I get caught up in moods that are really just ruts. I let my tires spin and spin and go nowhere, just kicking up dirt and mud and revving my engine. When I’m in these ruts, I like to abandon whatever I’m currently listening to, anything that requires me to form a coherent opinion or think too hard. I go back to older projects: albums I love, albums I used to love, albums I hated. For the most part, whenever I’m on these nostalgia binges I actually end up thinking for more than I bargained for, and it’s good for me.
I love the art of revisiting.
Returning to past works reveals how imperfect music review and criticism can be. I fuck with music journalism and I’m as obsessed with assigning numeric values to new projects as the next Metacritic junkie. But when I come back to albums I hated on two years ago and hear new sounds and themes, those reactionary numbers and words begin to lose validity. Music is a lived experience. I concede that you can totally know a good album is good and that a bad album is bad on first listen. To Pimp a Butterfly is every degree as classic today as it was when it came out. When it came out, I thought it was an 11/10. Today? Probably more like a 9.5. Still, it impacts me the same way. I’ve found new things to love about it and new things to dislike. Songs get played the fuck out, and when singles are the linchpins of a record, this can have a serious effect on how fresh the project sounds down the line.
Back to music being a lived experience. Today, The Life of Pablo became the first streaming-only project to go platinum. This is part of a larger legacy of TLOP as a digital album and as a living album, as ‘Ye loves to brand it. Kanye was updating the album weeks after its initial release. The album I have saved to my Apple Music library today sounds pretty different from the one that premiered at Madison Square Garden last February. Its essential aesthetic is still intact; the rough, unfinished nature and avant garde direction is still the main point of the album. But the additions are apparent and important. The vocals added to spacious moments of silence on Ultralight Beam and FML revamped those songs for me. The remastering of Freestyle 4 legitimately made me like the song after the instrumental was polished enough to make Desiigner sound kinda cool. The addition of the totally new Saint Pablo at the end of the album completely changed its aftertaste. Now that my lasting memory of the last moments of TLOP wasn’t that Super-Saiyan-Four-level whack Post Malone feature on Fade, things were starting to come together.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of TLOP when it dropped. I missed the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye. I appreciated the production, I appreciated the uniqueness, but it wasn’t quite for me. The early reviews bothered me. It was met with near universal praise from the Pitchfork crowd, the contingency of music media folks that seemed almost afraid to say Kanye missed. I sort of silently raged against the project the same way I did with Yeezus. I wasn’t into the idea of a living album yet; I yearned for immediacy. I wanted ‘Ye’s work to hit me the same way Kendrick was hitting me. I wanted some fucking intent.
The reviews I didn’t like kept talking about the same thing; the album was ahead of its time. This puzzled me. If the album isn’t for now, why are we slapping a 9/10 on it today and not when music has caught up to it? Is music not better in context? What’s the point of reviewing tomorrow’s albums today? If artists are making music to ferment, what’s with our ready-made approach to criticism?
I wonder how many listens it takes to write an album review. How many listens does it take to crack the code? What’s the line between criticism and hot takes?
Anyway, TLOP grew on me. I came to appreciate that the art Kanye was attempting was first and foremost for himself (like all things he does). Kanye was thinking about Pablo more than any of the talking heads eating it up were. That’s why he was mixing, mastering, and adding Frank Ocean vocals a month after release. He was listening to his fans to best create his own vision. He conceded to the questions about the missing Sia and Vic Mensa vocals on Wolves, but he never capitulated to every whim of the public.
This raises questions about the relationships between the artist, the media, and the audience. How are we supposed to consume art that is meant to age? I think if you were to ask ‘Ye, he’d say you should taste it when you get it then put it in your temperature controlled cellar for a while. Then you bring it out again` when the time is right.
In a time when we’re getting new music faster than ever, when regular fans have far more agency in what when and how they consume art, perhaps we should reevaluate how we criticize projects that are meant to be digested. Review it when it comes out then check on it again later? Maybe. It’s probably best to keep music in the moment, lest we all succumb to the pitfalls of retrospect.
The first album I ever bought was Kanye’s Graduation. I loved it until about three weeks ago, when I returned for listen #3,142. I found myself returning to my old praises of the project: the blockbuster, stadium rocking production, the witty narcissism, the quiet moments of reflection on I Wonder and Big Brother. But things were missing for me. I can’t listen to Stronger. Drunk and Hot Girls somehow sounds worse now than it did in 2007. It’s still dope, but it is not MY Kanye album anymore. In the spring of 2017, Yeezus and The Life of Pablo are sounding more and more like Kanye’s defining moments; Graduation and Late Registration are losing their potency for me.
I am changing, and so are the artists I love. And I’m learning to live with that. Figuring out new ways to live with the music I love is why I come back to it. I revisit to figure out new ways to live with the music I love/have loved. We should stop acting like we write the history of music. We should stop pretending that the final word on music comes upon first reception. We should start letting the art and the artists tell their stories themselves. I am thinking of myself more as an interpreter and less as an authority. How much do I really know if I don’t even know what my favorite Kanye album is anymore??
In a musical climate that is putting more and more emphasis on reflection, innovation and creativity, I believe our own responses and criticism of that music should be equally as reflective, innovative and creative. I’m trying to think less about face value and more about inflation and deflation; what this will be worth to me and the world in a couple years. Pitchfork is still going to say their two cents a few days after release, and that’s cool. But when the time is right, maybe they should check on it again, check on the people again, and see what the art feels like.