By Jared Dudley
Kanye West is a person who knows how to get attention.
Of course, this has been evident for over a decade. From interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at MTV’s Video Music Awards in 2009, to making a meteoric impact on the fashion industry, few artists have grab headlines like West. Even among his peers of bombastic rappers, West has always stood out.
Rising stars and well-established industry giants alike would constantly open up about their desire to collaborate with the man who changed rap music. Four months before the Taylor Swift incident, an up-and-comer named Drake told MTV News that “It’s an honor that [Kanye is] even looking at me as somewhat of an equal, somewhat of a peer. I think he’s one of the greatest to ever do it.”
Oh, how simple everything used to be.
12 years later, Kanye West, also known as Ye, has been well-established as an indisputable cultural icon. He has cemented himself as someone who, despite the constant controversy, has influenced popular art and media in a way that no public figure has yet to do in the 21st century.
On August 29, 2021, West released his tenth studio album, Donda. As his longest album, the playtime stretches well past the requirement for a feature-length movie, it has already proven to be divisive among fans. However, the most interesting discussion surrounding Donda isn’t about the album itself, but the tumultuous release leading to its debut on streaming services.
The first listening party for Donda took place on July 22 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. After arriving on stage nearly two hours late in an all-red outfit, West spent most of the show standing still, occasionally stumbling around and even dropping to his knees in a prayer-like position. Meanwhile, massive speakers played snippets of unreleased tracks.
Despite the confusion, many were still hopeful that the listening party would lead into the release of Donda at midnight the next day. Last-minute shenanigans were nothing new for Kanye West releases. For his fans, this all seemed to just be par for the course. When they woke up the next morning, however, Donda had still not materialized.
West spent the next two weeks living in the stadium as he and his collaborators worked to finish the album. The fruits of their labor would be shown off to the public at a second listening party at the same venue. On the night of Aug. 5, West donned an all-black outfit and took the stage to promote Donda for once again. Aside from a mattress and some personal items, the stage was barren.
Right off the bat, it was clear the energy of this performance would be different. Full-length tracks with completed production played before West’s collaborators and peers, also all dressed in black, formed a circle around him. The circle quickly grew into a crowd as the songs continued. The audience loved what they were hearing. The performance ended with West getting into the bed before being lifted up high into the air as stage lights shone upward into the sky above. Initial impressions of the listening party were overwhelmingly positive.
Surely, West was finally ready to release his magnum opus. Midnight came and went. In the morning, fans woke up disappointed but not very surprised. Donda was still not out.
The third and final listening party before Donda’s release wouldn’t take place until Aug. 26 in Chicago, Illinois. This is where things get weird. The Chicago listening party was by far the most outrageous event of the three. West arrived on stage by coming out of the front door of a scale replica of his childhood home with Marilyn Manson, who is currently embroiled in four lawsuits from women who have accused him of multiple instances of sexual assault, and a masked DaBaby, who recently made homophobic comments while performing at Miami’s Rolling Loud Festival.
Viewers were shocked and confused but didn’t have long to process West’s decision to platform an alleged abuser and outwardly homophobic rapper before setting himself on fire, burning the entire house down in the process. The performance ended with Kim Kardashian, who filed for a divorce with West earlier this year, coming onto the stage in a wedding gown and veil to recite wedding vows along with her ex-husband. A source has since told People Magazine that the pair have a “friendly relationship,” but are not remarrying.
Arguably the most unexpected facet of the third party came from popular YouTuber, videogamedunkey, who on Aug. 10, pretended to leak Donda on Twitch, a live streaming service that commonly focuses on video game live streaming and broadcasts.
He played songs that were obviously fake and comedic, including one that sampled music from an obscure children’s film called Strawinsky and the Mysterious House. 16 days later, many were caught off guard while watching a live stream of the third listening party when the exact song was played for an extended time over the speakers. It even ended up in the final album, appearing at the very end of “Remote Control.”
On the following Sunday morning, Donda was finally released. With it came a few irregularities. Firstly, the album was fully censored, featuring songs that included profanity but had mature language edited out and muted. It isn’t uncommon for popular releases to have clean edits that can be played on the radio, but as of this writing, an uncensored version of Donda has yet to be released, and may never even come out.
Secondly, was the exclusion of the song “Jail pt 2.” The song has since been added to the album but West claims was initially pulled at the last second due to the inclusion of DaBaby. West also claimed via Instagram in a now-deleted post that his record label, Universal Music, released the album without his permission.
Thirdly is the album art itself: there is none. Donda appears on streaming services as a completely black square. Whether this was an intentional decision by West or not is still up for debate, as he hasn’t publicly commented on the black square.
So the album is out, but where does that leave us? What have we learned from the Donda release saga? It was an unbelievable look into how media, both social and traditional, intermingle with popular artists and how each can have a lasting influence on the other.
It became a prolonged event that eclipsed even the actual album in popularity and cultural zeitgeist. It also revealed that West doesn’t care if his collaborators are alleged serial abusers. So there’s that.
Only one thing is certain: Donda has arrived, and the public’s image of Kanye West will never be the same.
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