‘Saint Pablo’ and the Power of an Unfinished Album

Kanye West is still tweaking The Life of Pablo four months after releasing it, creating an oddly compelling experience for listeners.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

One of Kanye West’s catchphrases of late has been, “This is not regular!” As his brags go, it’s a pretty smart one. While some of his special achievements are more dubious than others (see: evangelizing for dad fashion, putting out fashion zines filled with unclothed women, continuing to troll Taylor Swift), it’s inarguable that West really does find ways to be exceptional. For example: The news that overnight Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo was “refreshed and redelivered” with changes, including a new song, is not regular. It is not regular for a major album to be both in the market and a work in progress, revised and updated at its creator’s whim like software or bits of the Harry Potter canon.

Albums of course have, in the past, been released in remastered versions, demo versions, remix versions, and deluxe bonus-track versions. But those typically fall into the category of extras: Once you’re heard the original, you could go and hear the new thing if you want. West’s doing something else. Outside of a $20 download on West’s site, it’s only legally available on streaming platforms, which means the canonical copy is in the cloud, able to be tinkered with or even deleted—as it was for a few hours on Tidal last night—as the musician sees fit.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that some musician or another would eventually make use of the fundamental ownership change caused by streaming technology for aesthetic purposes. What’s less obvious is whether that would be a good thing for the music itself. Isn’t this yet another example of the internet’s immediacy eroding quality? Doesn’t the ability to polish a product into eternity reduce the incentive for creators to nail it the first time? The fact that West worked until the very last hour on Pablo even after multiple release-date delays, and the fact that the result is the most uneven album of West’s career, suggests yes. But it’s hard to complain when the phenomenon gives rise to a new track like “Saint Pablo,” added as The Life of Pablo’s closer last night (the eve after the announcement of West’s forthcoming Saint Pablo Tour).

“Saint Pablo” feels like a “classic” Kanye West song in a way that little of his 2016 output has. It has a wistful, steady beat (built off a Jay Z sample but reminiscent of “Runaway”); a sturdy, hummable chorus (from the soulful British singer Sampha); and West rapping with political edge, self reflection, humor, and a logically clear through-line. He has said the song was inspired by him confessing on Twitter to being $53 million in debt, which means it likely was recorded after The Life of Pablo’s February 14 release (unofficial versions have appeared online since shortly after that time).

Indeed, West’s “Saint Pablo” verse opens with him talking about his wife admonishing him for being too loose with his money. It progresses from there, suggesting that debt is a sign of him finding success on his own terms: “The media said he’s way out of control … I’m not out of control, I’m just not in they control.” In verse two West turns his attention to race, saying that black people need to help each other succeed, which then bleeds into an explanation of why Kanye sided with Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service rather than Apple. His rap closes with a tight little ur-Kanye couplet of petty dissing and epic bragging—“She got the same shoes as my wife but she copped ‘em at Aldo  / Modern day MJ with a Off the Wall flow”—before Sampha poignantly guides the song out.

The track’s lyrics also mention that a million people have illegally downloaded The Life of Pablo, which is perhaps an odd thing to boast about for an artist trying to pay his bills. But West is touting his cultural reach, and he’s also signaling that he understands how his album is being received. Hardcore fans should by now have a copy of the original version of Pablo on their hard drive, allowing them to tell whenever West makes a subtle change to Pablo—say, bumping up the vocal levels on “Waves” or making a slight edit to Chance the Rapper’s verse on “Ultralight Beam.” Obsessively comparing and contrasting as West fiddles can be an essential part of enjoying Pablo for the true believers.

For others, the experience of the album shifts in more subtle ways due to it being, as West said, “living breathing changing creative expression.” I haven’t regularly spent time with Pablo since the weeks after its Madison Square Garden premiere event: It has its virtues, but to my ears it’s a contender for West’s worst album. So I’ve not closely tracked the bulk of the changes West has thus far made to it (most of them were implemented in April, though Redditors point out that last night’s update tweaked the previous closer “Fade”). Listening anew is a strange experience, like coming home after a trip and suspecting that someone has been nudged your things a few inches from where you left them. A choral line comes in where you don’t expect it; a rhythm suddenly hits harder than you remember it doing; was that synth tone there before?

It’s a jarring feeling, but also an exciting one. Pop music’s thrill comes from familiar things being made new—the Pablo transformations make that appeal almost literal. With more spins, you can decide whether or not the new tracks are “better.” But the intriguing sense of dislocation might be a virtue itself, one of the many things West has done that aren’t regular.