More than 20 million people tried to tune in to Kanye West's Madison Square Garden fashion show this month, where he debuted his new album The Life of Pablo. Most of them did not succeed. The overwhelming demand broke the stream.
Luckily for them, the album wasn't finished anyway. West released a new song, the Arthur Russell-sampling 30 Hours, the next day, and added it to the album's growing track list. Then Chance the Rapper made him work on another song. When West did finally release Pablo to the masses more than two days later, it was to be exclusive to Tidal, the high-definition streaming service that hosted the original livestream, for a week. Soon, he announced he would "fix" the song Wolves. Then, he decreed Pablo would never be for sale, accessible only on Tidal.
This is, as the critic Maura Johnston put it, "iterative album design." It is perhaps the first truly 21st-century album, still hellbent on improving itself after release: Pablo is constantly disrupting and disputing itself. Cynics will argue that this is a sign of unpreparedness. But the never-ending reveal is really Kanye West, distilled.
With each past project, West subverted the day's hip-hop narratives. His early work reimagined soul samples and brandished insecurity; 808s & Heartbreak laid groundwork for the emotion of Drake and the robotic remove of Atlanta rapper Future; Yeezus was a masterwork of cacaphony. Recounting this history, Rolling Stone editor Christopher Weingarten tweeted last month that he worried "there's nothing left to rebel against."
There is plenty, though. West claimed music's throne years ago, then set his eyes on the fashion industry, an outsider clawing his way in; the Madison Square Garden show, with Anna Wintour in tow, was a sure sign of progress. Last week, he asked the world's richest people to invest in him, his fashion, his music, his scripted projects, his dreams. He is, as he says, Steve Jobs mixed with Steve Austin. West wants to change processes and break institutions – and he's starting with the music industry.
The iterative Pablo album, its constant name changes, its Tidal-exclusive release – these are the opposite of a safe, concrete Adele record. It's bound to make the sales-hungry music industry uncomfortable. The collapse of Rdio last year left experts predicting that streaming music would contract, with listeners floating to bigger players with big investment (Spotify, Deezer) and brand recognition (Apple, Google). Making what will be one of the biggest albums of 2016 exclusive to Tidal – which West co-owns, but for the moment is a tertiary player – challenges the very course the industry is on.
This may mean a rockier future ahead for listeners, though. If artists start picking single services for exclusive releases, will users pay for all of them? But it does put more power in artists' hands. One just has to look at institutions such as the Grammys, and its repeated snubs toward hip-hop artists such as West and Kendrick Lamar and Drake, to see that there is room for artist-led disruption.
West has subverted music before. Now he's disrupting the industry behind it. Breaking the stream was just the start.