Leakers tend to fall into two categories. There’s the “guy at CD plant” (as immortalized in How Music Got Free), whose rips were an illegal yet seemingly inevitable byproduct of digital music in a shareable world. Then there’s the hacker, stealing access to private material thanks to a little computer knowhow and a lot of weak Gmail passwords. Kanye West cuts a unique figure in this universe. He’s a creator whose unfinished songs and ancient dick pics have all hit the net — yet instead of fighting the system, he simply decided to carve out the middleman, using the leakers’s content model to his advantage with every new release.
Pause for a moment and consider the fucked-upedness of referring to the same tactics behind The Fappening as a “content model.” But our attention economy is not an inherently ethical one. It’s a setting where the more viral something is, the better, regardless of origin. Fans are thirsty. They expect artists to over-serve them, and if they can’t get their fix from an approved source, they’ll find other means.
Let’s rewind a decade. In 2007, Kanye’s third album Graduation was fêted with a lavish pre-release launch party (the Garrett’s popcorn flown in from Chicago and promotional Def Jam shutter shades were excellent) on the heels of a steroidal hype cycle pitting him against 50 Cent, whose equally anticipated Curtis LP was dropping that same Tuesday, September 11. Both records would leak two weeks prior to street date; when the dust settled, Graduation had moved 957,000 units during its first official sales window, compared to Curtis’ relatively limp 691,000. Ye’s then-manager Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua told Billboard, “The leak was good for Kanye because he was going against 50 and could show that his album was superior… it’s like having a listening party for 500,000 people and seeing if they go to the stores.”
As the industry struggled through its digital growing pains of the aughts, West would embrace leaks even more, posting unmastered songs and remix stems from his next album 808s & Heartbreaks directly to his popular blog, sidestepping traditional promo cycles. His “G.O.O.D. Fridays” series in 2010 was a widescreen approach to this concept, allowing Kanye to beta-test tracks from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy like a movie serial, teasing the ensemble cast creativity of that LP with new singles, loose posse cuts, and random remixes that hyped fans on a weekly basis. (Hearing the crowd rap every word of “So Appalled” and “Runaway” during Ye’s surprise set at the Fool’s Gold 3 Year Anniversary was appropriately epic, even though the album wouldn’t be out for another month.) Yet when a rogue uploader unleashed a rough version of MBDTF’s Bon Iver jam “Lost In The World,” West pulled the plug, canceling that Friday’s scheduled drop and tweeting, “It’s messed up that one hacker can mess everything up for everyone… I love to take a year to finish my songs and deliver them to you guys in there [sic] most completed form… It would have seemed like since I give free music every week even the lowest form of human being would respect that enough not to leak unfinished songs from my real album.”
“The Life of Pablo was the ne plus ultra of leak culture: Kanye hacking himself, reaching a kind of singularity in the process. Donda as Skynet.”
Ironically, Kanye would soon redefine the meaning of “real album.” He followed the Grammy-winning luxury of MBDTF and 2011’s Jay Z collab Watch The Throne with the ascetic, industrial Yeezus. WTT came packaged in an embossed gold Givenchy sleeve, but Yeezus featured no cover at all, with its creator declaring its clear jewel case an “open casket to CDs.” His next statement would eschew physical formats and release norms entirely as The Life of Pablo, first announced as So Help Me God before turning into SWISH (and briefly, Waves). These multiple name changes were a perfect fit for a project birthed in public as a patchwork of Twitter rants, theatrical TV performances, and deeply raw, beautiful music released at whim.
TLOP was incredible, in the dictionary sense: “difficult to believe; extraordinary.” It was premiered at a fashion show in Madison Square Garden off an aux cord! The entire project was a meta gumbo of unexpected samples and collaborations, topped by Yeezy’s Taylor Swift sex provocations and therapist couch musings on family life and celebrity. It’s ever-morphing tracklist was molded by real-time feedback (“Ima fix wolves”) and total lack of impulse control. It’s hard to imagine anyone else of his stature being so literally and figuratively naked on the world’s biggest stages, and we couldn’t get enough of it.
In a way, The Life of Pablo was the ne plus ultra of leak culture: Kanye hacking himself, reaching a kind of singularity in the process. Donda as Skynet. Ye would release new edits of his songs to streaming services like updates to an internal operating system, declaring that TLOP would never be a completed project, but a “living breathing changing creative expression,” a point hammered home by every parody of its cover art and bite of its limited-edition merchandise. Perhaps the future will view it less as a living album and more like a box set — Dylan’s Basement Tapes released in real-time, an overflowing sketchbook of alternate takes, in-progress demos, and think pieces like this one serving as DIY liner notes.
Barely a year later, Kanye’s approach feels closer to the status quo than one famous guy’s fancy. Apple and Spotify now feed (and fund) open-ended rollouts to the public, rather than force artists to maintain an outdated system. Music consumption continues to change; an album’s “single” is whatever the fans say it is, and “promotional cycles” last as long as anyone is paying attention. Successful artists — from superstars like Beyonce and Drake to Lil Yachty and other up-and-comers — embrace and exploit their own memeability, building whole enterprises around their personalities in the way no old label could. Constant presence (sprinkled with more than a little “oh no they didn’t” self-trolling) is the engine for artists’ careers. This dynamic feels more like an ongoing broadcast than a catalog of releases… it feels like Yeezy taught them. Will we ever see any of these others reach a TLOP level of radical honesty and creative rawness? I sure hope so. As for Kanye, he’s recently deleted all social media and taken residence (allegedly) in the mountains of Wyoming to finish his latest music. Who knows if what emerges first will be as much of a surprise to him as it is to us.