Now that altering music in real time is more commonplace, we examine whether this is a helpful or harmful for the world of hip-hop and music at large
Embroiled in one of the more bitter contractual disputes we’ve seen in recent years, fans of Lil Uzi Vert were relieved when his first official track since 2018 emerged. Hot on the heels of his reinterpretation of G Herbo’s "Gangway" on the short-lived "Free Uzi," the man that had felt stifled by DJ Drama’s Generation You imprint came back with a vengeance on “Sanguine Paradise.” Initially leaked under the title “Money Keep Coming,” his audience were left bewildered when the track’s beat was switched out just days afters its release. By reverting back to the original Working On Dying production, it has relegated the MIDI horns to the cutting room floor and expunged the first incarnation of its “official” release from all streaming services. Met with a polarizing response from his fanbase, it recalls the commotion that the formerly “retired” Pittsburgh MC caused when there were alterations made to his worldwide smash “Xo TOUR Llif3.” With listeners torn between the original and the “remastered” edition, Lil Uzi’s penchant for amending music in real-time strikes to the heart of a huge debate in the music industry. Although it segues off into different areas of the landscape, the prevailing question is as follows: Is the ability to amend music on streaming services a good or bad thing?
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Above all others, one man that emphatically brought this debate to the table is Kanye West. A tactic first enlisted by Ye back in 2016, it allowed for his seventh record The Life Of Pablo to undergo numerous shifts and alterations. When he live-streamed “Yeezy Season 3” at Madison Square Garden, conventional wisdom dictated that what we and the 20 million others that tuned into to watch the album’s first spin would be hearing the finished article. Yet as we’d soon come to realize, the record was and still technically is, subject to change. Between its initial release and January 2018, the album underwent a number of renovations and refurbishments. Consisting of changes to its tracklisting, additional samples and tweaks in its production, this interchangeable approach to a record was in adherence to his rhetoric during this period. Unveiled at a time where his relationship with Tidal was at its apex, Ye had decided to leave physical copies behind and placed all of his eggs in the streaming basket. A month after TLOP’s rollout, he made it clear that the album would only ever exist interactively rather than the industry standardized format that his previous project had laid to rest: “the Yeezus album packaging was an open casket to CDs r.i.p. uuuuuuum, so there it is… No more CDs from me.” Although it may have seemed like a sweeping generalization, this claim correlated with his belief that TLOP wasn’t an album in the traditional sense but more of a “a living breathing changing creative expression.”
Two years on, Kanye has quietly back peddled on his grim prognosis towards physical media. For 10 or 15 dollars a pop, fans could have copies of Ye whisked off to their home from his online shop. That being said, it hasn’t changed his stance on altering tracks after they’ve been completed. Back in November 2018, Yeezy made some decisive changes to album opener “I Thought About Killing You.” Given his desire to revisit his work, it could be argued that this is the optimal way for Kanye to release music and-- if Working On Dying’s Brandon Finessin is to be believed-- it may be the best tactic for Uzi to employ as well. In a recent interview with Genius, Brandon inadvertently outlined why this fluidity and leeway would take a lot of the strain off of the recording process: "It's tough because he's such a perfectionist that we've probably had 11 versions of Eternal Atake. He records every day. But he's not gonna put it out until he feels like every one is to his liking, and sometimes that pace is gonna be slower than what his fans like." In the case of notoriously fickle artists such as Ye and Uzi, the technological advances that are afforded by streaming could be a way to quell any nagging creative dissatisfaction that they may have.
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While some see this as a death knell for the art of the album as we know it, the British Phonographic Industry’s head Geoff Taylor sees that as little more than scaremongering. At an event in 2018, Taylor proclaimed this to be a rebirth for the entire concept of a project as a cohesive body of work: “Some commentators have been quick to consign the album to the great format graveyard in the sky. But the album is not some fixed physical thing. It’s an idea, a concept, that is used by both artists and fans to provide a richer experience of music… We see the album as a canvas that the artist can use to tell a story or communicate an idea. An album can also evolve through time. The elements of an album aren’t fixed: they can be added to or remixed by the artist, so the album becomes an ever-changing body of work.”
Concluding with the quip of “if it’s good enough for Kanye, it should be good enough for a lot of other artists,” Taylor’s outlook is one that’s receptive to the deconstruction of the album or song in its conventional parameters and into something that can be altered at any time. A modernist approach to art that trades out timelessness for transformations, the concern lies in whether this could damage the prospect of a “classic” track or album due to the fact that they will never be frozen in time. In this sense, the power to edit on command could become something of a double-edged sword that artists of the past were unburdened by. If Nas had any reservations about Illmatic or Pac wanted to add an extra track to All Eyez On Me, these issues were time-sensitive and couldn’t be rectified at a later date. Now that the weight of finality is removed from their shoulders, it could mean that albums of the future would be trotted out with haste and gradually amended later. In many ways, this is diametrically opposed to the immersive experience of picking up a record from the store and consuming every single bar and note that they’d laid down for eternity.
However, those that refuse to heed the call of progress are destined to be left behind. Drilled home by Billie Eilish’s revelation that she’d never bought a CD, the industry is now led by those who’ve grown up on the internet and its culture of instant gratification. So rather than grieve over the loss of our perception of music’s immortality, we should perhaps be more concerned that the algorithms and bureaucracy that comes with streaming has meant that it is now playing an active role in the creative process. In order to appease the services’ systems, songs are being made shorter in order to maximize their impact. Coupled with the phenomenon of artists padding their track lists purely to make as much money as possible from revenue, it seems as though the rules these services enforce are far more harmful than Kanye, Drake, Uzi or any other artist deciding to slyly reconfigure some of their material.
Whatever the future holds, what we can say with certainty is that the mechanics of the music industry will never be the same. Now, there’s nothing to do but watch it unfold and see whether this power to amend is to the benefit or detriment of the genre that we know and love.
Do you think this is a positive or negative development for the music industry? Sound off in the comments below.