After years of build up, a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, and a set of recorded material which delivers on a significant portion of its musical promise, it feels odd that the latest album from one of the biggest names in pop music may go down as the worst-executed major-label release of a generation.
But that doesn’t make it any less true.
The Life of Pablo — which had its name changed publically four times — has always had hardcore Kanye fans moving Heaven and Earth to hear it.
They stared at a pixelated live stream mid-weekday, waited late into the night for a legitimate means of purchasing or streaming it (which at several points involved waiting for the musician to actually finish the thing), and dealt with refunds from Kanye’s own website, which pulled the album after mistakenly selling it to fans in the first place.
By the time the dust settled, the Spotify generation was handed the modern musical equivalency of abandonment: West arbitrarily decided the only legal way to hear The Life of Pablo was to sign up for a subscription to Jay Z’s glitterati streaming service, Tidal — who had botched Rihanna’s album release just weeks prior.
Fans with no apparent choice found a choice after all; In just its first day, estimates say The Life of Pablo was illegally downloaded over 500,000 times.
To really understand how one of today’s most influential artists could have bungled such a big release so badly, we have to take a look back at the bizarre series of events that led to this moment.
Here is the story of a strange musical birth, The Life of Pablo.
In hindsight, the first indication of what would become a continuously downward spiral of confusion came with The Life of Pablo’s numerous public name changes.
Over the course of the last year, West repeatedly toyed with new names on Twitter, a phenomenon which, at first, seemed apropos of his heavily personal tweeting style. The album went from being called So Help Me God in March, to Swish in May, and then he cut it a little closer, updating the record’s title to Waves in January.
That’s when things first got weird.
So Help Me God pic.twitter.com/e3UUsQQEts
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) March 1, 2015
I’m changing my album name to SWISH
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 3, 2015
New album title, WAVES
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) January 27, 2016
In early February — just days before its scheduled release show at Madison Square Garden — West’s wife Kim Kardashian posted two polls on Twitter asking fans which album name they like best of the three.
Fans picked So Help Me God, the album’s original title.
WAIT new poll. Which album title do you like best? @kanyewest
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) February 1, 2016
Days later, (and probably due to this publicity snafu) the album was re-titled T.L.O.P. West challenged fans to pick out what it stood for — promising them a free pair of shoes and tickets to the show at Madison Square Garden if they guessed correctly.
Throughout the last two name changes, the musician repeatedly changed the songs that would be included on the album, tweeting pictures of updated song lists with each change. This was the first indication that even the new record’s content was a moving target at the last minute.
So happy to be finished with the best album of all time pic.twitter.com/JBWa8OWvqw
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) January 25, 2016
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) January 27, 2016
The live stream from Madison Square Garden
For a brand that is attempting to build its image around quality, stability, and high-profile artists, Tidal only delivered on one of the three during Kanye West’s live stream from Madison Square Garden last week.
Despite sold-out attendance at the venue and thousands flocking to theaters nationwide to watch the event, at-home fans complained of seriously laggy or broken feeds and poor picture and audio quality throughout. Tidal blamed a networking partner for the error.
THERE ARE 2 KINDS OF PEOPLE IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW
1. THE PPL WHO ARE AT MSG
2. THE PPL WHO ARE FAILING AT LIVE STREAMING MSG#YeezySeason3
— 300 Entertainment (@300) February 11, 2016
Streaming issues aren’t extremely egregious — even massive TV networks’ streaming services often have issues for hugely-watched live events — but they were easy to see coming. Large numbers of users trying to connect to any server on day one is almost always huge problem, meaning that extra measures should have been taken to guarantee the high-quality live stream promised to fans in the first place.
The delay/Kanye adds more songs
Thousands of fans flocked to kanyewest.com and Tidal to find streams of the album following the popular Madison Square Garden stream, only to be disappointed. In a confusing 24-hour period, the record didn’t appear anywhere, and the public had no idea why.
West waited over a day to explain why the record hadn’t shown up yet, ultimately telling fans that it was Chance The Rapper’s fault: Chance really wanted to add a song called Waves back to the track list. Chance agreed with West’s accusations, saying that he fought everyone to keep the track on the album.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 13, 2016
At this point, it had been almost 24 hours since the record’s scheduled release.
The pair of rappers finished up the song and added it to the album early Saturday morning. West also decided to add 30 Hours, a song he had premiered on Friday as a part of his Good Friday series, to the track list. The track list now also included the previously-released Kendrick Lamar feature No More Parties in L.A.
— Lil Chano From 79th (@chancetherapper) February 13, 2016
The album wouldn’t appear publicly until Sunday — three days after its intended premiere.
First it was for sale. Then, it wasn’t
The album launched on Tidal and kanyewest.com for a sale price of $20 on Sunday.
Finally, all of the adding and last minute-tweaking was done, and fans, who had been waiting on pins and needles for days at this point, could get their record. For a little while.
Users flocked by the tens of thousands to Tidal to pay $20 for the album during its first day on the market, only to be met with disbelief when the record was suddenly pulled from the site.
The pull was so sudden that roughly 4,000 buyers had paid for the album but not received a download link yet, leading to frustration, and a series of extremely angry Twitter users.
— Yo!Hozay (@YoHozay) February 14, 2016
In the early afternoon on Monday, Tidal emailed affected users that they could either collect a refund or wait for their release of the download of the album, which would be “in the next several days.”
Later that afternoon, West tweeted that the album would never be for sale, and that would-be listeners would have to buy a Tidal account in order to be able to stream it.
My album will never never never be on Apple. And it will never be for sale… You can only get it on Tidal.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 15, 2016
Purchasers who had pre-ordered copies of the album as part of their Madison Square Garden tickets, or who paid Tidal but never received their download link, were understandably peeved at the fact that they couldn’t buy West’s album — which they had been promised on several occasions they could.
A new for-purchase release date has not been announced since West claimed the album would never be for sale. The only legal way to listen to The Life of Pablo is still to pay for a Tidal subscription.