By all accounts, this summer has belonged to Kanye West. On June 1, he delivered his 8th studio album, Ye, and the album’s unveiling was nothing short of remarkable. Think what you want about Kanye at this moment in time, but the man knows how to make a scene.
The Ye session was held in Wyoming on a ranch and streamed live on a random-ass app that many of us downloaded without hesitation. It was both unorganized and FOMO-inducing, but it was nothing compared to the spectacle that was the Kids See Ghosts rollout. The listening session for the Kanye-Kid Cudi collab album was live-streamed just outside of L.A. from a deserted “town,” complete with a low fog hanging over old wooden houses. Via stream or IRL, we waited (and waited, and waited...) for the album to start; many of us gave up in the wee hours and waited for it to drop the next day. Still, we entertained Ye’s concept of experiential immersion.
Last Thursday, the extravaganza continued with Nas’ Nasir, which was produced entirely by Kanye. Again, the project debuted via a live-streamed listening session, this time in Queensbridge, NY, Nas’ old neighborhood, right beneath the Queensboro bridge. The guest of honor arrived in a green Hummer tank, along with Kanye and other celebrities.
Kanye knows the standard album release cycle is boring; he knows we know it’s boring. So he gave us something to kick up a fuss about, and he ingested the resulting attention—both critical and positive—just like we accepted the hoopla, for better and for worse.
The reactions to the albums from Kanye, Ye and Cudi, and now Nas, have covered the full spectrum of excitement and disappointment. The albums received mixed reviews, but weren’t being lauded as the artists’ best work, with the exception of Pusha-T’s release. His Kanye-produced album, DAYTONA—which dropped without a live stream on May 25—makes him the sole artist whose recent album has been exalted as both his best and one of the best of the year. (I guess you don’t need a complex rollout to be considered the most compelling rapper in your crew. You just need bars—who would have thunk it.)
But the content of the records, at times, almost didn't seem to matter. Kanye and co. have ruled the past few weeks with ease. The albums released prior to Yeezy SZN—from Migos to Cardi B to Rae Sremmurd—were exciting, but the buzz only lingered for the days around their drop dates. With his release plan, Kanye positioned the spotlight over himself—and kept it locked there.
He’s been operating at this level for years. With the 2013 release of Yeezus, Kanye made the drop a global affair. Ahead of the release, he projected the video for “New Slaves” onto buildings and landmarks in dozens of locations around the world. Three years later, he took the experiential idea a step further with The Life of Pablo. After roping us in via social media hype, he famously hosted and live-streamed a mega listening session for the album at Madison Square Garden, an event that doubled as a fashion showcase for Yeezy Season 3.
JAY-Z and Beyoncé, as popular as they are, don’t seem to care for the same type of hype as Kanye. But that didn’t prevent the world from stopping the second they released their surprise (but expected and anticipated) joint album, Everything Is Love. They made the announcement at their London tour date before debuting the video for "Apeshit" on the big screen. Shortly after, the album hit Tidal. While Ye worked diligently for weeks to amass hype for his projects, JAY and Bey managed to swipe it all away with little fanfare—relatively speaking. In early March, they announced the second installment of their On the Run Tour. We didn’t know it then, but they were setting the stage for Everything Is Love. It arrived just two weeks after the OTRII tour started, so it’s likely they’ve been planning to drop it this month all along. So, as petty as the timing of all of this feels, it probably had nothing to do with Kanye’s master plan of dropping an album a week all month.
Still, that’s not to say the move wasn’t driven by some residual pettiness.
In addition to gently removing Kanye from the paint like a parent collecting a child, JAY and Bey tossed Nas out a la Uncle Phil, for good measure. They let Nas live a mere 22 hours before they strolled through and crashed the summer release party. In fact, for a hot second, Beyoncé’s only liked tweet was a meme of Nas struggling to understand their timeliness and efficiency.
Memes aside, JAY and Nas have had an amicable relationship for a decade now—but there will likely always be an undercurrent of competition. No matter how many years pass by, they’ll always be hip-hop's premier beef. To extend that to Kanye’s relationship with JAY, Kanye has made it clear that he and JAY are only on texting terms post-his Saint Pablo Tour outbursts. In a May interview with Charlamagne Tha God, Kanye said he was “hurt” by the fact that JAY and Bey didn’t attend his wedding to Kim Kardashian. “I understand they were going through some things, but if it’s family, you’re not gonna miss a wedding,” he said. Hov, in turn, appeared to send some obvious subs on the appropriately titled “FRIENDS” off of Everything Is Love: “I ain't going to nobody nothing when me and my wife beefing / I don't care if the house on fire, I'm dying, nigga, I ain't leaving.” So, yeah—petty assumptions aren’t out of bounds.
Kanye and The Carters are taking different routes to presenting their creativity, but neither have bent to the rules of the industry. Beyoncé, in particular, has mapped out a game-changing strategy. She practically invented the surprise drop with the release of her self-titled album in December 2013. Beyoncé came mere months after the drop of Yeezus, and she and Kanye couldn’t have approached their rollouts more distinctly. Since that album, Bey has not informed her fans of any forthcoming releases. She’s simply and nonchalantly placed them into our lives when we need them most.
Even Lemonade, which debuted as a visual album on HBO and then exclusively dropped on Tidal, was a surprise. The only indication we had that something was about to pop off was the stand-alone release of “Formation” months earlier. Beyoncé approaches album rollouts this way for one simple reason: because she can. She has the absurdly committed fan base to support her when she takes that leap of faith, but beyond that, she’s a world-class talent who knows how to drive this industry; she refuses to let it drive her like it does everybody else. Word to her husband, who said the following to the biggest stage any musician could grace, the NFL Super Bowl Halftime Show: “You need me, I don't need you.”
With Everything Is Love, Bey is bringing JAY along for the ride. But even looking at JAY’s rollout for 4:44, it’s clear he was taking notes on his wife’s strategy. He announced the album cryptically, with posters plastered around NYC and a one-minute commercial during the NBA Finals, weeks before its release. Magna Carta Holy Grail followed a similar rollout, with a commercial airing during the NBA Finals and early access promotions for certain Samsung users. JAY and Bey, as larger than life as they are, have tended to veer toward the minimal in their rollouts as of late.
When Kanye announced he would be intentionally dominating the rap conversation all June, with beginnings in May, we took it at face value. We waited and watched and listened as he tinkered with each work in front of our eyes and ears, willingly giving him the attention that he was so clearly seeking. JAY and Bey, on the other hand, didn’t have time for such games. They’re too busy filming videos in the fucking Louvre.
They’re not worried about anything but getting to the money and elevating in every sense of the word. Their focus—on bettering themselves, each other and their family—is reflected in the delivery of their collective art. This isn’t an experiment. This is straightforward execution. Their dedication to focusing on their own level of perfection displays an unparalleled respect for their craft and their place in the industry. The absolute certainty they operate with is something that isn’t apparent when looking at Kanye’s output.
When we look back on this stretch of music releases, the memory that will stand out the most will be The Carters disrupting Kanye’s unprecedented summer run. Like Ye said on Graduation’s “Big Brother” more than a decade ago: “My big brother came through and kicked my ass.”