A few months ago, I was listening to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo on Spotify, and I noticed that the album seemed…different. For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Life of Pablo, it is rapper West’s seventh album. After several title changes, singles, release parties, and relentless tweets, the album was released (or “dropped”) on the subscription streaming service Tidal on 14 February 2016. Initially, The Life of Pablo was not available on Spotify, which is probably the best-known streaming service, or on Apple Music; it wasn’t available as a CD (and I, for one, haven’t had a CD player in years anyway). So in February, I signed up for a free thirty-day Tidal trial, listened to the album, and, after the trial’s end, occasionally listened to the track “No More Parties in L.A.” in a dubiously legal YouTube video.
On 1 April, the album became available on other streaming services. As far as I know, there’s still not an official version available on any physical media, which is consistent with this Tweet from West:
Because a few months had passed since the end of my Tidal trial, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had changed. However, a quick Google search turned up an article on the music site Pitchfork that confirmed my suspicions: West had, in fact, been tinkering with The Life of Pablo. (Warning: this article contains language that we would not use here on the RECIRC blog.) Jayson Greene first compares the process of making an album to writing a Pitchfork article, producing a “final” version for a deadline, as a print journalist would. But it was this assertion that caught my attention:
At a certain point, music listeners start deciding when an album or song they enjoy is “done”; once they fall in love with one version of an idea, that’s the canonical one, and the others are just boring or annoying appendices.
In other words, what was strange about my experience — and what Greene found boring and annoying — was that it challenged assumptions about creative production that are bound up by the physical forms such work takes. And although these assumptions have only been widely held for a few centuries, it’s possible that they are already becoming outdated.
Author publication in a digital age
The Life of Pablo demonstrates West’s keen awareness of the affordances of different media and modes of publication. This, I would like to argue (only somewhat facetiously), is what he has in common with John Donne and a host of other seventeenth-century writers. Harold Love has identified three kinds of scribal publication: “authorial publication, entrepreneurial publication, and user publication” (47). All three predated print but persisted alongside it for centuries. The first consists of an author disseminating his or her own work; the second is a model familiar from printing, in which another party invests in publishing the work because he or she believes it will generate a profit; and the third is what compilers of manuscript miscellanies do, making a copies for their own use and sharing them. What Kanye is doing, I contend, is actually a form of “author publication,” done in partnership with various streaming services rather than under the aegis of a single record label, and specifically “serial publication”:
Freed from the print-publishing author’s obligation to produce a finalized text suitable for large-scaled replication, the scribal author-publisher is able both to polish texts indefinitely….This practice denies the sharp distinctions which can be drawn for print-published texts between drafts, the “authorized” first-edition text, and revisions which are fully reflected on and well spaced in time. It also militates against our identifying any particular text as the embodiment of a “final intention,” for while the process of revision may in some instances be one of honing and perfecting, it may equally be one of change for change’s sake or of an ongoing adaptation to the expectations of readers. Versions produced in this way do not so much replace as augment each other. (53)
Substitute “CD” for “print” and you’ll see why Yeezy might genuinely prefer the creative control and flexibility digital media affords him, just as Donne had hoped, four hundred years ago, to maintain some control over the transmission and interpretation of his poems by keeping them in manuscript. But author-published texts can and do escape their creator’s control: just as I was able to find a track on YouTube, Donne’s poems, as Daniel Starza Smith has shown, proliferated to an extent that suggests that “Donne himself released significantly more copies to more people than we know about, or the friends to whom he entrusted his works transmitted them to more readers than Donne himself wished” (298).
Digitally distributed music and early modern manuscript culture are also similar insofar as they allow, even encourage, individuals to tailor their collections for their own use. On vinyl and cassettes, you more or less had to listen to songs in the order they appeared. Sure, you could fast forward, rewind, start on the B-side, or, with the right equipment, make a mix tape, but these media prescribed an authoritative sequence for the tracks. CDs introduced the option of “shuffling,” and then changers allowed you to shuffle several albums together, but I wasn’t able to create really interesting compilations until Napster made it possible to amass a set of (illegal) digital audio files.
You could say that music has almost followed the opposite trajectory of lyric poetry, which was transmitted orally, then in manuscripts, and only later in print (often alongside manuscript texts of the same works). Furthermore, even when lyric was printed, the texts and sequences could be, but were not always, authoritative. One reason early modern verse miscellanies are such rich sources is that compilers could assemble and juxtapose whatever poems they could get their hands on however they wanted, whether their authors wanted their poems shared or, Metallica-like, were vehemently opposed. (This video is worth watching, although I’m still not entirely sure where Snoop Dogg stands on the issue.)
Textual histories and futures
What we are dealing with, then, is a media shift like the one Elizabeth L. Eisenstein described in her seminal The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. However, as Adrian Johns has shown, few of the assumptions we now make about the identical content or reliability of printed books (or, to extend the analogy, creative work in any media) were inherent in or even consequences of the means of their production; rather, these attributes rose in response to the same cultural factors that spurred the development of the print industry in the first place. We are fortunate, then, to see how creative people working in different forms handle this new media shift. Journalists, in many ways, have tried to maintain some semblance of the so-called “fixity” that came to be associated with printed forms; the New York Times recently had to deal with accusations of potentially unethical “stealth editing” head-on when they tried to alter an article after its initial digital publication. But in other genres, like music, literature, and film, the digital opens up possibilities for art that can evolve and respond to its audience, challenging the teleological — and fairly recent — idea that creative work, once published, is “done” and unalterable.
How future critics and historians might deal with The Life of Pablo is another question, and the answer will depend on what they hope to accomplish. Perhaps someone will want to create a Kanye Variorum; that person will need to identify all of the differences between the different versions of each song and document all of the changes. (This can be a long and complicated process, as the Donne Variorum shows.) Another future scholar might try to recover what he imagined to be Kanye’s intentions; this, too, would require comparing several versions, as recording (like printing) requires the participant of many agents, and, as Thomas Tanselle has argued, “texts reflecting author’s intentions are more likely to be ill represented by any surviving documentary texts and to demand reconstruction” (Rationale, 88). If the album remains in its present form without further changes, a third scholar may decide that a documentary edition of the February Tidal release would be useful. Or, perhaps, without physical copies, some catastrophe will corrupt every single digital copy, so scholars will have to decide whether they want to try to reconstruct it, like William Shakespeare’s Cardenio, or leave it an open question, like his Love’s Labor’s Won. Finally, there’s the easy option: for now, anyway, one can listen to whatever version to be on their preferred streaming service, like a student choosing whatever version of an assigned reading happens to be available for free without thinking about how and why that text was created.
We’ll leave the question of whether “Famous” constitutes a verse libel about Taylor Swift for another day.
Works cited and consulted:
Aguilar, Mario. “Not All Artists Hated Napster When It Launched.” Gizmodo. 27 June 2013, accessed 12 May 2016. http://gizmodo.com/not-all-artists-hated-napster-when-it-launched-576039818
Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Love, Harold. The Culture and Commerce of Texts: Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England. Univ of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Smith, Daniel Starza. John Donne and the Conway Papers: Patronage and Manuscript Circulation in the Early Seventeenth Century. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Sullivan, Margaret. “Were Changes to Sanders Article ‘Stealth Editing’?” The New York Times. 17 March 2016, accessed 12 May 2016. http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/new-york-times-bernie-sanders-coverage-public-editor/?_r=0
Tanselle, Thomas. A Rationale of Textual Criticism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.