Let’s assume, for just a second, that everything Kanye West has been doing over the past two weeks is all tied to the June 1 release date for his next album. Let’s say Kanye’s behavior, whether public meltdown or (less convincingly) performance art, is still rooted in a tradition as old as the music industry: the album rollout. Let’s say that the inclusion of Candace Owens and the alt-right and Donald Trump is still, somehow, about releasing music, part of a strategy to ratchet up attention no matter the cost.
The idea behind a controversy-first rollout is simple. You—a musician, actor, politician, or any sort of public figure with something to sell—say or do something surprising. This could be any number of things, but it has to be offensive to a substantial part of the population with purchasing power, but ideally intriguing in a way that invites elaboration, apology, or further confrontation. The idea is, once you’ve shaken everything up, everyone will want to hear what you have to say next.
In terms of shaking things up, Kanye has done an admirable job. There’s been an audience following along with his every move as he’s progressed from his barrage of album release dates to increasingly skewed political opinions to a starkly depressing appearance on TMZ alongside Candace Owens in which he suggested that slaves had some agency in their enslavement and, almost more troublingly, half-heartedly attempted to throw out statistics about black-on-black crime to suggest that no one but him is thinking clearly.
Since his return to the public eye via Twitter, attention on Kanye hasn’t wavered. He still knows how to command attention, no matter the cost to his reputation or his ability to retain widespread fan support. However, if this is somehow in service of a musical statement, a buildup to an ostensibly table-clearing final expression, it’s not working.
The thing about saying something so controversial that everyone needs to hear what you have to say next is they only need to hear you say it once. The world will wait for Kanye’s next words, yes, but as soon as the supply of new and crazier shit is cut off, it will stop paying attention. This was fine when people were still buying CDs, or even singles on iTunes—outrage and curiosity led to getting paid, and ultimately, to the top of the charts. It’s the kind of thing that worked in 2006, when posing as Christ in a crown of thorns on the cover of a magazine might spark some sales. Now, not so much.
A single needs to be streamed 1,500 times to count as an album purchase, according to Billboard. Streaming makes you a fraction of the money per listen that a sale would. It’s also widened how much money you can make from an album, because that revenue stream is never turned off. For that to work, though, the music needs to be good.
The thing about saying something so controversial that everyone needs to hear what you say next is they only need to hear you say it once.
“Ye vs. The People,” the song designed to address the situation Kanye’s orchestrated, is the worst song he’s ever released. That’s including “Lift Yourself,” another surprise release from last Friday, which boasts “scoop-de-poop” as its most memorable line. “Ye vs. The People”—a two-man play of a song with T.I. designed to be a real-time exploration of Kanye’s support for President Trump—is content perfectly paired with the outrage cycle it’s supposed to address, even if the explanations for wearing a MAGA hat the song provided were mind-numbingly stupid. Hearing Kanye explain, on wax, the thing that just got you worked up is a compelling premise for a song. Likely everyone keeping track of Kanyegate 2018 listened to the song.
The problem is, they only listened to it once. It’s a poorly mastered, musically uninteresting song, centered on an argument from Kanye that’s so half-hearted that a nine year-old enumerating the positives of their favorite Avenger would have more intellectual rigor. It’s not only the kind of song I will not be listening to again, it’s the kind of song that makes me wonder if my fandom in Kanye West has been misplaced all along.
The available numbers bear out that whatever outsized attention Kanye’s behavior has attracted, that engagement isn’t making its way to the music. As of writing, “Ye vs. The People” isn’t in Spotify’s Global or U.S. Top 50 Charts (“Lift Yourself" is still charting in the U.S., likely on the back of a fan-led initiative to stream it as much as possible). Both songs, according to Spotify, have been streamed a little over 3 million times. It’s not a low number, per se, but it pales in comparison to the new songs released by Post Malone last Friday, which are all hovering between 20 and 30 million plays in the same time frame. Worse, it’s close to impossible to imagine “Ye vs. The People” gaining many more streams: it’s a one trick pony, exhausting its usefulness the night it was released. The conversation surrounding Kanye has made him the 42nd most listened to artist on Spotify’s platform. Six weeks ago, solely on the back of his existing catalog, he was at 43.
It’s clear that whatever Kanye is doing in public right now isn’t only an album rollout. If it were, it would rank as a particularly mean-spirited and irresponsible piece of advertising. However, there’s still a strange sort of expectation that this is all just going to…end? And the finish line is the album on June 1. The thinking that since we’re all paying attention to Kanye he’s guaranteed commercial success on that date is misplaced. He’s winning the battle for Twitter, for thinkpieces and hand-wringing and genuine confusion. But in 2018, that’s a pyrrhic victory. They’ll listen once, just to see what comes out of your mouth next, then go back to playing “Nice For What” on repeat.