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Kanye West shapes the message his way

The rapper, whose album 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' arrived recently, has extended the notion of personally generating hype.

November 30, 2010|By Chris Lee and Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times
(Nousha Salimi / Associated…)

Early this fall, before any kind of promotional push for Kanye West's new album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," had begun in earnest, the Grammy-winning rapper-producer took to his widely read Twitter account to vent. Even for a creative firebrand whose career has in many ways been defined by outrageous behavior and controversial statements, West's remarks stood as a defiant dismissal of every rule in the major label marketing playbook. Call it a tweet as mission statement.

"Man I love Twitter," West posted on Sept. 4. "I've always been at the mercy of the press but no more."

And so began a campaign of nearly unprecedented, self-styled image control and media spin that culminated Nov. 22 with the album's release. Even in an era when social networking tools allow artists ever greater freedoms to communicate directly with fans, the so-called Louis Vuitton Don has taken the notion of personally generating his own hype to further extremes than just about anyone in popular culture.

The upshot: "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" was on track to sell more than 550,000 copies in its first week on the market, according to a senior staff member at his label Universal Music Group who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the company.

Moreover, West has seemingly sidestepped conventional logic and courted controversy every step of the way. After nearly a year of silence following the public outcry that accompanied West's interruption of Taylor Swift's 2009 MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech — including abandoning a co-headlining tour with Lady Gaga — he spearheaded his own promo initiative by giving away alternate and non-album tracks from "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" on his blog at KanyeWest.com. The performer spurned the overwhelming majority of interview requests — the notable exceptions being an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and a stint "guest editing" XXL magazine (in which he basically interviewed himself) — and took to Twitter to lambaste various reporters and media outlets, including The Times (for what West decried as a "soulless" review of his short film "Runaway" and "Today" show host Matt Lauer.

In the process, the performer has won critical props from a constellation of recording stars and past collaborators — even a powerhouse TV producer whose show West dissed on a single from the new album.

To hear it from multiplatinum-selling R&B crooner John Legend, who is signed to West's G.O.O.D. Music imprint, appears on "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" and is currently working on an album to be released in 2011 with West, "all this wacky stuff and this controversy" does more than generate publicity. It sets West apart as a sort of endangered species, an artistic loner in an age of mannered shock value and carefully laid-out viral marketing initiatives.

"Clearly, he does things that are provocative," Legend said. "That's cool. That's a part of what makes him interesting as an artist. He puts it all out there in every way — musically and with his personality. It's all out there. I think that throws people off."

Unsurprisingly, efforts to reach West were unsuccessful. When his publicist, Gabe Tesoriero, was asked via e-mail about West's interview availability on a scale of 1 to 10 — with one being "not a chance" and 10 being a sure thing — Tesoriero responded with a numerical one, accompanied by a frowny-face emoticon.

Likewise, executives at Universal Music Group declined to comment. "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is no doubt a priority for the label, given its holiday-timed release and West's star persona, yet in a depressed climate in which labels are eager to talk about any success, multiple requests over the last two weeks to speak to representatives of Universal's Island Def Jam imprint were met with notable silence.

Instead, West has largely been a one-man show. Online, he has been the comedian — "Don't you hate it when you say bye to someone then yall get on the elevator together," he tweeted in August — as well as the victim — "I can't be everybody's hero and villain savior and sinner Christian and anti Christ!" he noted in November.

"Outlets like Twitter," said suave R&B star Ne-Yo, allow West the opportunity to "vent to the world."

"I think it's a beautiful thing," Ne-Yo said. "By now, you know who Kanye is. If he feels like he was disrespected, he's not only going to say it, he's going to stand on a chair and scream it. That's who he is. He's a master of PR. He knows what he is doing."

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