Another week, another blown Kanye West release date — this time, for a second time, with his long-delayed “Donda” album. First it was coming out in July 2020, then July 23 of this year, then August 6, now it’s apparently August 13 — or maybe August 15! — according to eagle-eyed sleuths who spotted the dates change on iTunes and Apple Music a few hours after it failed to arrive yet again this past Friday.
Of course, an album drop is never JUST an album drop for Kanye. His his past three major releases — “Life of Pablo,” “Ye,” and, well, “Donda” — have been accompanied by elaborate listening events. Hell, “Donda” has had two at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the damn thing still isn’t here, even though he went so far as to put on an elaborate, expensive stage show around him at the latest event, one that climaxed with him, yes, actually being lofted toward the stadium’s ceiling by near-transparent cables, bathed in white light, as if he were ascending to heaven.
So what’s with the delay? As with most things Kanye, it’s either his perfectionism or simply yet another way to keep fans engaged, interested, frustrated and outraged — envelopes he has been pushing since the beginning of his career nearly 20 years ago.
But industry sources, fans and others have been floating a different theory: That he’s waiting for Drake to announce a release date for his long-delayed new album, “Certified Lover Boy” — which the Canadian rapper has said will be out by the end of the summer — so he can square off against him in a release-date clash of the titans, like he did with 50 Cent almost 14 years ago.
In fact, now that he’s ascended to heaven, it’s just about the only way he could build even more anticipation around “Donda,” which he’s already premiered and changed twice.
In fact, the 2007 standoff with 50 — which saw both artists’ third albums, West’s “Graduation” and 50’s “Curtis,” dropping on the same day, 9/11 no less — was actually the most elaborate Kanye West release event. And a lot more was at stake than would be in a similar battle today.
Back in the day, before streaming services became the standard format for music, most fans actually had to pay for individual albums, via CDs, downloads or vinyl. Artists and labels were aware that most fans were only going to spend a certain amount of money per week on music, and forcing them to choose between two new albums on the same day did not make business sense. For decades, artists strenuously avoided releasing big albums or singles on the same day.
However, “cautious” is not a word that has ever been used to describe Kanye or 50 — who, in 2007, were pretty much kings of the game, with Jay-Z still “retired” at the time and in his last year serving as president/CEO of Kanye’s parent label, Def Jam Records.
At the time, West was still a rising star, with 50 the sales titan: Even in an era when CD sales were plummeting rapidly and the industry was being gouged by illegal downloading and other forms of piracy, his 2005 album “The Massacre” sold 1.5 million copies in its first week — one of the last albums to reach that million-debut-week milestone. West’s 2005 album, “Late Registration,” had shifted 860,000 units in its first week, but his popularity and influence were soaring.
Some two months before release date, the two began squaring off: On July 13, 50’s label Interscope, announced that the release date for “Curtis” had been moved from September 11 from September 4 in order to avoid the Labor Day holiday (this was when most people still bought music in stores). Six days later, sources confirmed that “Graduation” shifted from September 18 to September 11.
To the astonishment of the industry and the delight of fans, the battle was on.
The pair played up the rivalry for all it was worth. 50 claimed he would retire from making music if West outsold him in the first week, although he later dialed back those remarks. The two set up early skirmishes by releasing singles to build anticipation for their albums — West dropped two of his biggest songs, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger,” while 50 famously had a meltdown in G-Unit’s Midtown Manhattan offices, throwing his cell phone out the window and ripping a flat-screen TV from the wall, after learning the video for his Robin Thicke collaboration “Follow My Lead” had leaked, weeks before he’d planned to release it.
While sales projections for the two projects had been more or less even in the weeks leading up to the release, West’s lead widened in the days after the albums dropped — remember, the final tally would not be in until a week after release. In an effort to tip the scales, the pair ramped up their efforts that week: West popped up on the Emmy Awards while 50 undertook a “5 Borough Tour” of his hometown of New York City. During the week, 50 began lashing out at West’s label, Def Jam, claiming (without substantial evidence) that the company was purchasing copies of “Graduation” to boost sales.
In the end, as MTV News put it at the time, West “pounded” 50, posting 957,000 copies of “Graduation” against 691,000 copies of “Curtis,” per Nielsen SoundScan, the industry standard at the time.
“This is a great day for Kanye West and Roc-A-Fella Records and a fantastic day for hip hop and artistry,” said Jay-Z, then president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings (parent company of his Roc-A-Fella label, to which West is signed). “It’s a good sign that heartfelt, sincere and honest music can do these types of numbers.”
So — is West waiting for Drake’s long-awaited “Certified Lover Boy” album, which the Canadian superstar recently said he’d finally finished? While Drake is always feeding his audience with stand-alone songs, features and other media snacks, he hasn’t released a proper full-length album since “Scorpion,” just over three years ago. He’d originally promised that “Certified Lover Boy” would drop this past January, but backtracked.
And even though it’s a clash of the titans — there are no bigger names in hip-hop right now, and just a couple of others in pop music — what does a release-date stand-off mean in 2021? Presumably the race to a billion total streams for the albums would probably be the finish line. But the fact that streaming is measured by songs rather than albums — and the fact that artists often add more songs to albums in the days after release to help bump up numbers — makes this a difficult landmark to measure: First 24 hours, first week, etc. etc.
But that’s splitting hairs: Nothing makes headlines like conflict, and there’s no juicier one in music today than Kanye vs. Drake. Sources at both West’s and Drake’s labels declined to confirm release dates for the albums — but in 2021, superstar artists are the ones who decide when they’re dropping music, as West’s continually moving release dates prove. And the parent company for both artists’ labels is Universal Music Group — for which a streaming battle would be a win-win proposition.
So all bets are off. Get out the popcorn popper …