Five Burning Questions: Kanye West’s ‘Donda’ Debuts At No. 1 With 2021’s Best First-Week Numbers

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Following months of anticipation and countless delays and false starts, Kanye West’s Donda album was finally released on a Sunday morning in August. This week, the set debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart — West’s 10th consecutive album as a credited lead artist to top the listing.

Despite working with an incomplete sales week in its first frame, the 27-track offering bows with 309,000 equivalent album units moved — the highest single-week number for any LP this year. It also launches 23 tracks onto the Billboard Hot 100, led by the No. 6-debuting “Hurricane,” which boasts guest appearances from fellow superstars The Weeknd and Lil baby — though, like all other guests on Donda, they are not officially credited.

Why was Kanye’s Donda promotional campaign so successful? And can he go on putting up these numbers forever? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.

1. The reasons for Kanye West’s Donda posting the year’s biggest first-week number are numerous — but what would you cite as the biggest? 

Rania Aniftos: While Kanye being Kanye is an obvious factor, in the elusive Donda’s case, the anticipation even had me (who is not typically a Kanye fan) listening to the album to see what all the hype was about. Ever since Kanye began teasing Donda last year, not a day went by without seeing a “Donda? More like Donde esta?” meme or album predictions on TikTok. Donda had such a mysterious energy around it, that by the time it actually arrived, it felt like a legendary Pokémon that needed to be beheld.

Lyndsey Havens: The hype — no one generates more of it in a more elaborate way than Kanye. Hosting a handful of stadium-sized listening parties — not concerts, just thousands of fans there to listen — got people talking for weeks about the seemingly ever-evolving project. By the time it finally arrived, Donda had become such an event in and of itself that if you didn’t give the album a listen on Sunday, then you likely had to take a back seat to most conversations on Monday.

Carl Lamarre: Because he’s Kanye West. Pretty simple. As outrageous and controversial he has become over the last few years, Kanye has undoubtedly given us five consecutive classics from 2004 to 2011 – six if you include Watch The Throne. For some fans, he’s the troublesome boyfriend you know isn’t good for you anymore. Still, somehow, he always creeps back into your life because of those nostalgic moments, and the potential for him to change continuously keeps our minds turning like a hamster wheel.

Joe Lynch: I think it’s a combination of the hype/anticipation and the “It’s Kanye West” factor. He’s already proven that no matter how abrasive (Ye) or limp (Jesus Is King) the music gets, people will pony up in big numbers – but the listening parties went a long way toward piquing the interest of those who might otherwise have waived off Donda as another mercurial Kanye project. Which, make no mistake, it is, but the listening parties made it seem like this was as much of an event as an album – and therefore, appointment listening.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s gotta be the combination of the hype and it being Kanye — which sorta go hand in hand these days, anyway. Donda ended up taking up so much of your time and energy even if you were totally disengaged from it personally that you sorta had to listen to it at least once, if only to retroactively justify how much you’d already read and heard about it.

2. The rollout for Donda was so massive that it generated millions in revenue well before the album was even out. Is there anything that you think other artists could learn from with their own promo, or is it stuff that only works for a singular artist like Kanye West? 

Rania Aniftos: While, again, Kanye is unique in his mystifying ways, there are some artists at his level who could also try a Donda-esque route for their promo. Beyoncé is known for surprise-dropping albums with no promo at all, which has worked well for her, but I think she could easily benefit from a long-awaited buildup the way Kanye has with Donda. It could also just be interesting to see if the year-long anticipation and delay are a viable promotion technique for big artists, or if it really is something that only works for Kanye.

Lyndsey Havens: I think this rollout could only work for a massive artist, and one who has endlessly patient fans. This point has come up a few times since Donda arrived, particularly who else could have hosted similar-sized listening parties with a constantly-moving targeted release date without losing interest along the way, and the one name that consistently comes up is Taylor Swift. I think that alone speaks to how singular an artist has to be to generate millions in revenue from promoting an album that at the time may or may not have even existed.

Carl Lamarre: I think there are some takeaways from The Donda Experiment. The element of providing a story and fine-tuning your product kept his fans enthralled during this journey. He pretty much delivered the album as a taste-tester to gauge what records fans appreciated most. After that, he made the necessary changes to those tracks. Now, not everyone can rent out Mercedes Benz Stadium twice — unless you’re Drake or Taylor Swift — but the idea of allowing fans to determine the standout tracks via a live performance or setup like Kanye’s can help whittle down the song selection process.

Joe Lynch: Well, West partnering with Apple for commercial promo is hardly without precedent, but charging people to listen to your album before its release is certainly novel. But it’s hard to imagine any other A-lister getting away with such a blatant cash grab. Anyone still on the Kanye Train post-MAGA is clearly inured to his tactics, but I would think any other star at his level would risk alienating a portion of their fanbase by charging big bucks for a listening party – after all, numerous artists do these for free.

Andrew Unterberger: Well, if you have the resources to make a theatrical public spectacle of yourself — and you have the fan interest to get folks to pay for the privilege of watching — then I suppose the lesson is to just get out on that stage and let the onlookers gawk as they will. Few have either, of course (and fewer still have both), but you could probably count the number of 44-year-olds who have continued to dominate pop culture to such an extent on one hand, so Kanye clearly stays being Kanye for a reason — one Drake himself may look to more and more as he approaches middle age.

3. “Hurricane” is the highest-debuting (No. 6) of the set’s 23 tracks on the Hot 100 this week, and is now being promoted to R&B/hip-hop, rhythmic and pop radio. Do you see it becoming a breakout hit from this project — and does West even really need or especially benefit from breakout hits at this point in his career?

Rania Aniftos: Anything featuring The Weeknd, who has the musical Midas touch, is guaranteed a hit — and with the help of radio, I do see it being the album’s breakout track. I also, however, stand by the fact that Kanye has reached a level of success that he doesn’t need breakout hits anymore and probably doesn’t even check numbers or chart rankings out on his Wyoming ranch.

Lyndsey Havens: Look, I don’t think Kanye needs a breakout hit, but who wouldn’t want one? I think the benefit would be more in perception than anything else, proving to naysayers that he does in fact “still have it” — at least by commercial standards. But perhaps even more than wondering what Kanye has to gain here, I think it’s worth considering what uncredited guest artist The Weekend has at stake (Lil Baby is also an uncredited featured artist on the track). After a record-breaking run with “Blinding Lights,” which remained on the Hot 100 for 90 weeks, he now helped knock himself off the chart with this No. 6 debut of “Hurricane.” Unlikely it will have a similarly lengthy run — and again, he’s not featured on the official chart credit anyway — but at least for now, it keeps The Weeknd in the mix.

Carl Lamarre: I think the casual listener who maybe strayed away from Kanye over the last few projects can appreciate “Hurricane” as a radio single. Not only do you receive a formidable reintroduction to Kanye lyrically, but you get to kick it with some of music’s biggest stars today in The Weeknd and Lil Baby, who inject some much-needed buzz and electricity to the record.

Joe Lynch: Breakout compared to the rest of the project, yes, but overall, no. The soulful vibe and tempo don’t quite jibe with radio these days, and there’s not much of a hook. I see it sticking around the Hot 100, but not the top 10.

Andrew Unterberger: I doubt it, and I sorta hope not — there’s some parts to recommend it, but when I think of the song all that comes to mind is Kanye bleating “mmm-mmm-MMM-MMM-MMM” over and over again. Which is unpleasant!

4. Big-name guests aside, as Kanye West’s music drifts farther and farther from the mainstream’s center, his commercial returns seem practically unaffected. Is there any kind of album West could release in the immediate future that you think would significantly underperform, or is he essentially recession-proof?

Rania Aniftos: Following the success of Jesus Is King, whose gospel nature I thought wouldn’t resonate with Kanye fans, I don’t think anything will break Kanye’s stride at this point. He has maintained his title as a “musical genius” among his fanbase, and no genius plays it safe all the time, right?

Lyndsey Havens: I mean, if he can feature an alleged sexual abuser and an artist who was taken off several festivals for homophobic comments on the same track — and bring them out for his final listening event in Chicago — and still not turn too many people away, you unfortunately are led to believe that Kanye is indeed recession-proof. And again, I think that goes back to the way in which he’s able to generate hype; always thinking not just 10 steps, but years ahead. Just look at the Chicago event’s merch, on which “2024” was printed on some shirts. Kanye knows just how to keep fans forever guessing and always engaged, even — or perhaps especially — if the ways in which he does it cross a line.

Carl Lamarre: Yeah, have him put out seven tracks of “Poopity Scoop,” and let’s see how that fares on the Billboard 200. Now, if he releases the instrumental version, he might go top-five.

Joe Lynch: Short of Kanye telling people “My next album is similar to Jesus Is King, only more boring,” I don’t see his releases underperforming in the immediate future. The thing with Kanye is, he doesn’t subsist on Stans – he continues to win because supporters, former supporters, detractors, and the just plain curious will always at least give his new work a listen (or three). Might people eventually grow tired of him? Maybe, but underestimate his magnetic appeal at your own risk.

Andrew Unterberger: I’d be curious how a Kanye West album would perform with absolutely no promotion leading up to it. If he released a 14-track album of new songs with no listening parties, no livestreams, no missed release dates and no guest or label controversies, would it just kinda exist for a week or two and then quickly fade from the cultural memory? Or would the Internet absolutely lose its mind about new Kanye falling from the sky and instantly proclaim it as “a return to Classic Ye”? I dunno, but as long as he’s releasing albums with these beautiful-disaster rollouts and star-studded guest lists, it’s unlikely folks are going to be turning away from the extravaganza of it all anytime soon.

5. Fill in the blank: Donda is Kanye West’s best album since ________. 

Rania Aniftos: The Life of Pablo. 2016 was a similarly drama-filled era for Ye, as he was in the midst of his feud with Taylor Swift and was always in the news. I felt like the buzz surrounding Kanye caused people who wouldn’t regularly listen to his music to tune into the album, and subsequently find themselves impressed at his melodies and lyrics. Donda has the same effect, where people want to hear Kanye’s thoughts after a tumultuous year for the rapper, and to finish listening to the 27-track project with some of their new favorite songs and a newfound appreciation for the strange yet brilliant Kanye West.

Lyndsey Havens: Whoa now, I believe this is called being backed into a question. For me, Donda isn’t one of his best (sorry Carl), and that’s perfectly OK.

Carl Lamarre: MBDTF. Easy.

Joe LynchKids See Ghosts, which was outright excellent and probably his strongest since Yeezus. But I hate to even say “best since,” because after listening to it thrice now in full, I’m definitely experiencing diminishing returns on this one — whereas Yeezus, for instance, only got better with each spin.

Andrew Unterberger: The one before it.

soul, classic soul, motown,