Without a Word: How Kanye West Launched His Album Donda to His Church

Image: Kanye West Presents Donda/Apple Music

On Thursday, July 22, 2021, Kanye West set up his sanctuary at Mercedes Benz stadium, a listening party for his upcoming album Donda. The event sold out a few days prior, with a capacity of 42,000. Trapital’s Dan Runcie does some napkin math and sums it up well, “Very few artists can pull that off.” The unofficial streaming count ticks in at 3.3 million viewers, which I’m frankly surprised at (there’s just over 38,000 at an unofficial Twitch replay), but I guess I shouldn’t be.

Dissect’s Cole Cuchna writes, “Man I love album rollouts from the heavyweights. Nothing like seeing so many people excited about MUSIC. I can’t really explain it but witnessing that really makes me happy. Like just knowing you’re in the middle of a MOMENT.” I feel exactly the same way; less so than in my younger years, but still enjoying the excitement of a cultural moment. 

There was a time when being a fan of Kanye West’s work or persona was, somewhat, acceptable. That time has long passed; being a fan meant justifying his actions or people’s (mis)perceptions of him, and thus many retired. Gene Park, whose bio used to say “defending kanye since 2006,” retired it. And yet, like the fans who stay quiet, he’s still not gotten over being a fan. That’s what I wanted this post to be about—the fans that power Kanye West’s work. But of course, it became a little bigger than that.

West’s delay of the long-awaited Donda album—from July 23, 2021 to August 6, 2021—extends the moment a little more for authors like me to write about it. (This is a blog, but I’ll never refer to myself as a blogger, “I know, I know, I shouldn’t even bother…”)

Image: Yeezy Season 3/PhotosofKanye

The event was framed as a “listening party,” so I foolishly expected Kanye to plug in his laptop to the stadium’s sound system like he did for The Life of Pablo at the Yeezy Season 3 fashion show at Madison Square Garden. 

If that sounds like gibberish to you, it’s literally what happened—he previewed his album at his fashion show for Adidas at Madison Square Garden. It supposedly streamed on TIDAL, where I supposed I watched it; it was one of my favorite moments in 2010s music. 

Image: Imgur/via Reddit

This one wasn’t dissimilar; just Kanye in a mask that obscured his face, a Yeezy Gap jacket and pants, Yeezy boots, and possibly his Yeezy Stem Player. He walked, jumped, knelt, and ran around confidently to new music. He also, in Kanye fashion, started two hours late when the event was supposed to end. I had a meeting just before and I was concerned I’d missed half of it, but I still waited literally an hour for it to happen. 

You’ll have to excuse me not for being verbose; I know I could’ve cut to the chase, but if you’re reading a piece about Kanye West’s listening party, you have the time. I hope you’re a fan, because if you are, then we can geek out on this shit. 

So I want to take this chance to ask the question again, which was the whole point of this piece, Why Yeezy, and Why Now? It’s what I was starting to work my way towards with Kanye West’s Religion, and Kanye West’s Future. I don’t know when an official Part 3 will come out; this is certainly not it—but I’m moseying my way towards it. My thesis is that Kanye West and Yeezy bear close resemblances to religion, similarly to other companies like Peloton, or Elon Musk and Tesla.

In my earlier pieces, I applied sociologist Émile Durkheim’s definition of religion to Kanye West and Yeezy, which consists of three elements: 

  • “A unified system of beliefs and practices”—the values, practices, and beliefs that bind Kanye’s followers to his religion
  • “Sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden”—Kanye himself, his creative process, and his products (see the Kanye halo effect)
  • “One single moral community called a Church”—the companies, communities, and individuals who have bought into Kanye West’s beliefs and practices

In Kanye West’s Religion, and Kanye West’s Future, I covered the unified system of beliefs; not so much the practices. My recent piece on the Yeezy Collection took a very brief look at one of the sacred things that West makes—namely his jacket, but also the masks. It also covered the Church of Kanye West, which I want to go into today. 

The Church of Kanye West

Image: Interior of the Sint-Odulphuskerk in Assendelft, Pieter Jansz/Rijksmuseum

Despite being far from the most popular artist today, Kanye West remains one of the most influential. And that’s because West’s creative and corporate collaborators, fanbase, and prior cultural impact continue to amplify his voice. His current campaign and rollout is one which doesn’t involve him speaking—the complete opposite of his 2013 Yeezus one, which involved him performing at his concerts, shouting out his “motivational streams of consciousness,” and hoarsely rasping out interviews. In a sense, Kanye West was preaching, and the people were listening.

The Artists

At the core of the church is the team that runs it—namely Kanye’s team. For example, Graphic designer Joe Perez has referred to one of West’s prior collectives, organized as DONDA, as the “Beatles of creative.” If you want a dive into who was working specifically with DONDA, check out this thread. On a separate note, Virgil Abloh, probably the most prominent of Kanye’s prior creative collaborators, now helms LVMH. Mowalola Ogunlesi leads design for Yeezy Gap. The core team is a component that deserves its own piece; for now, they are the crucial elements of the team that make everything under the brand Kanye West.

Then, there’s the greater artist community, outside of Kanye’s team—each with their own following. Jay-Z made a collaborative album with Kanye and a reappearance on this latest album. Ex-wife Kim Kardashian is a co-parent and still appeared at the show. Pusha T used to be the president of Kanye’s label, G.O.O.D. Music. In the past, Lou Reed has praised his work, Donald Glover has called himself the son of Kanye, and even rival Drake, who has had an up and down relationship with Kanye, has called him his favorite artist and attributes his career to him. There are also all of the feature artists, both appearing as features on Kanye’s songs, or with Kanye appearing on their songs. Then there are the architects, but let’s leave them out of it—since (I think!) they’re on payroll.

The artist community’s relationship with Kanye West also deserves a post of its own, and a separate one for Yeezy (and how Yeezy capitalizes on social media, hype, and luxury), so I’ll leave this here for now—I’m not fully satisfied with it, but just wanted to make a quick list of the people affiliated with the Church of Kanye. I wrote this first because they’re a part of his creative process, which is the engine that keeps this whole thing moving.

The Corporations

Corporations are a significant part of the Church of Kanye. I won’t say much about the record label, but that’s how Kanye’s financial capabilities first started. The label used to have something of an employer-employee relationship with Kanye, but he’s no longer reliant on them. That’s largely because two Fortune 500 companies started working together with him and his company: Adidas (ranked 480) and Gap (ranked 221).

Bloomberg reports that the Yeezy Adidas collaboration netted $191 million in royalties in 2020. With Yeezy Gap, Yeezy also stands to gain hundreds of millions not just in royalties, but also in Gap stock. These business ventures have officially vaulted Kanye into billionaire status (“Now I can give a dollar to every person on Earth” he sang on one of his latest songs), which means easier access to more capital. If Kanye went $53 million in personal debt trying to fund his clothing ventures as a recording artist, just imagine how much greater financial leverage he has now.

Image: YEEZY Athlet by ilya kolganov/Behance

The thing most fascinating to me about Yeezy is the products it can potentially launch independently. Whether it’s with a corporate collaborator or on its own, the company seems to be informally working on speculative stuff all the time—in part 2, I covered the toothbrushes, the headphones, and the prefabricated shelters

As an aside on corporations, there are also many smaller such deals; for example, he’s a somewhat prominent shareholder in Square via TIDAL

The corporations enable West to grow his Yeezy team, but also to use their infrastructure as production and distribution networks for his art and his products. It also makes a great business case, enabling him with capital and leverage to go to banks, investors, and whomever else will be interested in funding him. It used to be that Kanye would publicly plead for funding from Disney’s Bob Iger or Mark Zuckerberg. Just a few years later, West, his corporate collaborators, and his team have manoeuvred the company into a place where he will be the one being courted.

The Fanbase

Image: Axel Antas-Bergkvist/Unsplash 

Nothing happens without Kanye West’s fans. There won’t be anyone to buy his hundreds of millions in products, there would be no one paying $65 for chicken fingers at his listening party, there wouldn’t be anything. 

Though without much deliberate organizing like Beyoncé’s Beyhive, or a clever name like Taylor Swift’s Swifties, Kanye’s fanbase is still just as fervent. There are few fanbases like Kanye fans. As this piece in Pitchfork sums up well, quoting Beats 1 DJ and Kanye superfan Nile “LowKey” Ivey:

Anybody expecting a mass exodus of diehard devotees doesn’t understand the bond these fans have with Kanye’s music. “There are things that Kanye has done and has put into his music that a lot of people can relate to,” he says. “Being an outcast. Growing up in a rough city. Feeling like an outsider. Doing things that people said you couldn’t do. Rising to the top and being the best out. Kanye has given us all these things. I keep going back to that point of relatability, because a lot of artists don’t give us that.

“Music means a lot to people,” he continues. “It saves people from suicide, from the bad things in their lives, and Kanye has been explicit about what it saved him from. So people pull from those elements and think they got to be the knight in shining armor to save Kanye in return: ‘I gotta be that fan that defends him no matter what!’ I know that sounds ridiculous, but that’s the mindset. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.”  

While Kanye’s content and products were the initial reasons they got together, this community of people have gravitated towards each other. They subscribe to Kanye’s unified beliefs and practices. As Ivey says, they can relate to the stories he tells through his music. Many of them are professional and amateur artists—for example, Cole Cuchna in season 2 of Dissect, broke down Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and was recognized by the New York Times. Then there are mashup concerts like Yeethoven. Others are followers of fashion, or culture, or simply love tagging along for the ride. 

“Go listen to all my music, it’s the codes of self esteem. It’s the codes of who you are,” he says in the Zane Lowe (2013) interview. “If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me. You’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe that you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.”

Durkheim’s concept of collective effervescence suits this fanbase extremely well. It’s summarized as:

Moments in societal life when the group of individuals that makes up a society comes together in order to perform a religious ritual. During these moments, the group comes together and communicates in the same thought and participates in the same action, which serves to unify a group of individuals. When individuals come into close contact with one another and when they are assembled in such a fashion, a certain “electricity” is created and released, leading participants to a high degree of collective emotional excitement or delirium. This impersonal, extra-individual force, which is a core element of religion, transports the individuals into a new, ideal realm, lifts them up outside of themselves, and makes them feel as if they are in contact with an extraordinary energy.

The listening party at Mercedes Benz Arena was one such session, but nowadays these moments happen without much direct input from Kanye himself. Every Yeezy shoe drop creates one of these moments. So does every new leak of allegedly scrapped songs (which creates a fascinating perception—many of these fans got together originally to find and source new leaks of this since scrapped album, Yandhi. There’s something interesting about the taboo feeling of having a file you’re not supposed to have, and not knowing when the polished original will come out; it elevates the original into a more sacred space). 

Asides from spending hundreds or thousands of dollars each year, they put their time into Kanye. This community found Kanye collaborator KayCyy Pluto’s brother. They listen to podcasts like Dissect or shows like Yeethoven. They used to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians for snippets of Kanye. They track airplanes to see who’s flying into Wyoming to possibly record with Kanye. They listen to interviews when other artists talk about their experiences with Kanye. They track social media to piece together the creative process taking place

Anyway, I’m going to draw the line here; I used the word “They,” but I check these forums pretty often—less now than before, but still enough to follow along. It would be curious to interview an actual trained, proper, sociologist about this. I just think the ideas are related and really interesting. If you’re a sociologist who studied Durkheim, let’s talk!

The Cultural Impact

Image: Damian Barczak/Unsplash 

As a recording artist alone, Kanye West has made a significant impact in culture. Winning 22 Grammys, and arguably short a few from his 70 nominations, West is an outlier even as a mainstream recording artist. By contrast, Jay-Z has one over him as of July 2021, Childish Gambino has 5, Drake has 4 for 47 nominations (the DiCaprio of the Grammys), 50 Cent has 1, and Travis Scott has a goose egg. Not that any of this matters to Kanye—he decided to urinate on the Grammys just to prove his point. Yeah, you read that right. 

Similarly, in 2015, Elon Musk wrote in Kanye West’s Time 100 entry:

Kanye West would be the first person to tell you he belongs on this list. The dude doesn’t believe in false modesty, and he shouldn’t. Kanye’s belief in himself and his incredible tenacity—he performed his first single with his jaw wired shut—got him to where he is today. And he fought for his place in the cultural pantheon with a purpose. In his debut album, over a decade ago, Kanye issued what amounted to a social critique and a call to arms (with a beat): “We rappers is role models: we rap, we don’t think.” But Kanye does think. Constantly. About everything. And he wants everybody else to do the same: to engage, question, push boundaries. Now that he’s a pop-culture juggernaut, he has the platform to achieve just that. He’s not afraid of being judged or ridiculed in the process. Kanye’s been playing the long game all along, and we’re only just beginning to see why.

Which West then elaborates on, just to be clear, he didn’t actually need the Time entry:

I know I’m the most influential
That TIME cover was just confirmation
This generation’s closest thing to Einstein
So don’t worry about me, I’m fine

West walks that thin line between validation and rejection—which he also participates in. He accepts the validation, then rejects it; he doesn’t want to be accepted, but only after he’s proven to everyone that he can be accepted. There’s the infamous Yeezus line—“As soon as they like you/Make them unlike you/’Cause kissing people’s asses is so unlike you.” 

Through Yeezy, Kanye West of course is no longer merely a recording artist. He is the helm and sole equity owner of a billion dollar company, which makes him a rather successful CEO, entrepreneur, and clothing designer. I can’t state this enough—while his music and cult of personality may not be for everyone, his clothing certainly seems to be.

Yeezy has made rich people want to look homeless. The Yeezy brand tops lists. The shoes resell for millions. This is just the tip of the iceberg. West’s and Yeezy’s respective cultural impacts continue to power Yeezy; that’s why the brand can remain practically silent, and retain its latent mystique. 

The Strategy of No Strategy is Paying Off

In 2013, Kanye West said, “I have this new strategy. It’s called no strategy…. This album is about giving. This whole process is all about giving no f—-s at all.” And so it is, that Kanye West and Yeezy continue to take people to church. The moment, of course, will come to an end as all moments do; but until then, the collective effervescence will continue to culminate. 

In the meantime, West and his musical collaborators have set up camp at Mercedes Benz Museum. He was scheduled to perform at Rolling Loud, which does not seem to be happening. And yet, the followers—and the unconverted—both are watching along, awaiting the moment Donda drops. With most artists, the certainty would bore; but the anticipation grows with the possibility it might not happen. 

I don’t have any lessons here, just an exploration into some of the components that make up Yeezy and Kanye West. And in this case, it was the people that power Kanye West’s brand the Yeezy business—an ode to the fans.

2 thoughts on “Without a Word: How Kanye West Launched His Album Donda to His Church

  1. Absolutely loved reading this all the way in South Africa. I am a huge sixty seven year old fan of Kanye!

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