The Year of Yeezy: This Is How You Hype An Album

Say what you like about Kanye West; he’s heard it all and he more than likely doesn’t care. This is the strategy that earned Kanye a place in the self-promotion hall of fame in 2016, and helped him sell an album that, for all intents and purposes, was never finished. Take note; this is how it’s done. There’s method in the madness.

The Road To Pablo

Way, way back in October of last year, Kanye quietly (if he ever does anything quietly) released two tracks on Soundcloud. This was the start of a long promotional campaign that would lead up to the release of ‘Life of Pablo’ in February 2016, and that would continue for many months after. These tracks were only released online and would be followed up by ‘Facts’ in New Year’s Eve of 2015.

Soon after leaking the tracks to the public, Kanye announced that his new album, entitled ‘Swish’ at the time, would launch in February 2016 at the same time as his Yeezy Season 3 show at Madison Square Garden. It was clear from the start: this was no normal album launch. It was going to be a multi-media event, combining West’s love of fashion and music together into one major moment.

While Yeezy Season 3 wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed (a lot of beige, a lot of moments reminiscent of Zoolander’s Derelicte), the buzz surrounding the event certainly created plenty of noise around Kanye, his family, and the album’s launch. The appearance of the Kardashians along with a newly-not-in-a-coma Lamar Odom only sealed the deal, making this one of the most talked-about events in 2016.

Like the Kardashians, Kanye West knows how to use celebrity connections to make a media impact, and used the full extent of the Kardashian social media power to get eyes and ears on Pablo. Part of this clever strategy was to release images of early draft track lists for the album on Twitter with the Kardashian seal of approval stamped clearly for all to see. The first track list, still with the title ‘Swish,’ had a not-so-subtle ‘Kylie was here’ scrawled across the bottom, instantly drawing in the interest of the millions of teenage girls who follow Jenner’s every move:

Whether Kylie really was there or not didn’t matter — people were watching. The follow-up track list, now with the title changed to ‘Waves,’ featured, even more, Kardashians:

Kanye wasn’t just inviting his audience in to watch the album develop in real time, he was also throwing a little social media magic into the mix. Add a Kardashian and watch the retweets skyrocket. No one knows this better than West.

The constant re-naming of the album might have seemed a little disorganized to some critics, but it allowed Kanye’s followers to feel like they were part of the process; inviting them in to watch a genius at work, as it were. Whether you think Kanye is a musical genius or not is irrelevant — these strategies generated interest and left the world wondering what he was going to change next.

Ranting for Retweets

The smartest and most innovative move Kanye made in the run-up to the release of ‘The Life of Pablo’ was also his most controversial. The onslaught of Twitter ‘rants’ as the media quickly dubbed them may have seemed out of control and slightly manic, but they were the most effective tool Kanye had in getting his name on every journalist’s lips as the album launch approached.

First came Kanye’s Twitter beef with Wiz Khalifa, widely thought to be a moment of madness on West’s part that made him look reckless and unstable. I say otherwise. This multiple-tweet long Twitter fight seems far too conveniently timed to be viewed as purely incidental — both West and Khalifa had albums coming out that month, and while Kanye may have deleted many of the tweets in the coming day, he will have been well aware that they were screengrabbed and recorded by countless media outlets.

The cause of the supposed fight was the similarity between West’s use of ‘Waves’ in his album title, a term Khalifa thought was borrowed from other rappers without their permission. West immediately fired back at the accusation in a series of chaotic and often inflammatory tweets targeting Khalifa, Amber Rose and even their child.

These tweets struck the perfect balance between being outlandishly offensive (which immediately leads to hundreds of frenzied blog posts and online articles), typically cocky, and, let’s face it, pretty funny. The retweet and likes alone are an obvious enough clue that people were taking notice of what Kanye had to say, even if what he had to say wasn’t all that sensible. West’s follower count increased by half a million followers that night — evidence enough that this was an example of a smart promotional move rather than a symptom of un-medicated hypomania.

Kanye’s next seemingly bizarre and perplexing social media outburst occurred right after the official release of ‘Pablo.’ He hopped on Twitter once again, this time targeting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with pleas for investment in his talent:

The careful selection of one of the world’s most famous people, Zuckerberg, combined with a headline-ready assertion that he could ‘barely breathe’ from being so deeply in debt and impoverished made for serious tabloid material. Throw in a classic Kanye line like, ‘I’m this generation’s Disney’ and you’ve got a story made in record promotion heaven. No one who knows marketing really believed that Kanye was all that broke, or that he seriously expected an investment from Facebook, but it was clear that West knew exactly how to ensure that everyone was talking about him right when he needed them to be.

The Magic Ingredient

So, you’ve got an insane social media buzz around your album and everyone’s talking about whether or not you’re a genius — what do you do next to get the world’s attention? Why, you piss off Taylor Swift, of course.

Kanye West has been getting on Taylor Swift’s nerves and aggravating her legion of fans since his mic-stealing moment in 2009, and while their public reconciliation a few years later may have placated the Swifties, it didn’t generate quite as much media interest as having the beloved pop star as a rival could. As soon as the world heard ‘Famous’ at the Yeezy Season 3 show, it was clear that Kanye was more interested in using his relationship with Taylor as a controversial talking point than in nurturing a friendship.

The now timeless line, ‘I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/I made that bitch famous’ sparked an immediate backlash on social media from her fans, as well as igniting the flame under thousands of think pieces analyzing whether or not West has respect for women. It led to Taylor using her 2016 Grammy speech as a platform to call out Kanye for attempting to steal the credit for her success, and made for a fantastically juicy episode of KUWTK in which Kim accused Swift of ‘playing the victim.’

While Taylor Swift continued to deny that she gave Kanye permission to use reference her in the song, Kim and Kanye fought back with video recordings on Snapchat that explicitly saw her agreeing with the line (although it is, of course, worth noting that she didn’t agree to be referred to as ‘that bitch’). Regardless of your thoughts on the ethics of the situation, the combination of Taylor’s tabloid power and West/Kardashians’ fame made for a seriously fun gossip column story. Most importantly, it forced people to seek out the ‘Famous’ track to hear the much-debated line for themselves and draw their own conclusions. That’s instant publicity at absolutely no cost, except perhaps to Kanye’s popularity amongst Taylor’s fans.

As his final step toward notoriety, Kanye released his video for ‘Famous’ in June 2016, featuring a naked wax model of Swift herself cuddled up in bed with him for all to see. Let’s be real — the music video would certainly have done well considering the amount of effort Kanye had put into hyping the album in the lead-up to it’s release, but throwing a naked Taylor Swift (along with a nude Trump, Cosby, and Kim) into the mix guaranteed endless Youtube views.

The negative response from online feminist commentators and Swift fans was immediate and damning, but all the hate only helped get more eyes on the video, and more ears listening to ‘Pablo.’

The Pay Off

This extensive social media campaign around ‘The Life of Pablo’ was definitely well crafted, but did it work? In short: absolutely. The album debuted at the number 1 spot of the Billboard 200, the first to reach the spot through streaming rather than physical copy sales. The figures around illegal downloads are also important — over 500,000 copies of the album were downloaded in the days following its release, not a figure that would have been lucrative for West, but certainly proof that people had heard the hype and wanted in on the music.

The album was considered by most critics to be a moderate success; probably not a work of genius and certainly on the messy side, but a stimulating and imaginative musical work that demanded to be heard. Given Def Jam’s statement that ‘Pablo’ is a ‘living breathing changing creative expression’ and the multiple additions and changes made to the tracks even after their release, this won’t be the last we’ve heard from Kanye on the subject. We eagerly await his next move.

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I'm a funny guy, I think. I do a lot of stuff with paid media. I also work at hint, a healthy lifestyle company based in San Francisco. Google it!

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Nik is an entrepreneur, and a digital marketing strategist. He has worked with celebrities from Pitbull to Priyanka Chopra and brands like Hint Water, TMZ, Complex, Sony, and more.

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