When Kanye West announced on his Twitter feed last month that the long awaited follow up to 2013's Yeezus was arriving on Feb. 11, fans came to the rational conclusion that the album - which was variously named So Help Me God, SWISH and Waves before finally becoming The Life of Pablo - would actually be released the way other albums are released. That is, you would be able to buy it on iTunes, stream it on services like Spotify and Apple Music and maybe even pick up a hard copy in your local record store.
But Kanye West does not do things the way other people do. So instead of simply letting the music loose on the world, he staged a hyped to the hilt hybrid event at Madison Square Garden on Thursday afternoon, in which he promised that not only would The Life of Pablo be unveiled, but so would Yeezy Season 3, his third foray into the world of runway fashion, an endeavor which he is wont to tell everyone in earshot that he is VERY SERIOUS about.
The event - which was attended, naturally, by such celebrity luminaries as Rihanna, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, his wife Kim Kardashian and her sisters, Caitlyn Jenner, singer Frank Ocean and rapper Young Thug (who went to work as a model who, apparently under Kanye's instruction, pretended to sleep through the ceremony) - was to be live streamed on Tidal, the beleaguered music service owned by Kanye's pal Jay Z, which has gamely attempted to get on its feet in recent weeks with exclusive premieres by Rihanna, Beyonce and now West.
And in fact it was streamed live on Tidal, though due to a massive number of people logging in at once - 20 million, according to a Tidal spokesperson - many Kanye fans found the music wouldn't play and the image on their screen of super skinny models in drab dystopian distressed couture were frozen on their screens.
But persistent screen refreshing or app reloading eventually made the music play. Virtually the first lyric I heard when I finally got it going on my phone is the one that'll make the most headlines, from "Famous": "I feel like me and Taylor still might have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous."
The absurdity of the idea that Taylor Swift owes her success to him - he famously interrupted her accepting a MTV award in 2009, and the two hugged it out at the VMAs last year - of course does not stop the mouth that roars. (Or the thumbs that Tweet: Earlier this week, West got lots of attention, and provoked plenty of outrage, when he posted "Bill Cosby Innocent!!!!")
On Friday, West tweeted in his defense: "I called Taylor and had a hour long convo with her about the line and she thought it was funny and gave her blessings."
However, a Swift rep, Tree Paine, told the New York Times, "Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single 'Famous' on her Twitter account. She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message." She added, "Taylor was never made aware of the actual lyric."
The Life of Pablo presumably takes its name from Picasso - the type of protean creative genius, like Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison, that West is comfortable comparing himself to. Unlike the "Pablo Picasso" in Jonathan Richman's song of that name, however, West has quite often been called an epithet that sort-of rhymes with Picasso. But what has frequently helped pull the rapper out from holes of his own making is that, along with his bountiful talents as a producer, he often has displayed a sense of self awareness, and even contrition, as he reacts to his own misdeeds in songs like "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Runaway."
Of course, West is still delighting in being an irritant: "Fashion show in Gotham, i need another costume / PETA's mad cause I made a jacket outta possum," he raps in "Freestyle 4." And in that same song, he gets serious, speaking on police violence against African Americans: "Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us / Hands up, hands up, and the cops shot us."
The Life of Pablo, which West called "really a gospel album," starts off with a song that fits that bill fairly well called "Ultra Light Beam," that features the rapper chanting "Pray for Paris, pray for your parents / This is a god dream." (Ever the multi-tasker, West also took the time during the 90 minute presentation to tease a new video game called Only One which features his mother Donda, who died in 2007, ascending into heaven.)
The album features loads of guests, so many so that as the Tidal stream cut in and out it was surprising how often the first voice heard was not West's. Rihanna and producer Swizz Beatz are on "Famous." "Highlights," featuring Young Thug, references the R&B singer with whom Kim Kardashian starred in a sex tape with the line "I bet me and Ray J would be friends if we didn't love the same bitch." (See Taylor, you shouldn't feel so bad, he calls his own wife a bitch.)
Post-Malone, Ty Dolla Sign, Sia and Vic Mensa turn up elsewhere on the album, the last three on "Wolves," a song that makes a sense of paranoia palpable as - in what is now a common West theme - it portrays him as a family man, gathered with his clan who need protection against a hostile world. "Cover Nori in the lamb's wool," he raps. "We're surrounded by the f---- wolves."
West revels in his volatile reputation, and uses it to excuse his own behavior: "Have you ever known a genius who wasn't crazy?" he asks. And at his most self-reflective, he even manages to be charming, pro-actively responding to the critics, haters and just honest to goodness fans who wish he would go easier on the bull headed arrogance if not outright stupidity.
That disarming moment of self awareness comes with the a cappella verse at the end of "Feedback," in which the great man says his own name a total 24 times, and ends with the greatest declaration of love to his fans that he could possibly give. Here it is, quoted in full:
"I miss the old Kanye, s-- from the gold Kanye
Talking 'bout the soul Kanye, set all his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye
I miss the sweet Kanye, top of the beats Kanye
I'd like to say at that time I'd like to meet Kanye
See I invented Kanye, there wasn't any Kanyes
And now I look and look around and there's so many Kanyes
I used to love Kanye
I even had the pink polo, I thought I was Kanye
What if Kanye made a song about Kanye?
Called "I miss the old Kanye"
Man that would be so Kanye, that's all it was Kanye
We still love Kanye, and I love you like Kanye loves Kanye."
At the time this was posted, The Life of Pablo was still not officially released, with no word when it would be, and could only be heard on the Yeezy Season 3 stream on Tidal, which was repeated on a continuous loop Thursday night. And West was still posting alternate versions of the album cover on his Twitter, unable to make up his mind.
Update: On Friday, West tweeted that the album was bring mastered, and would be released before the day was out. He also released another track from it, "30."