is there even a finished version of "Pablo" that will stand still long enough to comment on?

That's especially relevant given that Mr. 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 Mr. West 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 bitch famous." He also made an insulting reference to Amber Rose, an ex-girlfriend.

But the "Famous" Mr. West played at Madison Square Garden two days later was different. The reference to Ms. Rose was gone, and the line about Ms. Swift was clunkier: "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex." (The "owe me sex" conceit was a callback to Mr. West's verse on Young Jeezy's 2008 hit "Put On.")

So had Mr. West toned down the lyrics? The answers weren't clear until Thursday, when a demo version of the first verse of "Famous" leaked online, with the lyrics as the Reddit user reported them. That means that at some point, quite possibly between the night of Feb. 9 and the afternoon of Feb. 11, Mr. West decided to soften the blow.

With other songs, it seems like Mr. West's own opinion on them is shifting. On Feb. 14, after the album was finally released on Tidal, Mr. West tweeted "Ima fix wolves" but didn't elaborate.

"Wolves" shows just how long creative ideas gestate in Mr. West. The original version of the song debuted in February 2015 as part of Mr. West's first fashion presentation with Adidas, called Yeezy Season 1. It featured the rapper Vic Mensa and the 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 Mr. West's laptop at Madison Square Garden a year later, it was a different version, without Vic Mensa and Sia, but with Frank Ocean. That's the version currently streaming on Tidal, too. Over the past couple of days, several demos, alternate versions, snippets and unheard songs have leaked online, including an alternate version of "Wolves" that includes Mr. Ocean, Mr. Mensa and Sia. (A side note for obsessives: When the album's credits were originally released on Mr. West's website, Mr. Ocean was included; as of the publication of this article, he isn't.)

Those demos - presumably leaked without Mr. West's consent - are particularly revealing. They show songs in steady mutation, with Mr. West trying out different lyrical approaches to the same portion of music. Compared with the version streaming on Tidal, the bootleg of the single "FML" is structured differently, includes one less verse from Mr. West and features the rapper Travis Scott. In "Waves," the leaked version is shorter with slightly different lyrics. And the bootleg of "Highlights" is more than a minute longer and features extra verses by Mr. West, including the eyebrow-raising "I need at least seven days, for Chloë Sevigny/Since I saw 'Brown Bunny' it ain't never been the same."

"Pablo" also seems to be responding to events close to real time. Family drama? "Highlights" makes references to the recently revealed taboo relationship between Mr. West's brother-in-law Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna, a Kardashian friend-turned-enemy. What's Mr. West listening to? Bits of Desiigner's "Panda," a breakout hit of just a few weeks ago, are incorporated into "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2."

When the album was called "Waves" - before that, it was called "Swish," and before that, "So Help Me God" - Mr. West received some flak for appropriating a term associated with the rapper Max B, currently incarcerated. So he included an excerpt from a jailhouse call Max B made to give his blessing.

And in at least one place, Mr. West is commenting on the album's rollout from within the album itself. At the end of "30 Hours," Mr. West ad-libs, "just did that Madison Square Garden," which is to say: this part of the song was recorded in between the album listening session on Feb. 11 and the album's release on Feb 14.

All this instability makes for a fascinating close-read experience, but it also calls into question the ostensible finished version of "Pablo" as it's been promoted thus far. A couple of the leaked songs, "The Mind Is Powerful" and "Fall Out of Heaven" - which may or may not be from the "Pablo" sessions - are half-song, half-sketch, with Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. West just wasn't quite finished, or that being slightly unfinished is the new finished.

So will "Pablo" ever be done? Perhaps that's the wrong question. Think of how we understand pop music titans like Dylan or Prince - over time, more demos and alternate versions and live versions get released - officially or not - and our understanding of their process deepens. Given the speed and porousness of the Internet era, we may soon be able to assess and comprehend Mr. West in much the same way. Albums that seemed to be complete will only get less so. Songs that sound fixed in stone will be revealed to be the product of much trial and error. The process will be laid bare, as fascinating as the end result.

So let Mr. West be messy. The music, the fashion show, the merchandise, the Twitter digressions, the "S.N.L." performances and leaked backstage meltdown: "The Life of Pablo" will be remembered for all of it.

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 Mr. West's living, breathing creative process, the album is no longer just a snapshot, but an unending data stream.

3,110 Posts
Good article. Everyone around my bampus has been talking about this album for weeks now. More than any album since since Rodeo.
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