The release of Kanye West’s new album, The Life of Pablo, is a testament to the enduring relevance of record albums even as people buy fewer of them year after year. Albums no longer possess any of the commercial power they once had. But they can create tent pole moments that generate awareness for an artist and support other commercial endeavors.
The Kanye formula for an album release combines Kanye’s penchant for creating controversy and cultural relevance with some confusion tossed in for good measure. It looks something like this:
- Months before the release date, stoke interest by leaving hints on social media that you’re going to drop some new music, even giving your new album a name, So Help Me God. Keep leaving hints on Twitter but don’t release any music, thus inspiring news articles such as “So Help Us God: Where’s Kanye West’s New Album?“
- Collaborate with a music giant and a hot star on a single to remind everyone that you exist, as he did when he created “FourFiveSeconds” with Paul McCartney and Rihanna
- In case no one noticed your single, draw attention to yourself by annoying Western Civilization with an ungracious remark about a popular Grammy Award winner. Break the Internet in the process.
- Continue to remind the world of your relevance by appearing at a major music festival, as he did by performing at the Glastonbury Festival. Surely Kanye was pleased that 135,000 people signed a petition against his appearance. You must be doing something right to generate that kind of reaction when you haven’t released new music in a few years.
- Keep your name and pending album in play by distracting, breaking, and confusing the Internet with the launch of a presidential bid.
- Finally release a song of your own (“Facts” in December 2015), announce a release date, and a new album name, Swish.
- As the date approaches, break the Internet (again) by sharing the track list on Twitter.
- Create confusion and conversation about you and your album by changing the name of the album (from Swish to Waves).
- Break the Internet (yet again) by getting into a Twitter beef with Wiz Khalifa, another hip-hop artist who just happens to be dropping a new album, too.
- Create more confusion and social media attention by changing the album name (yet again) — from Waves to The Life of Pablo.
- On release day, warm up your fans by jumping on Twitter to reveal the cover art for The Life of Pablo.
- Launch The Life of Pablo through a massive hybrid listening party/fashion show held at Madison Square Garden that also happens to unveil your Yeezy Season 3 line of clothing. Stream the show and the album on Tidal, thus attracting 20 million viewers and owning the Internet.
- For that added element of Kanye surrealism, at said listening party/fashion show, announce that you’re working on a video game, Only One, which centers on your late mother “traveling through the gates of heaven.” Demo the game with footage of your mother apparently sailing through clouds on the back of Pegasus.
- With the launch party over, start the whole process over again by rekindling a feud with one of music’s most powerful women over some controversial lyrics on The Life of Pablo, and, for, good measure, updating your track list for the already-released record album.
Kanye’s approach is full of plenty of Kanye flakiness, but he’s also following the most important rule to make a record album relevant: use the album to create a tent pole moment that supports another business venture.
For most artists, the record album launch supports a tour and all the merchandising revenue that comes with the tour, as Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Kate Perry’s Prism have done. In Kanye’s case, the release of The Life of Pablo supported Yeezy Season 3 collection, a line of sportswear that includes the Yeezy Boost 350 by Adidas.
By coupling the album with the unveiling of his fashion line, Kanye also creates cultural relevance for The Life of Pablo, as he taps into the deep cultural bond that has always existed between hip-hop and fashion.
Only a record album listening party could have attracted 20 million people to watch a Tidal live stream. Announcing a new song would have had nowhere near the impact or gravitas as sharing a more complete body of work.
Kanye adheres to many other modern-day rules for dropping record albums, including the use of social media to generate excitement and the creation of a visual totem through the record album art. Album cover art retains power as a visual totem, distributed across a musician’s website, social spaces, offline advertising, and merchandising. For instance, Lady Gaga did a masterful job telling visual stories through the cover for her latest album, ARTPOP, and her fans used the album as inspiration to create fan art.
For The Life of Pablo, Kanye has already shared not one but two album covers. Just as Lady Gaga relied on artist Jeff Koons to craft a visual icon for ARTPOP, so has Kanye relied on Belgian artist Peter De Potter to design the striking cover. De Potter is an evocative artist fond of re-contextualizing photos, clothing, objects, and drawings into abstract statements about society, in the grand tradition of modern art.
But the biggest coup for The Life of Pablo is getting attention — for Kanye, his music, and his fashion designs. It’s about getting 20 million eyeballs glued to a live stream to watch a bunch of models stand around wearing Yeezy Season 3 clothing. It’s about making #YeezySeason3 trend on Twitter and making The Life of Pablo and Kanye West the two most popular trending searches on Google. It’s about attract major coverage from media such as GQ and The New York Times. Not bad for a dying art form.
And Kanye is just warming up.