Five Reasons Why Kanye West’s ‘Donda’ Was Able to Score the Year’s Best First-Week Numbers

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Kanye West

No singles? No obvious pop songs? No Friday or Saturday numbers? No matter: Kanye West‘s Donda debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week, with 309,000 equivalent album units moved — in just five days of release, with the album dropping on the Sunday (Aug. 29) of the prior tracking week.

That’s the best single-week figure posted thus far in 2021, passing the 295,000 units moved by Olivia Rodrigo’s breakout album Sour — which, of course, had all the singles and pop songs you could ask for, as well as a full first week of release. It’s a fairly staggering number, and one that’s arguably the result of Donda‘s inspired release strategy and marketing (as well as the overall prominence of the artist behind it) as much as any of the music contained within.

Here are five reasons why Donda was able to pull off such a massive first week.

1. Anticipation, anticipation, anticipation. Few (if any) albums of recent years have been as inextricable from their rollouts as Donda. The month before its release saw multiple heavily hyped live stadium listening events — which helped make the album a blockbuster success for West before a second of it was ever officially released, and also made it one of the most buzzed-about releases of the young decade. What’s more, following those events, previously announced release dates for the albums came and went without the album actually appearing for sale or on streaming, building fan thirst for the album to a new extreme, and attracting at least the passing interest of many who were less invested. (Apple Music and iTunes promotion for the set was particularly heavy, likely aiding its record-setting first-week performance on the former.)

By the time the album actually was released, unexpectedly on a Sunday morning, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many music fans who weren’t at least aware of the album, and the long wait for its arrival. And of course, on that day, it quickly became the talk of social media, with fans and critics debating its merits, its length, and the changes from the versions that had previously been debuted at the recent live events. The result was an album that pretty much any slightly curious music fan almost had to listen to at least once, and that many fans dove into fully throughout the remainder of the week.

2. Special (and secret) guests. The supporting cast for Donda is formidable, including many of the current biggest artists in popular music; Lil Baby, The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Young Thug, Chris Brown, Pop Smoke, Roddy Ricch, Kid Cudi and Jay-Z among them. But you wouldn’t know any of them were on the album just from scanning the tracklist — no feature guests are officially credited on the set, a practice West largely pioneered with his The Life of Pablo LP a half-decade earlier. As shown by Pablo, as well as subsequent releases by star rappers like Travis Scott and J. Cole, unlisted features tend to drive more streams to a much-anticipated set, as listeners are somewhat forced to actually listen to the tracks to find out which other artists are on the album.

In the case of Donda, special attention was paid to a pair of guests who have been in the news recently for unfortunate reasons: DaBaby, the star rapper under fire for homophobic comments made at the Rolling Loud festival in July, and Marilyn Manson, the shock rocker now facing multiple accusations of sexual abuse and assault. Both made headlines for their appearances at the second Donda listening event, and their presence on the proper album also drew interest (albeit much of it understandably negative) towards the project — especially as “Jail pt 2,” the track with DaBaby’s contributions, took some time to become available on streaming, just extending the album’s presence in the news cycle following its release.

3. More tracks, more streams. While West took the less-is-more approach with his previous two solo projects, 2018’s seven-track Ye and 2019’s 11-track Jesus Is Kingtwo of the shortest Billboard 200-topping albums of the century — more has definitely been more throughout the Donda experience. The lengthy tracklist helped it rack up absolutely gigantic consumption numbers on streaming — 357.39 million on-demand streams, to be exact, highest total of the year so far — with 23 of the album’s 27 tracks making the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Especially considering the two-plus days’ worth of first-week streams the album lost with its Sunday morning release, that volume was certainly helpful (and very likely necessary) in pushing its first-week units north of 300,000.

4. A worthy adversary in Drake. As both men have throughout their careers, Kanye West and Drake used long-simmering and recently reheated beef with one another to help boost interest in both of their recent projects. Kanye was undoubtedly the beneficiary of that with Donda, as the weeks leading up to its release included social media callouts, lyrical disses and other back-and-forth shading. It all built expectation of further advancement of their feud on Donda — which many Kanye fans and other musical rubberneckers listened for and ultimately found, particularly via perceived subliminal attacks on “Pure Souls.” Drake will undoubtedly benefit similarly from the continued parrying in the final first-week numbers for his Certified Lover Boy, released on Friday.

Of course, with the release dates of the two albums scheduled back-to-back rather than on the same week — and with an asterisk already next to West’s initial numbers due to the incomplete tracking week — this battle isn’t directly competitive enough for there to be an official loser, only unofficial winners. And as was noted by writer Ernest Wilkins on Twitter over the weekend, the real winner of Kanye vs. Drake likely isn’t either artist, but Universal Music Group CEO Lucien Grainge, label head for both artists (via Def Jam and Republic, respectively).

5. …It’s Kanye West. While most star artists of the past suffered significant commercial setbacks during their late-career experimental turns away from the pop and rock mainstream — Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Prince — Kanye West seems all but impervious to such fading fortunes, as his albums have routinely bowed with blockbuster-level first-week numbers regardless of how seemingly uncommercial the music within is. Even Jesus Is King, a gospel-based, 11-track effort with no advance singles, few guests and largely unimpressed early reviews, moved a robust 264,000 first-week equivalent album units. In fact, Donda is West’s 10th consecutive No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 as a credited lead artist, with 2004 debut The College Dropout (which peaked at No. 2) his lone solo album to not peak atop the chart.

West’s multi-platform, multi-medium mastery when it comes to exciting and satisfying his cult following appears to have earned him something close to lifetime allegiance — while the credit he’s built up in the larger culture as both an artist and celebrity means his projects will always draw heavy amounts of interest, regardless of how they (or West in general) are generally received by mainstream media. In an attention economy, Kanye West has all the capital he could ever need, and he knows how to use it as well as any other artist in 21st century music.


 
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