In just a few hours, Kanye West will debut The Life of Pablo, his first album of new music in three years, and perhaps the most speculated-about and anticipated pop record since West’s last release, the ecstatically abrasive 2013 hit Yeezus. No one knows quite what to expect of Pablo: For the last few years, it’s been the very model of malleability, with West sporadically changing its tracklist and title (from Swish to Waves to TLOP), and adding last-minute guests (Andre 3000 and Kirk Franklin, among others, were in the studio less than two weeks ago). Today, he’s scheduled to debut the record, along with his fashion line Yeezy Season 3, at Madison Square Garden; like everything West does, the whole event will likely be a mix of rococo and just plan cuckoo, full of dramatic digressions and cagey humor and lux sneakers neither you nor I will be able to afford. (Though you can livestream the proceedings on Tidal.)
Pablo will also mark the third major culture-conquering pop-star moment in just the last few weeks. Late last month, Rihanna’s long-gestating Anti album was finally semi-surprise released, after being leaked by the streaming service Tidal, resulting in a thinkwave of essays, Facebook chatter, and podcast discussions. And on Saturday, Beyonce unveiled “Formation,” a deeply hooky and politically epochal new single that, in terms of shock-and-awesomeoness, trumped pretty much everything else over the weekend—including the very same Super Bowl in which she performed the song live.
In fact, though only a few months old, 2016 has been an extraordinary year for music—specifically, the kind of comment-corralling, zeitgeist-feeding music that, just a few years ago, seemed to be on the wane. Since the mid-’00s, tour promoters and record execs alike (not to mention magazine editors) have bemoaned not only the shrinking number of mass-movement pop stars, but also such artists’ diminished ability to reach huge numbers of listeners in an ever-fragmenting landscape. But for the last few months, it seems as if people aren’t just listening to more music than usual—they’re talking about it, too, whether the topic is Adele’s record-setting sales, Justin Bieber’s once-unthinkable comeback, Zayn Malik’s post-One Direction solo breakthrough, David Bowie’s shockingly good final record, Future’s cover design, or the sheer impossibility of getting Bruce Springsteen tickets without having to take out a PELL grant.
— @Booth (@Booth) February 11, 2016
Some of this, of course, is due to unpredictable, unrepeatable X-factors: Bowie’s death, for example, lent not only a layer of poignancy to his Blackstar record; it also prompted a worldwide reexamination and appreciation of his entire decades-long career. Bieber and Adele, meanwhile, wrote radio-ready singles and put them out after relatively long, fan-depriving droughts. And Springsteen is… Springsteen.
But in the cases of Kanye, Beyonce, Future, and Rihanna—and, to a similar extent, Zayn—there’s also the fact that, thanks to technology, artists are becoming the architects of both the medium and the message in ways that have never been possible before. For decades, the traditional record-business model forced even the most strong-willed, commercially viable artists to deal with big-label bureaucracies: Album releases were slowed down, or delayed altogether; singles were unwisely jury-selected; artists were gravely mis-marketed. Even a megastar like Bowie, at the height of his mid-’70s powers, would find himself at the mercy of time-gobbling, creativity-sucking industry concerns.
Nowadays, though, a performer can circumvent these kinds of hold-ups—and take control of the narrative. Beyonce employed a combination of YouTube and Tidal to dumbo-drop the “Formation” single and video at once, then watched as it created a ripple effect on Twitter and within the mainstream media (and she definitely is watching). Rihanna, meanwhile, stoked fan expectations with a single, semi-crypted Tweet, and although her own Anti Tidal release was somewhat botched, her devotion to the streaming service only furthered its reputation as a sort of deep-pocketed, mega-million-dollar artists’ collective. And Zayn used an interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music’s Beats 1 station to ready his followers for “Pillowtalk,” and for his transition into solo-stardom. As a result, each project felt somewhat handcrafted, almost intimate—despite the oodles of cash and small platoons of collaborators that went into making them.
For Pablo, West has done something even more extreme: Rather than slowly trickling out information, or surprising his fans altogether, he’s turned his Twitter feed into a chaotic and spontaneous making-of special, posting photos of in-studio inspirations and work-in-progress track listings, and teasing what kind of sounds might wind up on the record (as well as teasing out the constantly iterating title). These brief, id-saturated updates have been dropped into fans’ timelines with increased fervor in the last few weeks, providing a 24-hour look at West’s to-the-wire creative process, and giving Pablo the kind of need-it-now excitement usually reserved for franchise movies or prestige-drama finales.
Of course, Kanye wouldn’t be Kanye without dampening such expectations with a last-minute, self-inflicted stab-wound, courtesy of a tweet in which he wrote “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” (that’s ten exclamation points—roughly fifty fewer than the number of women who have accused the comedian of sexual abuse). It’s proof that, sometimes, artists could use a few good gatekeepers, especially at a time when technology can grant worldwide rights to even the most dunderheaded thought.
But in Kanye’s case, that ill-advised outburst amplifies the feeling that Pablo, for better or worse, is being made and marketed not by committee, but by an actual human being. And it adds an extra dimension of drama to Pablo‘s premiere, by putting yet another obstacle in his path—one he’ll have to face down publicly (let’s hope whoever gets the first post-release interview makes that question No. 1). It all helps make the arrival of Pablo even more of a mass-appeal event—the kind of communal occurrence that forces us all to stop what we’re doing and focus our gaze on the same entity, one that we can dissect, debate, and (hopefully) enjoy at once. Culture-consumption has, in a weird way, become an isolating pursuit in recent years: It’s now possible to stay on your own happy, little islands, occasionally being interrupted by a passing Avatar or Harry Potter. But art like “Formation” or Tidal or Pablo are proof that, even today, even the most deeply divided, far-flung listeners can still occasionally walk down the street, singing the same tune.