Reporter’s Notebook: If controversy equates to album sales, Kanye West’s ‘The Life of Pablo’ is already platinum

Kanye West at his Yeezy Season 3 fashion launch on Feb. 11 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
(Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images)

There will likely never be an album release week as strange, and exhaustingly controversial, as the one just given to us by Kanye West.

In the days since West previewed his new album, “The Life of Pablo,” in a splashy, chaotic, listening party/fashion show for a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, the album has remained a key topic in the pop music conversation.

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West’s knack for commanding — and, yes, courting — controversy has kept his latest release at the forefront of our minds.

Even if it’s not on sale yet.

For weeks West teased last week’s Madison Square Garden event, an elaborate presentation that also served as the debut for his Yeezy Season 3 Adidas line along with his album, which didn’t even have its name set until a few days before its preview. It was originally titled “So Help Me God,” then “SWISH,” then “Waves” before West unveiled the album’s acronym was “TLOP.” He offered free tickets to Thursday’s event (along with a pair of his custom-designed Yeezy shoes) to anyone who could decode those letters.

Never one for understatement, West’s album premiere was beamed in movie theaters across the globe and on the Tidal music-streaming service as the polarizing superstar showcased 10 tracks of “The Life of Pablo” while models wearing items from West’s new line expressionlessly stood onstage.

Most of the attention was focused on the chaotic nature of the event, which included more of West’s famous “rants” along with preview footage from a video game about his late mother “traveling through the gates of heaven,” but much of it was obscured by the fact Tidal’s live stream crashed under the weight of some 20 million people trying to get a glimpse of the spectacle.

But in the end, at least there was a new Kanye West album — well, sort of.

The millions who tuned into the stream and patiently waited for their computers and smartphones to buffer could listen to the album, which includes collaborations with Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, El DeBarge, Rihanna, Future, Kid Cudi, Ty Dolla Sign and the Weeknd.

“The Life of Pablo” features inspired, gospel-inflected choruses, beats that veer from soulful to experimental, West rapping about missing “the old Kanye” and one lyrical passage asserting he might “still” have sex with Taylor Swift and that he made the “bitch” famous.

That last one, obviously, didn’t go over well, particularly with Swift (more on that later).

Despite people dropping cash to attend Thursday’s event along with the money to secure a download of the album upon its release -- to say nothing of the anticipation felt by those who tuned in for the album release party -- there would be no actual album to purchase after the event.

In fact, as West eventually revealed, “The Life of Pablo” wasn’t even finished.

For the notorious perfectionist, it was both a rare moment of disorganization and yet the most West-like approach to releasing an album.

Why have a bombastic album release event if the album isn’t finished? Well, why not? West turned pomp into performance art long ago, and as messy as Thursday’s event appeared to be for those of us who weren’t there, many wanted to be there, judging from the flurry of online conversation offering tips on the best way to stream the event along with the sheer volume of bootleg rips that came available online shortly after the event ended.

Days later, during his stint as musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” West announced digital copies of the album were for sale via his personal website and streaming on Tidal. But that went poorly as well.

Shortly after making the announcement, West pulled down the commercial version of “The Life of Pablo,” and those who had already shelled out $20 for the 18-track album complained on Twitter that the album had a glitch that excluded the record’s final track and instead repeated the song right before it.

On Monday, Tidal emailed customers saying, “A partial version of the album is available for streaming … but the download is currently not available.

“The final version of the album will be released in the next several days,” the message continued. To its credit, Tidal also offered refunds to those who didn’t want to wait.

After the Tidal snafu — the second time the service owned by Jay Z and a number of A-list musicians flubbed an exclusive album release after Rihanna’s disastrous roll-out — West again took to Twitter to announce he decided not to sell the album for one more week.

He also urged his more than 19 million followers to subscribe to the service and revealed he never intends to release the album to Apple.

“And it will never be for sale... You can only get it on Tidal,” he wrote.

Despite, and likely because of, its exclusivity to one streaming site, people are still acquiring West’s latest album in great numbers -- even if they refused to sign up for Tidal.

More than 500,000 people have downloaded pirated versions of the album since it was released on Tidal, according to “The Life of Pablo” is leading the popular Pirate Bay’s list of most shared music with nearly 10,000 people actively sharing the album as of this story’s writing.

And yet, somehow, that’s just scratching the surface of Kanye’s week.

West has been a fixture on gossip and music blogs becauseof his near daily Twitter outbursts.

One day he’s defending his Swift lyric, another day he’s proclaiming he’s $52 million in debt and venting about the state of American’s education system while requesting Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg help him become this generation’s Walt Disney and “make the world a better place.” He also issued a series of introspective tweets about his ego and announced he has collaborative records with Drake and Future coming soon.

Chicago-based artist Rhymefest, a longtime friend of West’s who has written on most of his albums, made waves when he tweeted his belief that West needed “spiritual and mental” counseling and suggested he step away from the public and “heal.”

He later clarified his comments on the red carpet of the Grammys, where he won for his contribution to Common and John Legend’s “Glory.”

“A lot of media wants to use me to tear him down and that’s not who I am,” the rapper-songwriter said. “I want Kanye to be healthy, and I want Kanye to be happy and successful, and I’m very proud of his new album. I want my friend to be healthy, and healthiness is happiness.

“I want him to be happy, and if he’s not happy, I’m concerned. ... I think sometimes we get concerned with entertaining the public when we should be concerned with being happy.”

Though West’s social media messages have grown increasingly exhausting to track, his words have gotten him skewered and scolded in recent days.

First, Swift used her Grammy acceptance speech for album of the year to offer a terse rebuttal to West’s tawdry lyric and cut down the rapper’s assertions without naming any names.

“I want to say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, but if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you are going, you’ll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there and that will be the greatest feeling in the world,” Swift said to cheers.

The Recording Academy also poked fun at West on Grammy night after he tweeted he wouldn’t attend unless they promised him an album of the year win. “Is your Recording Academy membership still active?” the Grammys official account tweeted in response, along with a link for West to apply for membership.

The Philadelphia Police Department got in on the action, doctoring a photo to put West’s face on top of an image of two officers and telling him they were hiring. “Starting salary of $47,920; u could be debt-free by the year 3122!” the tweet read, poking fun at West’s announcement that he was in debt.

There were also reports that West had a meltdown ahead of his “SNL” appearance, threatening to walk off the set. Shortly after those reports, an expletive-filled audio of the rapper venting leaked.

“Look at that ... they took my... stage off ‘SNL’ without asking me,” West said in the recording, leaked to Page Six on Wednesday.

In the one-minute audio clip — reportedly taken from a private moment with his team and not from a meeting with production staff as initially reported — West also makes a remark about Swift, calling her fake in response to her team’s assertion that she never approved of the controversial lyric (he’s said otherwise) and compares himself, favorably, to a number of historical figures.

“Are they ... crazy? Whoa by 50% [I am more influential than] Stanley Kubrick, Picasso, apostle Paul, ... Picasso and Escobar. By 50% more influential than any other human being,” West continued. “Don’t ... with me. Don’t ... with me. Don’t ... with me.

“By 50% dead or alive, by 50% for the next 1,000 years. Stanley Kubrick, ‘Ye.”

Amid all this noise, those paying attention only to the whereabouts of West’s album received a massive bounty early Thursday in the form of a folder that leaked to a hip-hop thread on Reddit. It included numerous never-before-tracks and alternate takes widely presumed to be from “The Life of Pablo” sessions.

Among the tracks: a collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon called “Fall Out of Heaven,” an uptempo song featuring Swizz Beatz called “The Mind Is Powerful,” a track called “New Angels” and a remix of pre-album single “All Day” that features Kendrick Lamar and Paul McCartney.

There’s also alternate versions of “The Life of Pablo” tracks “FML,” “Fade,” “Waves,” “I Miss the Old Kanye” and “Highlights” along with a previously leaked take of “Wolves” that features vocals from Vic Mensa and Sia alongside Frank Ocean.

Will those ever officially see the light of day? Will “The Life of Pablo”? As always is the case with West, you’ll have to stay tuned. He’ll let you know -- when he feels like it. He knows you’re paying attention.

For more music news follow me on Twitter: @gerrickkennedy


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