Feisty rapper's public scuffles haven't affected sales

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” Kanye West’s latest release, had every reason to be a sales failure.

For one, the album was released on the Monday of Thanksgiving week, putting him up against new discs from Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, My Chemical Romance and Ke$ha. Yet it managed to land in the No. 1 spot all the same, shipping out 496,000 copies.

Tally is far short of his 900,000-plus first week sales of “Graduation” in 2007, as well as the 1 million-plus tally for Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” earlier this fall. But given his competition and 2010’s reliably weakened sales numbers, it’s not anything to sneeze at.

These sorts of sales are all the more remarkable considering West’s recent habit of giving away music via weekly Web downloads; six of “Fantasy’s” 12 tracks had been previously offered for free.

In addition to an extra day of retail and near-universal praise (the record attained an overall rating of 92 on Metacritic, making it the best-reviewed new album release of the year), West benefitted from an increasingly-common Amazon.com practice of slashing prices on big-name debuts.

“Fantasy” was offered in mp3 form for $3.99 all week on Amazon, and perhaps not coincidentally, the album moved 45% of its total numbers in digital form, giving it the fourth-best digital-sales week of any record ever. (Earlier this year, the Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend both rode Amazon’s discounting to No. 1 debuts.)

But perhaps the most remarkable element of West’s success is that it comes despite his battered public persona. From his high-profile dustups with public figures ranging from Swift to Matt Lauer and George W. Bush, plus an off-the-record calling-out from Barack Obama, no artist since Eminem or Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose has seen such success arrive concurrently with such wide public criticism.

West’s career to date has obvious parallels to Rose’s, and “Fantasy” is in many ways a descendant of “Use Your Illusion,” GNR’s 1991 double album set.

Like Rose, West began his career as an unusually relatable pop music figure. Raised middle class, with none of the street hustler background (real or imagined) that informs so many rappers, West instead spoke on such topics as the frustrations of college and working at the Gap. Yet both artists rapidly moved from these humble early personae into theretofore-unseen degrees of musical opulence and paranoid lyrical insularity.

“Illusion” was a monolith that ran over 2½ hours, featuring several heavily orchestrated epics. To promote the record, Rose insisted on shooting elaborate musicvids, culminating in a $4 million-budgeted clip for “Estranged.”

While far shorter at 68 minutes, “Fantasy” nonetheless lists 44 additional musicians in the liner notes, ranging from string sections to Elton John, Jay-Z, Justin Vernon and Chris Rock in guest spots. There are several long musical interludes and codas, with album centerpiece “Runaway” stretching to more than nine minutes. In lieu of a traditional video, West instead directed a lavish, 35-minute art film incorporating his music. No rap record has ever been so elaborately produced.

Like Rose, West is obsessed with his own sense of persecution — “Fantasy” includes direct attacks on the cast of “SNL” and the writers of “South Park,” while Rose famously challenged several music critics, by name, to public fisticuffs on “Illusion.” Combined with the record’s detours into misogyny and unexpected political outbursts (both also Rose hallmarks), West has demanded considerable indulgence from fans accustomed to his radio-ready pop.

The excesses of “Illusion” eventually proved fatal to Guns N’ Roses, as all original members save Axl subsequently left the band, leaving Rose to spend 17 years (and a reported $10 million) producing a proper follow-up. West has no questioning bandmates with which to contend, but it’s also hard to see where he goes from here. One hopes the warning signs from pop’s most famous prior over-reaching blacksheep will not go unnoticed.

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