The Life of Pablo and Its Montreal Connection

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Whatever grudges you might hold against Montreal, it’s hard to argue that our city isn’t a thriving breeding ground for creativity. You can see it through the weird music scene, the numerous festivals we host during the summer months, and even in the way the locals dress (my friends from out of town describe it as a grimier European prep).

One of the creatives silently holding the torch for our great city is Justin Saunders. He’s most known for his oddly addicting website jjjjound.com. Nowadays, the site looks, on the surface, like any other hipster’s Tumblr page. However, this website dates way before Tumblr’s popularity. The website is simple: a bunch of pictures reposted from just about everywhere on the Internet, curated by Justin to show his taste in clothing, design, and aesthetic.

So what does this have to do with Kanye West’s latest full-length solo album “The Life of Pablo”? Justin’s website, early on, publicly inspired Kanye’s own blog, which he stopped running abruptly after his infamous Taylor Swift Grammy incident. Justin has since been indirectly a part of Kanye’s creative camp, recently photographing Ye’s latest showing of his Adidas line and album at Madison Square Garden. I believe that Justin’s influence on Kanye runs deeper than his blog, inspiring the chaotic, cut-and-paste, unfinished and rugged aesthetic found both on his 2013 controversial “Yeezus” and, even more pronounced on his latest, “The Life of Pablo”.

This latest album lacks a lot that could have made it a top charting seventh studio album for Mr. West. Its unpolished roster of songs and its compilation-style story arc gives off the vibe that it was put together in a last minute hack-job. Kanye’s social media presence up to the release of the album showed that the project was being worked on up until the date it was premiered on Tidal, the Jay-Z owned streaming service, through a constantly updated handwritten track-listing. Even after having premiered it in its entirety at his Madison Square Garden listening session, he still managed to slip an extra 7 tracks in the following few days. Not only that, but after its chaotic mess of a release, he announced over his Twitter page that the album up was not in its final stage and will be finished in the weeks to come.

Regardless of whether or not you liked the music itself, you can’t help but admire the successful-yet-messy way to market his latest project. This unconventional way of releasing an album will affect the way artists get their music to their fans.

The latest trend in album releases is the surprise drop, made popular with Beyoncé’s self-titled release in 2013. This method helps the artist by removing the pressure that comes with a release date. It also keeps the music from getting leaked to the public prematurely, so there is a greater buzz at the release day. As well, it allows for more creative control, since the artist doesn’t need to rely on a label to help push their album weeks in advance. Looking at today’s musicians, the trend has definitely caught on. A prominent recent example is Kendrick Lamar’s surprise release of “Untitled Unmastered” after a weird back-and-forth with Lebron James over social media.

Kanye’s method, similarly, reimagines and amplifies the selling points of this kind of publicity. More and more, to sell records, it’s not enough just to offer the songs in a clean package to sell numbers. Fans expect a little more to entice them to go out to Walmart and buy the record instead of streaming or pirating a copy. This chaotic method is purely a response to fans, bringing them directly into the creative process to watch the album take shape. Changing his infamous album title in front of his 20 million Twitter followers’ eyes made it seem like they were witnessing art being made. Seeing day-by-day modification of the song titles on his handwritten track listing showed just how many decisions are made and how much an idea can change throughout the creative process.

The majority of the album’s 17 tracks are rather short, padded by intros and closings. Lyrically, Kanye raps whatever comes to mind with vulgar and relevant pop-culture references. The songs don’t fit the same genre, starting with a highly produced, soulful hymn and finishing with a vocally minimalist, sample-driven house beat. With samples thrown everywhere, a remix of small-time Brooklyn rapper Desiigner’s song “Panda”, and songwriting and production credits from a plethora of artists raise the question “What is going on?” as the music changes to a different idea every song. I keep coming back to it and I still don’t know if I like it… but that might be the point.

Returning to Montrealer Justin Saunders, the style of his blog can be described musically by “The Life of Pablo”. Scrolling through his website, a randomly generated feed of uncredited images from unknown sources fills your screen, each related to another only by their aesthetic. Kanye’s newest work feels like this. He’s provided us with a collection of music whose individual tracks don’t fit together, built from bits and pieces of sampled work, and which is overall a big collaboration of songwriters and performers. Justin might have accidentally inspired one of the most influential rappers of our generation.

Since jjjjound is updated sporadically with new content, rumours have been speculating that “The Life of Pablo” will continue to only be available on Tidal because it will never truly be completed. Mr. West has mentioned that he’s recorded 40 songs with Young Thug and Kendrick Lamar, and has also announced the continuation of his G.O.O.D. Friday music series. It wouldn’t be that farfetched to think he’ll simply add to, edit and continue to elongate the track listing of his latest album, not necessarily creating chart-topping hits, but building an aesthetic for other artists to follow. As we’ve seen with Kanye West lately, it’s hard to tell which direction he’ll be going with this latest art project. However, Justin Saunder’s influence of Mr. West’s artistic movement is as undeniable as the wackiness of this whole rollercoaster of an album release.

By Alexandre Darche

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