Rate him or hate him, like or loathe him, you can’t deny Kanye is pretty good at what he does. The guy is at stage in his career where he can pretty much do what he wants, how he wants, when he wants to who he wants. Hot girlfriend, new baby, fashion lines, probably the most acclaimed back catalogue of work in recent popular music history, and a name that will live on in pop culture ubiquity long after he dies in an untimely accident on his platinum jetski while eating fugu caviar off a plate carved from dinosaur bones on a lake on Mars (that’s the only scenario I could see Kanye letting himself die in).
He has worked hard to craft this image of himself; as an “artist” rather than a musician, one who makes music for the pure artistic expression and catharsis, not for any commercial or career or financial gain. He avoids press like the plague, attacks any cameras – and the camera men attached to them – that come within a four-block radius, all but shut off his Twitter page, doesn’t do interviews, and just last month, dropped an almost-secret new album with no press, no advertising, no promo campaign, no singles and no video.
But in doing that, in avoiding mainstream press exposure, he created a paraxodical effect – he made ‘Yeezus’ into the most-talked about album of the year.
It’s a media campaign disguised as a media blackout
I’ve been inspired to write this post by the video above. Last night, at the concert of Travi$ Scott (who I’ve never heard of before today, but he must be a cool guy because he’s got a dollar sign in his name) in Los Angeles, Kanye turned up from nowhere to do ‘New Slaves.’ It was his first live performance since dropping ‘Yeezus’ a few weeks ago. And it made me think about how Kanye interacts with the media – and made me wonder, does he really not give a fuck, like he wants everyone to think? Or is he just about the most intelligent guy in the industry when it comes to controlling his own narrative?
I’m inclined to think it’s a bit of both. Kanye’s been burned by the media, that much is blindingly obvious. The aftermath of the Taylor Swift MTV saga, the South Park ‘fish sticks’ episode, countless ‘angry Kanye’ GIFs, paparazzi attention – it’s no wonder he doesn’t go out of his way to play the media game. He’s arguably the biggest music star on the planet, he sells out tours just by announcing them – he doesn’t need the media to get what he wants. His distaste for the press is evident and obvious and understandable.
But at the same time, his silence itself is a means to achieve his ends. When a guy like Kanye keeps radio silence, people wonder why. The prevailing ideology for musicians today is to blanket cover the media when trying to promotean album or tour – interviews, TV spots, radio ads, print ads, send advance album copies for reviews, service radio with a single, service TV with a video. For ‘Yeezus,’ not one of these strategies went down. Kanye did a Saturday Night Live performance, splashed a ‘New Slaves’ promo video on buildings across the world… and that’s it. He kept quiet. And when he did do an interview, a damn extensive one with the New York Times, it was on his terms – and because he didn’t talk to anyone else, the interview went viral.
Huff Post, Daily Life, Pitchfork, NME, Daily Mail, Complex, BuzzFeed, Vulture, god damn Business Insider – thousands upon thousands of sites and blogs posted about or linked to that one interview, ensuring a virality and attention that 50 or 100 or 200 press interviews wouldn’t come close to achieving. Because by maintaining radio silence, by creating a vacuum of information, the world latches on to whatever scraps it can get. In a world where everybody wants Kanye, keeping quiet creates a demand. That demand reaches fever pitch, and Kanye lets one thing slip – an interview with New York Times. Doing 50 or 100 or 200 interviews dampens that fever pitch. It makes those interviews less special, less exciting. Here, everyone is reading the same article because it’s the ONLY article. “A Kanye interview!” – It’s almost an event, a spectacle, because “Kanye NEVER does interviews!”
The LA performance is the same. Kanye could have announced a tour straight off the back of ‘Yeezus,’ played 150 dates around the world, played the biggest festivals and probably sold them all out in minutes. But instead, he keeps quiet, travels in secret, and turns up at a small LA venue – the El Rey Theatre, capacity 770 – to perform next to a largely unknown rapper. Why? Same reason. Kanye playing a massive festival isn’t news – happens every week, old news, boring. Kanye playing a tiny venue with no warning – world goes mad. Nobody knew it was happening, no press cameras, no TMZ or Pitchfork – just a bunch of kids filming grainy footage on their iPhones which is guaranteed to go viral within minutes of posting.
It’s a media campaign disguised as a media blackout. Every small step, no matter how tiny, is pushed out by fans; not by Kanye, not by his team. It spreads organically, making it all the more exciting. His recognised distaste for the media is being used to his advantage, as people don’t expect anything much from him – so when something does slip out, it’s huge news. If we’re in internet 2.0, then this is internet marketing 2.0, post-internet marketing, or something. He has drawn back, kept his mouth shut (which in itself is an achievement) and done everything on his own terms – and everything he lets drift into the world becomes an event in of itself. Free marketing is the best marketing. And he’s not paying one cent to drive ‘Yeezus’ or his new personal brand. Everyone else is doing it for him.