Cracking Open the Beat: Kayne West and The Life of Pablo

Following the album’s initial Tidal release, West declared his intentions to continue altering the music, declaring it a “living breathing changing creative expression.” In March 2016, over a month after the album’s release, West updated the album’s Tidal track list with a reworked version of “Wolves”, which included previously removed guest vocals from Vic Mensa and Sia, and separated the ending portion sung by Frank Ocean into a separate track called “Frank’s Track”. In late March, the album received a major update, with at least 12 tracks appearing in altered forms. Updates included prominent vocal additions, new lyrics, and altered mixes. Def Jam confirmed this incarnation to be “a newly updated, remixed and remastered version,” and clarified the album would continue to appear with “new updates, new versions and new iterations” in the following months, calling it “a continuous process.”. On June 14, The Life of Pablo was updated again for the third time after the album’s initial release. The update included an additional track titled “Saint Pablo”, and other miscellaneous alterations.

On February 11, West premiered the album at Madison Square Garden as part of the presentation of his Yeezy Season 3 clothing line. Following the preview, West announced that he would be modifying the track list once more before its release to the public, and further delayed its release to finalize the recording of the track “Waves” at the behest of co-writer Chance the Rapper. He released the album exclusively on Tidal on 14 February 2016 following a performance on SNL. Following its official streaming release, West continued to tinker with mixes of several tracks, describing the work as “a living breathing changing creative expression” and proclaiming the end of the album as a dominant release form. Although a statement by West around Life of Pablo’s initial release indicated that the album would be a permanent exclusive to Tidal, the album was released through several other competing services starting in April.

Prior to the album’s release, West tweeted out that the album was a hip hop album, as well as a gospel album. Additionally, in an interview on Big Boy Radio, West stated “When I was sitting in the studio with Kirk, Kirk Franklin, and we’re just going through it, I said this is a gospel album, with a whole lot of cursing on it, but it’s still a gospel album,” adding “The gospel according to Ye. It’s not exactly what happened in the Bible, but it’s this story idea of Mary Magdalene becoming Mary.” “Ultralight Beam”, particularly, is noted to feature several gospel elements, from “the sound of a 4-year-old preaching gospel, some organ,” as well as a church choir singing the refrain of “This is a God dream.” Chance the Rapper and his instrumental collaborator, Donnie Trumpet bring elements of soul revivalism into the track during Chance’s guest verse. Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune wrote in his review of The Life of Pablo, “West’s version of gospel touches on some of those sonic cues — heavy organ, soaring choirs — but seems more preoccupied with gospel text and the notion of redemption.”

The Life of Pablo received generally positive reviews from critics, with particular attention drawn to the fragmented, unfinished nature of its composition and release. On April 12, 2016, following Tidal’s disclosure of its streaming data and the album’s release to competing streaming services, The Life of Pablo debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, becoming West’s seventh consecutive number one album on the chart and the first album to reach the summit primarily through streaming. Its initial exclusive release on Tidal resulted in a large increase in subscribers to the service and 250 million streams in the first 10 days. The album received over 500,000 illegal downloads within the first three days of its release.

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