No other artist has a history quite like Kanye West. He has run for president, tweeted that he no longer has a manager because he is unmanageable and arrived late to his own tour date only to perform a few songs before going on a rant and canceling the rest of the tour. Now, his recent album releases have been the newest mode through which he showcases this eccentricity.
In July and August 2021, West had three listening parties to release his highly anticipated 10th album, “Donda,” with three days in between the announcement and the day of each event. However, these events were more than just listening parties, with each growing to include more and more spectacle.
For the first party, West started with just playing the album in Atlanta at Mercedes Benz Stadium. By the third party, he had progressed to lighting himself on fire in front of a life size replica of his childhood home in Chicago. Kim Kardashian, DaBaby and Marilyn Manson also made appearances on stage, making it look much more like a high production concert than a traditional listening party. For example, Taylor Swift invited a small group of dedicated fans to her home in Nashville to listen to the then unreleased album “Lover” and asked them to not share any song titles, lyrics, or collaborators. Normally, artists choose a few singles and possibly a music video to release in anticipation of their album.
As someone who would not consider themselves a Kanye fan, the “Donda” listening parties looked incredibly overwhelming. I had never seen an album release coupled with sold out stadiums and thousands of backup dancers. Releasing it this way created the appearance that one was only going to be able to listen to the album through these listening parties, leaving it to the hardcore fans to be able to experience this new music.
Something else that contributed to the unique nature of these listening parties was the fact that each time West played the album, it was different. No matter whether the difference was in the features or the production, the continuous changes allowed the listener to get a distinct perspective in the creation of an album and to see it as a living, breathing piece of art.
Through his listening parties, West created something much bigger than songs being grouped together and sealed with a title and album artwork, which artists often do rather than ensuring that songs on an album are strongly connected. It was a theatrical performance. One had no choice but to be drawn into the world of “Donda,” which is what an album should consistently do.
Now more than ever there is pressure for artists to focus on creating radio hits, but West has become so popular that he is able to operate by his own set of rules. Rather than pushing back against this pressure, West has thrust it away; he did not release any singles and put an immense amount of energy into creating a cohesive show, allowing the interconnected nature of the album to shine through.
This begs the question of what album releases will look like in the future. West is an inspiration to so many artists that it seems likely that the unique rollout of “Donda” will affect other artists’ work — the question is how.
More and more artists have been releasing surprise albums, with some of the biggest being Taylor Swift’s two most recent albums. “Folklore,” Swift’s first quarantine album that she announced the day before releasing it, amassed 72 million streams on the first day, whereas her previous album, “Lover,” only garnered 44 million streams. “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” by Billie Eilish had only 34.5 million first day streams, and it was 2019’s biggest streaming and selling record. The streaming success of “Folklore” may be due to a variety of factors, but it should still be acknowledged that the excitement and buzz it evoked upon its announcement could not be reproduced by the release of a single.
These surprise albums are special in the sense that they do not allow for the listener to develop any preconceived notions prior to listening to the album that they may have if an artist went through a typical album rollout. Like what West did with “Donda,” it forces the listener to experience the album in whole, rather than possibly skipping the singles that had already been released.
While no other artist may create a listening party as dramatic as West, it signals a possible pivot towards prioritizing the artistry of an album rather than profit. But at the end of the day, this may also just be Kanye being his unapologetic and fearless self.
Ava Hinz SC ’25 is TSL’s music columnist, and she’s from Los Altos, California. When she is not nerding out about music podcasts, she is most likely finding a coffee shop to try their iced chai or talking about the time she met Jojo Siwa.