Where's 'Donda'? Why Kanye West is the king of the album roll-out campaign

The wild promotional drive for the rapper's long-awaited release is typical of the artist

November 12, 2010 / Abu Dhabi / (Rich-Joseph Facun / The National) Kanye West (CQ), performs live at Yas Island, Friday, November 12, 2010 in Abu Dhabi.

"Yeezy season" is upon us and it is as wild, exhilarating and confusing as we have come to expect.

As we draw nearer to the release of Kanye West’s 10th album, Donda­, presently standing to arrive on Sunday, the rapper and producer has been putting fans, the media and the wider music industry through the ringer in the lead up.

Release dates were announced and missed without explanation, changing variations of the album tracklist were circulated online without commentary, album listening parties were transformed into sold-out arena events and West has reportedly decamped from his $60 million Los Angeles mansion to the locker rooms of Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium with his production gear to finish the recording.

While all that was going on, West has been incommunicado. The marathon interviews of old, where he rhapsodised about seemingly everything from fashion to philosophy, have been replaced by a wall of silence. Only a few select surrogates have been sanctioned to speak on Donda’s progress, including estranged wife Kim Kardashian and musical collaborator Mike Dean.

So what is going on?

Nothing. This is merely another classic West album roll-out.

Ever since emerging with his first album The College Dropout in 2004, West has gone on to redefine and, in many ways, upend some of the tenets of traditional album marketing campaigns.

Here are four of the most memorable...

1. The battle with 50 Cent for ‘Graduation' (2007)

By the time his third album Graduation was ready, West was already known for missing release dates as fast as they were announced. But the chance to drop the album on the same day as the anticipated release of the album Curtis by 50 Cent was too good to pass up.

Fortunately, 50 Cent – a savvy self-promoter if there ever was one – welcomed the challenge of seeing who would get the most first-week album sales. And thus began one of hip-hop’s most celebrated battles, with both artists adopting different strategies.

50 Cent launched a national campaign and hit all major US publications to boast about his coming victory.

“It's great marketing – for Kanye West,” he told USA Today. “But I sell way more records than Kanye West, and I generate way more interest than Kanye West.

“They think they can match us up, but they'll find out when that week goes by and the sales come back – this is no rivalry."

West took his sales pitch abroad with a particular focus on the UK. He previewed snippets of the album on British variety show The Friday Night Project and dropped further fresh material at a secret London gig.

Upon returning to the US, West hosted an album listening party in a New York City theatre.

That transatlantic approach ultimately worked, with industry magazine Billboard reporting that West garnered 957,000 album sales and bested 50 Cent's tally of 691,000 copies.

More than the fun-yet-fierce rivalry, the battle went on to be regarded as a pivotal moment for gangsta rap as it surrendered its position as the most popular hip-hop genre to make way for the more adventurous sounds West and Drake would eventually take to the top of the charts.

2. The mass saturation of ‘Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (2010)

The standard approach to releasing a hyped album is to release market-researched singles and keep the rest of the material under wraps before the big date draws near.

Not so for West.

Two months before the release of his 2010 career-best album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West launched the Good Fridays series in which a new track would be made available each Friday on his website.

Up to 14 songs were released before the 13 tracks comprising My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Was that too much Kanye West for the fans? Not at all.

West and his team correctly assumed the roll-out would only increase anticipation in the weeks leading up to the album release.

It also helped that the material on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy blew the solid Good Fridays songs out of the water.

Such was its quality that the album went on to be regarded as West’s masterpiece.

3. The chaos and confusion with ‘The Life of Pablo’

It's the kind of chaotic campaign that would drive the most seasoned music executive into early retirement. Nobody other than West knew what was going on in the run up to The Life of Pablo release in 2016.

Then again, maybe the answer lay in the title all along.

This was a roll-out made on the fly and full of live, off-the-cuff announcements and retractions.

Hints of chaos emerged a few weeks before the initial February 14 release, with the album undergoing a number of name changes, including So Help Me Gold and Waves.

An avid Twitter user at the time, West would drop various evolving tracklists online with different guest artists.

Without a release day announced, West then premiered a version of the album at a US fashion show for his Yeezy label, followed by a performance on Saturday Night Live on Valentine’s Day when he announced that the album was available to stream.

Only that it wasn't totally available.

Fans were enraged to discover The Life of Pablo was exclusive to the platform, Tidal.

Further complicating matters was West reportedly being unsatisfied with the project. He spent the proceeding months working on various versions of the album – from nixing songs and adding new instrumentation – before releasing the present version two months later in April on various platforms.

Fans and critics accused West for cynically profiteering from the double move. In a 2020 interview with GQ magazine, West addressed the rancour by alluding that his approach in the studio is similar to those adopted in the fashion world where iterations are made when required.

"Nothing is ever done," he declared.

4. The surprise and grace of 'Jesus is King' (2019)

After the relatively serene release of the previous two albums, 2018's Ye and Kids See Ghosts, which included viral, celebrity-studded listening sessions in a ranch in the rural state of Wyoming, the ominous echoes of the Life of Pablo campaign surrounded the roll-out of Jesus is King in 2019.

For one thing, the album was supposed to be called Yandi, for which West already previewed tracks to US publications in 2018.

However, and perhaps owing to the growing uproar regarding West's unabashed support for former US president Donald Trump, West receded from public view and quietly dumped the project.

He returned to the limelight in January 2019 and debuted his Sunday Service Choir, a gospel group performing spiritual versions of hit tracks.

The social media attention to the shows, performed and recorded mostly from his Los Angeles property, resulted in one of the most unlikely gospel albums ever released by a music superstar.

Was that part of the greater plan? Also, what happened to Yandi?

Only West knows.

Updated: August 10th 2021, 5:35 AM
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