By Salvatore DiGioia | Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris for Getty
Two years ago today, Kanye West premiered his seventh solo album, The Life Of Pablo, during a cryptically-teased fashion show at Madison Square Garden. His most loyal fans flocked to theaters to livestream the event while the rest of the rap community watched from home in confused anticipation. His arrival on-screen was dramatic, decorated by fog machines and the special darkness that’s unique to excited sports arenas, yet he couldn’t have appeared any more lax on the surface: Dressed in sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt (emerging-mantra “I Feel Like Pablo” printed on its chest), he giddily celebrated aside famous friends (Kid Cudi, Travis Scott, etc.) as the internet held its collective breath, savoring every word of “Ultralight Beam,” wondering if Desiigner was actually Future and gasping at the infamous Taylor Swift lyric for the very first time. Though The Life Of Pablo wouldn’t technically be released for another two days, its February 11th reveal marked the official beginning of its maximalist campaign for attention, an effort that routinely reached for spectacle status and could only have been spearheaded by one visionary — Kanye West.
“I know how to make perfect, but that’s not what I’m here to do,” Kanye told radio personality Zane Lowe during a 2013 interview for BBC Radio 1. “I’m here to crack the pavement and make new grounds sonically and in society, culturally.” Their conversation took place in the aftermath of Kanye’s sixth solo LP, Yeezus, but its excerpts vividly foreshadow the chaotic creativity that would underscore his 2014 release. Of course, as an album, Pablo is a barely-cohesive collection of big-intended pop punches that only occasionally deliver. However, to judge the project against a traditional LP’s criteria is to ignore its shape-shifting skills, its ability to transcend audial boundaries and traverse unprecedented mediums. The Life Of Pablo was an interdisciplinary experiment in media and celebrity culture, one that manifested itself in music and clothing, but was most effectively fueled by fans’ unwavering energy and insistence on broadcasting their experiences.
“I have reached the glass ceiling — as a creative person, as a celebrity. When I say that it means want to do product. I am a product person. Not just clothing but water bottle design, architecture, everything,” Kanye went on to explain to Lowe. Throughout Pablo’s rollout, these dreams would be nearly actualized, first through t-shirts and dad caps, then through the legendary Saint Pablo Tour. Kanye crusaded into the apparel market, selling millions of unexciting gothic text prints, then revolutionized live performance with an interactive stage, redefining the concept of arena space itself. To do so, he built seamless connections between his hyper-public life, his art and his buyable merchandise while simultaneously harnessing the power of hip-hop’s easily-manipulatable blogosphere. He turned an album — music — into a year-long performance and invited millions to participate in the construction of its storyline, be it through concerts, local pop up shops or the mere consumption of digital content.
Since 2005, each of Kanye’s projects has come with an accompanying change in style, attitude and artistic direction. The College Dropout and Late Registration came from a wholesome, sometimes conscious, innocently arrogant artist who wore polos and backpacks; Graduation from an egotistical pop star who wore futuristic garb and might as well have invented shutter shades; 808s & Heartbreak from a devastated, humbled human in tweed gray suits; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as its title suggests, from a twisted genius in stunning red velvet; and, finally, Yeezus from a dramatic eccentric in a full-fledged diamond-crusted face mask. The version of Kanye that emerged aside The Life Of Pablo, though, was unique for his painstakingly apparent desire to be all of those earlier Kanyes at once — a recognized superstar and an outcast creative; a global icon and an accessible peer; wearing couture but also athleisure.
Throughout 2014, Kanye consistently attempted to adjust the boundaries of celebrity by making himself and his brand as consumable as possible. Once infamous for attacking paparazzi and strategically dodging public encounters, he chose to accept fans’ intrinsic desire for his engagement. He even strove to overwhelm them with his presence while on tour. The Life Of Pablo was a genius endeavor more than a decade in the making that likely couldn’t have been accomplished by any other musician: Finally, after years of manicuring his untouchable persona, the same artist who once wore a glove to the Grammy’s tore down some of his caricature and attempted to re-become human. Suddenly, Kanye wanted to be among us again. Or, at least, he wanted his fans to believe that he did. The act wouldn’t last long, but maybe it never truly was supposed to. So went the era of Pablo.
It’s now been two years since Kanye stormed off stage in Sacramento after performing just fifteen minutes of his Saint Pablo setlist. Two years since he met with then-president-elect Donald J. Trump for a wildly confusing photo opportunity. Two years since he cancelled dozens of tour dates and, to many loved ones’ appeasement, checked in for mental rehabilitation. In those two years, I’ve come to consider The Life Of Pablo among Kanye’s most prolific creative endeavors to date, for despite its uncharacteristic sloppiness, its performative quality managed to blur my perceptions of art and reality to an extent I’d never before deemed possible. Kanye rapped about being crazy, then quite literally went crazy, the entire process unraveling right before my eager eyes, either live-streamed or tweeted about indefinitely.
I expect The Life Of Pablo must rank among the most inescapable albums in modern history, probably the only one from the streaming age able to finesse its way into such a conversation. We will likely never experience Kanye West that up-close and consistently ever again, but wow — what a spectacle it was.