By Dirk Baart
We live in a time when Ed Sheeran’s cat has got his very own Twitter account and when you can find out what your favourite pop star had for breakfast with just a few clicks. On a more musical level, almost all ‘knowledge’ is also always available: streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal offer the complete history of pop music in online platforms that fit in your pocket. In short, just like the economy of the Western world, the music industry revolves around knowledge.
The pop star we arguably know most about – although our knowledge has not yet added up and probably never will add up to a full understanding of the man - goes by the name of Kanye West.
But while the world seemed to get hold of a new version of Kanye West’s most recent effortThe Life of Pablo, the Chicago rapper’s fans in Japan had to wait a little while longer to hear any version of the album at all.
The Japanese music industry behaves a little differently from others. In Japan, the CD, which has almost completely disappeared from the music markets we know, still accounts for 85% percent of all music related sales. Tidal, on whichThe Life of Pablowas originally exclusively available, hadn’t yet launched in Japan at the time of the album’s release in February. Music piracy is judged as a criminal offence in Japan, with penalties reaching up to two years prison time for downloading music and ten years for uploading it. The harsh judgement has resulted in Japan being on its way to succeed the United States as the most lucrative music market. While that might seem very positive, it also has proven to have negative consequences. The best example occurred in February of this year, when over 127 million people couldn’t hear 2016’s most-hype record. Until they could.
It might sound weird to an outsider, but the solution was obvious to TOYOMU, a Kyoto-based producer and Kanye enthusiast. He delved his way through all information he could find on the lyrics and samples ofThe Life of Pablousing platforms such as Genius and WhoSampled. Then, TOYOMU created his own version of West’s album, titling it ‘印象III :なんとなく、パブロ’ orImagining The Life of Pablo.
As TOYOMU hadn’t heardThe Life of Pablowhen he createdImagining The Life of Pablo, it would be wrong to label his effort a recreation or reimagination. That element of the release sets it apart from all other fan-made Yeezy mash-ups and such. In fact, the Japanese’s release doesn’t even sound that much likeThe Life of Pablo. “Prince of Fame,” TOYOMU’s take on the infamous “Famous,” features the paranoid pep talk you never knew you needed. “Return Of The Kanye” is a surprising take on ‘Feedback’ and the angst of TOYOMO’s versions of “Real Friends” and “Highlights” are almost opposite of the gospel influenced songs on West’s album.
Imagining The Life of Pabloshould, however, not be judged on its similarity toThe Life of Pablo. It’s a separate phenomenon that displays one of the most interesting ironies in recent years in the music industry. The digital forces that kept TOYOMU and his compatriots from hearing the album proved key to his own interpretation of it. Tidal may have prevented TOYOMU from hearingThe Life of Pablo, but his version of the album wouldn’t have been the same without the availability of Genius and WhoSampled. In the process of makingImagining The Life of Pablo, TOYOMU was actually given another helping hand by technology. Unwilling to rap all lyrics he found online, he transmitted all of West’s lines through Apple’s text-to-voice function. It makes all lyrics onImaginingThe Life of Pablosound like those of “Fitter, Happier,” a song of Radiohead’sOK Computerthat features an alienating voice created with a similar app.
While it might be tempting to describeImaginingThe Life of Pabloas a rejection of the Internet, it would be more just to see the release as a sign that knowing and wondering do not always exclude one another. TOYOMU, in the meantime, has already released three albums since the birth ofImagining The Life of Pablo, as he planned to release one record for every month of 2016.
In an interview with Pigeons & Planes, widely regarded to have discovered the project first, the Japanese producer admitted that he still hadn’t listened toThe Life of Pablo. That was in April, when the record was already available in Japan. TOYOMU insisted there was no particular meaning behind this, but it’s another fascinating sign of the work of imagination. Maybe, it’s even more interesting how fascinated the Western music industry was by the release ofImagining The Life of Pablo. TOYOMU himself debated the value of his release in an interview with Genius, one of his most important sources, saying that it might be “reverse thinking.” He doesn’t seem to realize that hisImaging The Life of Pabloproves that thinking in reverse sometimes provides wonderful insight in the way we think forward.