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Ranking Kanye West’s most iconic album rollouts

Words: Dylan Murphy
Artwork: Aaron Fahey

Creativity, chaos and controversy are just a few words that come to mind when describing Kanye West’s approach to releasing albums. With his 10th Studio album Donda arriving tomorrow, we’ve revisited cultural disruptor’s five most iconic album rollouts.

Before the streaming era, there were well-established rules for releasing an album. Announce the title, share a single and then showcase the album artwork before CDs land on the shelf.

The most effective rollouts sprinkled a little intrigue or controversy to ramp up the conversation, but for the most part, efficient releases stuck pretty rigidly to those guidelines. Great releases, however, were steeped in their own folklore that sparked the imagination or were born out of chaos that drove conversation.

Equally, they could stir up beef and become proof of concept for new marketing techniques, while others took full advantage of new technology to rip up the aforementioned status quo of how music is delivered and consumed.

Whereas now, dropping in an album in a world where we have instantaneous access to people’s eyeballs ongoing battle for attention and for many artists, nailing just one of these approaches would be considered a success. However, for Kanye West, indulging in a few, if not all, is his bread and butter.

From directly challenging competitors on record sales to dominating the timeline with utter chaos and confusion on if, when and how his album will drop, there’s arguably no one better at making themselves the centre of attention. While in recent years, it got tiring with repeated missed release dates and subsequently underwhelming albums, it’s inarguable that at his peak Kanye had the world in the palm of his hands.

On the eve of the release of his tenth studio album Donda, we’ve examined Kanye West’s five most iconic album rollouts.

5

The College Dropout

Everyone loves a good super(anti?) hero origin story and there’s few more compelling than Yeezy’s.

Laughed out of the studios he tried rapping in, A&Rs doubting his vision and being pigeonholed as a producer – these are just some of the obstacles Kanye West came up against in his journey to become a bonafide solo artist.

After a late-night recording session in 2002, Kanye fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car in a head-on collision that broke his jaw in three places. The resulting reconstructive surgery meant his jaw was wired shut and whilst stuck in a hotel room after being discharged he recorded ‘Through The Wire’.

The track is symbolic of his determination to let nothing get in his way to becoming the best, but the song itself is only the beginning and in truth, the rollout for The College Dropout started with his mixtape, Get Well Soon.

While Rockafella Records signed Ye as an artist, it was to secure his services as a producer rather than giving him licence to take on a career as a rapper. Tired of not being prioritised by his label and being doubted by his peers he took matters into his own hands. Kanye released Get Well Soon himself, spent $40,000 on a music video for an early version of ‘Through The Wire’ that featured on the project and rented Jay-Z’s nightclub in New York for the premiere of the tape independently from the label. It was a masterstroke as it forced the Rockafella Records team to attend their premiere of an artist that was on their books at one of the founder’s clubs.

It was a smash with the label and resulted in Kanye getting the push he’d always wanted, a double-platinum record, 10 GRAMMY nominations and two million copies sold in five months.

4

Graduation

What’s hip hop without beef?

In 2007, the stage was set for a clash of the titans-esque release day showdown as Ye and Fiddy were both gearing up to release their follow-ups to the sophomore efforts that made them household names.

It was almost too perfect.

Both were leaders in their respective sub-genres; Kanye was an art school dropout sampling soul and 50 was raised in the trenches of New York rapping about the streets. Both were repping different sides of the same coin and interestingly both had persevered through life-threatening injuries (Kanye’s near-fatal car crash and 50 reportedly being shot 9 times). So when Kanye’s label moved his album release date for Graduation to the same day as 50’s Curtis the game was on.

Kanye was billed as an underdog that wanted to dethrone 50 and shift hip hop in a new direction and the gears were in motion as he pushed the genre into uncharted territory with the release of the Daft Punk assisted, anime-inspired ‘Stronger’.

Following insults on radio and back and forths in the media, Kanye came out on top, notching 960K units his first week to the G-Unit rapper’s 690k and subsequently he ushered in a new era of hip hop and introduced the stadium filler sound of Graduation that would catapult him to icon status.

3

Yeezus

If Graduation took advantage of a traditional lengthy rollout to drum up hype, then Yeezus innovated by flipping that idea on its head.

On May 1 2013, Ye tweeted “June Eighteen” and had journalists scrambling to post articles on a possible release date. Without warning, he followed up just over two weeks later by beaming a brand new song ‘New Slaves’ across 66 locations on video projections across the globe. The mystique of the album’s unveiling ripped up the rulebook on the industry’s prescribed and predictable approach to releasing major albums. There was no radio premiere for a single, no official announcement that proceeded it beyond a tweet and no real cover – it was a see-through CD case. It was unfamiliar for fans everywhere and when he followed up the video projections by heading to Saturday Night Live to perform ‘Black Skinhead’ and ‘New Slaves’, the hype train was at full throttle.

Going on a trademark rant during a performance at The Governor’s Ball, Kanye said, “With this album, we ain’t drop no single to radio. We ain’t got no NBA campaign, nothing like that. Shit, we ain’t even got no cover. We just made some real music. Like, back when I used to make albums and shit, a couple years ago, we’d go away and work on the album for months or something. We’d always have to hold the album to like August, or September or till the perfect moment and shit. Because it means that ‘I think would sell more if it get more audience and shit.’ But honestly, at this point when I listen to radio, that ain’t where I want to be no more.”

Its release not only marked a watershed moment in how albums could buck the trend of following a few predictable steps and drop out of nowhere to huge success but also a movement towards streaming services and away from radio and more traditional forms of media.

2

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

There’s few recorded moments that provide second-hand embarrassment quite like Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMA Awards.

In as quickly as you can say ‘I’mma let you finish” Kanye went from cultural icon to the ‘abomination of obama’s nation’ and the resulting backlash led to a self-imposed exile in Hawaii. Kanye wanted to respond in the only way he knew how – through music.

This was no easy process, the Chicago rapper was public enemy number one at this point and he knew he had to produce his magnum opus if he were to recover. Everything had to be on point.

The first step was to invite a slew of the world’s most high profile acts to a studio he’d booked out indefinitely until the album was finished. There were strict rules. Having people turn up to the studio and collaborate in the usual way wasn’t going to cut it, there needed to be an environment that would evoke the records he needed to complete his redemption arc and ultimately one of the greatest albums of all time.

Rick Ross spoke on the studio sessions in his memoir saying:

“I started to gather that this wasn’t going to be my typical guest verse. The first thing I noticed were all these signs Kanye had put up on the walls.”

“NO TWEETING
NO HIPSTER HATS
ALL LAPTOPS ON MUTE
JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP SOMETIMES
NO TWEETING PLEASE THANK YOU
NO BLOGGING
NO NEGATIVE BLOG VIEWING
DON’T TELL ANYONE ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING WE’RE DOING!
NO RACKING FOCUS WHILE MUSIC IS BEING PLAYED OR MUSIC IS BEING MADE
TOTAL FOCUS ON THIS PROJECT IN ALL STUDIOS
NO ACOUSTIC GUITAR IN THE STUDIO
NO PICTURES”

It’s even rumoured that Ye made collaborators turn up in suits for the sessions – he meant business.

With the redemption narrative in full swing, Kanye stepped out from the shadows and release ‘Power’. It was the first single from his yet-unnamed album and on August 20 2010 he revealed he would share a brand new song every Friday until Christmas as part of ‘G.O.O.D Fridays’.

It was a masterstroke. Not only was he front and centre in the public’s consciousness for the rest of the year, but the gifts helped alleviate some of the ill-will from the VMA debacle before he would land the finisher move.

In October of 2010, Kanye premiered ‘Runaway’, his paradoxical apologetic toast to all the ‘Scumbags’ and ‘Assholes’ at the very awards ceremony that he imploded at the previous year and at once cemented his name in music folklore history.

1

The Life Of Pablo

Controversy, uncertainty and innovation are words that come to mind when thinking of the release of Kanye’s 2016 album The Life Of Pablo.

The rollout started in earnest on the final day of 2015, when Ye released ‘Facts’ and revealed a new album was on the way.

By this point, Twitter had become Kanye’s chaotic press release medium of choice and in the year that followed, he changed the name of his album three times going from So Help Me God to SWISH to WAVES.

He’d also reintroduce G.O.O.D Fridays by proxy when Kim Kardashian’s tweeted that ‘Real Friends’ was on the way and it would be the start of the iconic release series, before revealing that the project would land on February 11 2016.

In classic Kanye fashion, when February came around, he threw another spanner in the work when he confirmed the album was unnamed before tweeting “T.L.O.P”. He said anyone who guessed the new title of the album from the initials would get a free pair of Yeezys and tickets to Season 3, subsequently sending Twitter into orbit.

The scheduled release date of February 11 coincided with his Yeezy 3 fashion show in Madison Square Garden. Though he debuted the project (with an aux cable and a laptop no less) it was no clearer when the hell the album would drop.

Three nights and two new songs later, The Life Of Pablo was released after his performances of ‘Ultralight Beam’ and ‘Highlights’ on SNL, but it wasn’t without further controversy.

It landed exclusively on Jay-Z’s Tidal and was followed by tweets in support of Bill Cosby in light of his sexual assault allegations. Additionally, In another one of his trademark Kanyeisms he asked Mark Zuckerberg to invest $1 billion in his ideas. All after admitting he was $53 million in debt.

He completed an exhausting and unpredictable campaign by adding a new song with Sampha named ‘Saint Pablo’ after the album’s release calling it “a living breathing changing creative expression.”

Fraught with controversy and contradictions, it’s the most Kanye approach to releasing a Kanye album.