By Joey Thyne
After Kanye West released “The Life of Pablo” to Tidal on Feb. 13, he took it upon himself to continue tinkering with the production before putting it up for sale and onto other streaming services. The new versions of the songs have a more polished sound overall with crisper drums and vocals, and a few more interesting compositions. Although I prefer some of these to the originals, it raises the question: should artists update their material once it has already been released?
Concerning the initial release, West was surely pressured by an industry that encourages music to be released as quickly as possible. In 2015 it became clear that quality was to be sacrificed for quantity, with popular artists like Young Thug and Future churning out multiple projects haphazardly.
West is undoubtedly a perfectionist, but I contest the notion that art is meant to be perfect. Great art is defined by its flaws. What if Jimmy Page went back and re-recorded his sloppy guitar playing with a more pristine sound and a steadier hand? What if Bob Dylan went back and edited his caustic vocals to make them easier on the ears? The fundamental spirit would be lost entirely.
Personally, my favorite art is not my favorite because it is technically immaculate. It is my favorite because it is propelled by an intriguing energy or sentiment. Blemishes make it unique. If an artist continues to update his or her art it will eventually become devoid of nuance.
Some may argue that West’s alterations are acceptable because “The Life of Pablo” hasn’t even been out for two months, but it is a slippery slope. Nearly three decades after its premiere, George Lucas released DVDs of the “Star Wars” trilogy with updated special effects. Nowadays it is almost impossible to find copies that aren’t tainted by CGI-added Jabba the Hut and Hayden Christensen. The original versions are snapshots into an antiquated age of filmmaking. The intervening effects distort this memory, creating an inconsistent visual palette by interjecting innovations that will be out of date in another decade anyway.
Art is supposed to be a glimpse into the artist’s psyche from a specific span of time, the good and the bad. The updates by West have been mostly technical, but the incessant pursuit of this nonexistent “perfect” album comes from a place of emotional instability. Any shortfall the original album has reveals a vulnerability in his aspirations. How beneficial is going back and gleaming over such things?
If West continues to renovate “The Life of Pablo,” it will lose the immediate reactivity and intimate devotion he had when the ideas initially struck him. The album hinges on the unadulterated point of view of a black man in 2016 — a man who recently became a husband and father, a man sauntering toward middle age, a man smothered by a lethal amount of fame and excessive wealth, a man coping with the pressure to stay relevant in rapidly changing times, a man still frustrated by a lack of inspiration even though he has unlimited resources, and a man still combating lingering feelings of dissatisfaction even though he has everything he’s ever asked for.
If nothing else, this situation demonstrates the type of opportunities artists have in the modern era of instant gratification. But with such high ambition and such low self-restraint, this may not be such a good idea for Kanye West. One must ask: should one man have all that power?
Joey Thyne studies journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @b_e_nelson.