Artists have always had to hype their work. Actors, directors, musicians, authors — everyone goes on press junkets to peddle their latest project. Some artists have perfected media stunts to drum up buzz in such an artful way that it almost eclipses the work itself. (See: Lil Nas X’s entire career, but specifically his knock-off demon Nikes.) And then there is Kanye West.
I’m not here to defend Kanye West. I know full well that by remaining a Kanye fan, I have consented to his never-ending rollercoaster of trolling and tomfoolery. I have agreed to paint my face with clown makeup as we now enter the fourth week since he blew past the July 23, 2021 launch date for his 10th album Donda. (Which is actually almost a year after his initial July 24, 2020 release date.) And yet, his Donda shenanigans illustrate the pitfalls of content launches in the streaming era.
The album was first teased in March 2020, when Pusha T hinted a new Kanye album was in the works. Another hint came in a Wall Street Journal feature. That was followed by more breadcrumbs, culminating in a supposed July 2020 release date. July came and went, though Kanye continued to drop snippets of songs, tracklists, and even album artwork. And then, you know, he ran for president.
Rumours started up again in March this year, with the first surprise listening party happening on July 18. Then Kanye brought Apple into the whole damn thing, with a live-streamed listening party from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Apple Music for July 22. The live stream was chaos, with a silent Kanye appearing in an Akira-inspired outfit, two hours late. Needless to say, an album did not materialise on Apple Music. Then on August 5, Apple dropped a second Beats by Dre commercial starring Sha’Carri Richardson that featured a snippet of a supposed Donda song for an August 6 release date. It also listed a second Apple Music live stream, this time from Kanye’s bunker in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (You see, he’d never left the stadium after the first listening party.) Again, the album did not appear. And now, Kanye has announced yet another listening party in Chicago on August 26. If you google what the release date is now, it’s a cryptic August 2021. Sure.
This isn’t the first time Kanye’s delayed an album. But is it a coincidence that these types of hijinks have only worsened in the streaming era? Probably not.
With streaming has come unprecedented access. All you have to do is pay a subscription and you can listen to millions of songs ad-free. There’s no more hunting in the bargain bin of Tower Records, burning CDs, or debating which CDs are worth actually paying retail price. For better or worse, you don’t even have to curate a collection anymore. You can just search for it. But while streaming has been massively convenient for the masses, artists have long argued it’s a bad deal. One of the most famous examples is when Taylor Swift penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing free music services, and followed it up a few months later by pulling her entire catalogue from Spotify.
It was a nice try, but ultimately meaningless. We’re all on streaming services now, there’s no getting around it. Swift returned to Spotify in 2018, after Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said he travelled to Nashville “many, many times” to convince Swift “why streaming mattered.” He won. But that also means artists have had to get creative to stay relevant in an era where you could listen to anything you want at any time. Hence — the dumb shit. Kanye’s Donda release might be the most ridiculous, but it’s not as if he’s alone here. The past decade has been littered with stunt-y album launches, ranging from Beyonce’s self-titled album in 2013 to Frank Ocean’s Blonde. I mean, Lorde is selling Solar Power as a discless box, which is effectively a download code and some pretty postcards.
You’d think Apple would be pissed about Kanye but actually, the longer he delays, the better it is for them. Apple gets people flocking to its live streams. It blocks you from taking screenshots, so you have to go find mirrors on YouTube or scour Twitter for live updates if you want to be part of the moment. You can ignore it and maintain a shred of sanity — or you can crack Don Cheadle jokes with the rest of us. You can’t watch it later because then, you might miss out on the changes from one listening party to the next. You might just opt to subscribe to avoid the hassle of it all. Every time Kanye doesn’t deliver, it’s just another exclusive win for Apple Music.
The most monetizable ending to this is for Kanye to drop Donda as the ‘one more thing’ surprise during September’s iPhone 13 event. Apple trotted out Lana del Rey, another problematic singer, for its 2018 event to debut her incredibly OK song “How to Disappear.” Considering the Beats by Dre marketing and Apple Music exclusive live streams, surely this is the only logical conclusion to the most ridiculous of Kanye launches in recent memory. And then, when Tim Cook signs off, maybe we’ll all look on our iPhones to find Donda’s already been downloaded, much like that one U2 album that no one asked for.
Donda is just the latest in our collective addiction to seemingly exclusive moments that dissolve into the ether — only to later be cobbled together into a patchwork internet history of similar events we all forget about two days later. By the time Donda arrives, the music might not even be the most memorable thing about it. If all you want is to listen to the music, the pageantry is annoying, puerile, and infuriating. And yet, here I am, constantly refreshing Apple Music, waiting for Donda to drop.