Sunday Music: Lefsetz and Kanye

I know I don’t stand alone with the idea that the pace of these Kanye releases, as well as the length of them, makes them stand out from anything else you see Taylor, Beyoncé, Sheeran, or other massively popular artists doing. In their defense, they’ve all found their own niches that are well worth discussing separately, but Kanye’s got a special place as a combo producer / artist that makes this recent run worth analyzing.

We have to start with this insight from Bob Lefsetz, who gives some historical context. It’s worth quoting him directly:

Let’s review history.

Albums came from 78s, a collection was called an “album.”33 1/3 LPs contained twenty five to forty minutes of music and were then called “albums.”

CDs held 80 minutes of music and by god, the players filled them with execrable crap, justifying robbers on Napster who were sick of overpaying for one good track.

And now we’ve got streaming and an album can be INFINITE!

Think about that, it allows you to reinvent the format. Do you really want to put out 80 minutes of music in an era where even babies are overscheduled? No, you need to make it bite-sized, digestible.

Applying Lefsetz’s logic, we can infer some classic “the medium is the message” -type awareness. To oversimplify for the unfamiliar, that basically means that the medium itself is inseparable from the messaging. We can’t talk about the songs without the collection without the way the songs and collection are consumed.

By releasing these short collaborative efforts in rapid succession, Kanye is deliberately shifting the way we think about the modern musical collection (whether that’s as an album, a standalone single, or the playlist format). The environment and context are changing the art, while at the same time, the art is changing the environment and context it fits into.

Add to those comments that the technology-collapsing writing, recording, producing, marketing and releasing cycle has never been shorter (he took the album cover photo for ye on his way to the record release party as one example), and you realize how ripe the opportunity is for someone like Kanye to pull this off.

In a playlist-dominated, hit-single, no-album-required, viral-TouTube-clip, tweet-length, instagram-captioned world, West’s approach fits. It actually makes you wonder if the old way is really even still appropriate, let alone relevant save for specific types of albums (like To Pimp A Butterfly, which seems to have more in common with a movie than most modern albums).

The message shapes the medium and the medium shapes the message. Kanye is on the vanguard, again. Maybe it’s not pushing music’s boundaries, but he is establishing different rules for us to judge the work by.

Speaking of judgement, can we compare it to his prior works? It doesn’t feel fair to – and I think that’s part of the point.

Life of Pablo was still in the old world but too scattered, and that’s part of why it felt unpolished (my opinion) compared to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s almost like Kanye was ready to shift but didn’t quite know how to yet. Fantasy was a much more complete “album” by the old-definitions, in the way that it felt cinematic like Butterfly, while Pablo felt like a mish-mashed playlist, lost in its own shuffle-mode.

As for the new music, I personally loved Daytona. That’s an easy A. I’d give ye a C, and Kids See Ghosts a B or B+ (still digesting it). I can’t wait for the Nas tracks. My bias has become to favor less Kanye lyrics in favor of more Kanye music (the samples so far have been good). Either way, this is all about using a format that allows him to give us plenty of each.

Whatever your take on Kanye is, recognize how he is adapting the delivery mechanism to his supersized life, and capturing everyone’s attention along the way. This medium may be his most significant contribution to music in some time.