The Future of Pablo: What's Next for Kanye West's Not-Really-Released Album?

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Yeezy Season 3
Kanye West performs during Kanye West Yeezy Season 3 on Feb. 11, 2016 in New York City.  

The turbulent rollout of Kanye West's new album has the industry confounded and piracy flourishing. With no strategy in sight, can it ever recover?

On the night of Feb. 10, less than 24 hours before Kanye West was set to premiere his seventh solo album, The Life of Pablo, during his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show at Madison Square Garden in New York, the rapper invited close friends, industry insiders and Def Jam staff to Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan. Introducing the ­collection as "one of the greatest albums" ever, he played the music off his laptop at an ear-splitting level. The only problem? Pablo, retitled for the third time, still wasn't finished.

Across town, West's core team was holed up in Jungle City Studios, working feverishly around the clock in 12-hour shifts. The next day, West played 11 songs for 20,000 people at MSG as 20 ­million tuned in to Tidal's live stream, tanking the feed's video ­quality. Then, he returned to the studio to tweak mixes. West ­continued shuffling the track list until Pablo finally was released around 2 a.m. on Feb. 14, an hour after he performed on Saturday Night Live, as an ­exclusive stream on Tidal and a $20 ­download on KanyeWest.com. Then, within hours of its ­posting, Pablo was pulled from his site. Sources claim West was unhappy with the final masters.

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As of press time, the rapper was still finalizing Pablo while a "partial version" lives on as a stream on Tidal (the service has not revealed consumption metrics) with no retail release date in sight -- a first for the music business. As for the downloads purchased before West, 38, removed the release, an insider claims "tens of thousands" were delivered in the hours Pablo was available, an account disputed by a label source who says no downloads were fulfilled.

Further confusing the marketplace, West later claimed on Twitter that the album "will never be for sale," while directing fans to Tidal, in which he owns a reported 3 percent stake, helping push the fledgling service to No. 1 in iTunes' App Store. Tidal, under fire for the messy leak of Rihanna's album Anti on Jan. 28, is still unclear whether the album will be sold through the site -- if at all -- or if it will remain the only streaming option beyond its seven-day exclusive, a source close to the situation tells Billboard. What is clear, however, is that the other major digital players are simply not invited to the party ("My album will never, never, never be on Apple," declared West on Feb. 15). Apple, Tidal and Spotify all declined to ­comment, as did Def Jam, the Universal Music Group label to which West is signed.

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Still, demand for Pablo was high, as evidenced by the 500,000 ­downloads (estimated by TorrentFreak) pirated in its first 24 hours. A conventional release could have sold 400,000 copies in its first week, one retail executive estimates, which at standard wholesale pricing would equate to $3.6 million in sales revenue. That's a blow to the rapper, who tweeted this week that he is $53 million in personal debt from his fashion industry exploits and publicly asked Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Alphabet's Larry Page for financial assistance. "If that’s true, [$53 million] is around twice his [reported] annual income, and that’s the standard amount of debt for most Americans," says Deirdre Bolton, an anchor for Fox Business News. "It sounds like a lot, but percentage-wise he’s like everyone else, just with more zeroes."

At this point, the rollout has become tantamount to an artist-­sanctioned leak before the label even has its hands on it. Multiple sources tell Billboard that Def Jam and UMG are working closely with West on ­several possible release strategies and that a physical version is due, perhaps as a deluxe ­edition or a bundle with another West product. "It would be crazy for him not to release it on CD," says Trans World Entertainment divisional ­merchandise manager/vp music and new media Ish Cuebas. "That would be a big title for us; he's right in the sweet spot for our customers."

Yet everything remains on hold until West decides, once again, that the album is done. Until The Life of Pablo is officially distributed, ­thousands of sales remain in limbo: Those who bought a ticket to the Yeezy fashion event or to view the simulcast at one of some 800 movie theaters have yet to receive the ­download bundled with the ­admission price. Those sales will count toward the charting week when it is delivered, leaving Pablo to rely on Tidal's streaming numbers and the disputed purchases from KanyeWest.com to determine its chart position. With one version out and no clear timeline for an official edition, West's rollout interruptus risks missing the window to make the biggest possible impact. "I have never seen anybody release an album before it's ready," says Cuebas. "The longer he waits, the worse [the piracy] will get."

This article was originally published in the Feb. 27 issue of Billboard.

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