A portrait of a clown, part one: It’s late July, 2021 and a line of text accelerates across continents. “Kanye West Presents: A Donda Listening Event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, this Thursday.” Following a series of misfires, the megalithic rapper’s tenth album finally looks done-zo. In comes a slick ad, aired at the NBA Finals, featuring a firm release date: the 23rd of July.
Apple Music furnish the listening party playback, which becomes the music app’s most-streamed live event ever. You stay up until three in the morning to watch it. But when the “Louis Vuitton don” eventually slinks on stage, several hours late, the music is discernible. It’s like listening to a stolen hard drive with unfinished verses and tracking vocals. There’s no album.
Part two, of the clown portrait: West announces he is sleeping inside the MB Stadium until the album is signed-off. Livestreams from inside his backstage-at-WWE-looking room reveal collaborators lifting weights and getting haircuts, but not making music. Another listening party is announced: Demna Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga and cofounder of hyper-hipster brand Vetements, is brought on board, to oversee the visuals. Shit has to be done the second go. More press releases are sent.
Two weeks after the first party, Apple Music host the playback, which once again becomes their most-streamed live event Of All Time (Of All Time!), toppling West’s previous record by a couple mil). Kid Cudi, Jay Z, Roddy Ricch, Westside Gunn, Playboi Carti, Fivio Foreign and more all appear, sliding onto tracks that sound more finished than the first listening party. One performance features West ascending, like an angel slash UFO victim, toward the stadium’s ceiling. It’s meatier than listening sesh one.
Again, there’s no album release. However, the red puffa jacket ‘Ye wears during the event – the latest fashion-bag from his Gap collaboration – is put on sale by the dad-adored brand. Previous releases of the coat’s light blue colour-way allegedly raked in $7 million overnight. So, timing is right.
A portrait of a clown, part trés: It’s the 18th of August and another listening party is announced, taking place almost a month after the first one. With no album available to stream, you’re in desperate-Kanye-West-fan territory. So you come up with a theory: he’s turning the often-unseen process of creating an album into a listener-experienced, multi-ticketed event. What a genius!
Regardless of if an unfinished album was intended, Donda’s crawl-out is the first time we've seen a blockbuster-level rap album, plus a stadium-size stage show, take form in real time, on a multimillion dollar scale.
Clown hat or not, at a time when an albums’ newsworthiness can last less than a week, where records are dropped constantly by surprise, Donda remains present. A month on and without a release, that’s massive.
Crucially – for a record sans a streamable album – Donda’s non-release has already made more money than most musicians ever will. The second Mercedes Benz event reportedly stacked up $7 million in merch sales. Demand for Yeezy apparel and footwear also surged by 347 percent during the rollout, according to The Sole Supplier. Add to the fact that the livestream broke Apple Music records and followed ads for Nike and Beats, Kanye continues to cement into a corporation, as well as artist.
Parallels link to Frank Ocean’s Endless roll-out, where everyone’s favourite new jewellery-maker spent close to a million years building a staircase on a recorded stream. Or PJ Harvey’s month-long “Recording In Progress” exhibition at London’s Somerset House, in 2015, where listeners were invited to see the Mercury-prize-winning artist create an album in real time. Or even ‘Ye’s The Life Of Pablo album, which continued to be edited – with new versions dropped to streaming services – months after its release.
On the 26th of August, the listening experience will arrive in Chicago, West’s home city. As desperation grows, this could be the last listening party before the final product. But as this roll-out proves, waiting is wealth, and – according to last weekend – will include incel-level beef with Drake.