(February 19, 2024).  At this point in Kanye West’s career, perhaps it’s more about his talons than his talent.

After all, what more can you say about a man whose best work may be behind him and who, when placed under so much scrutiny for making a threatening video about his ex-wife’s new boyfriend one minute and making blatantly antisemitic remarks the next, doubles down on the latter with the following line on the title track to his new album, Vultures 1: “How I’m antisemitic, I just fucked a Jewish bitch?”  Or with “Keep a few Jews on the staff now, I cash out” on the album’s song “Stars.”

Certainly the title of the album was meant as a retort to the media and others around him who left him for dead and were ready to feast on his decaying carcass. But that title could also reflect what Ye and collaborator Ty Dolla $ign are to an industry that put up one obstacle after another with the rappers’ first joint release (and Kanye’s first since making headlines for all the wrong reasons after his last major-release album Donda in 2021), only to have them gobbled up as quickly as they were laid out. 

Whatever Vultures means to the artists or the millions of people who’ve heard it, chalk it up as the latest case of there’s no such thing as bad publicity: Vultures 1 debuted this week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, making it West’s eleventh consecutive No. 1 (with all eleven debuting at the top — the first artist to have that many in a row do that).  It’s Ty Dolla $ign’s first No. 1.

The album sold 148,000 units (with about 87% of that converted from streaming), which is nearly 60,000 more total than this week’s runner-up, Usher’s Coming Home, which came in at No. 2 with 91,000 album equivalent units (most of that through actual album sales, contrary to Kanye’s numbers).

That outcome highlights the difference between rappers like West with huge built-in fan bases (as measured by monthly streaming numbers on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music) and Usher, whose streaming audience is about two-thirds Ye’s size.  

With an average (as of Feb. 19) of 70 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone (14th in the world), many of Kanye’s fans will stream his new music from the privacy of their own rooms (beyond the reach of any judgment) — whether it be out of curiosity or genuine admiration — regardless of his public profile or whether the album is well received on its own merits.  Usher, on the contrary, has only 46.7 million monthly listeners (55th in the world on Spotify).

Normally the news of Ye getting another No. 1 album would be ho hum, notable only for the fact that it pads his total and puts him in a three-way tie for fifth all-time with Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen (11 apiece) and behind only the Beatles (19), Jay-Z (14), Taylor Swift and Drake (both with 13).

But there was nothing normal about Vultures 1’s release or the kind of week it faced as it clawed its way over one hurdle after another to not only reach No. 1 but to do so with a comfortable margin.

Consider the following:

The oft-delayed album was released sometime between Friday, February 9 and Saturday, Feb. 10, off-cycle, meaning it wasn’t available at midnight on Friday like most other new releases (including Usher’s), prompting many to be caught off-guard or left wondering whether it was actually going to be available.  

Vultures 1 came during a week in which its top contender, Usher, was enjoying the brightest spotlight (and free publicity) any artist could have with a Super Bowl LVIII Halftime show during the most-watched TV program in history (with more than 123 million viewers).  The only thing not working in Usher’s favor was that his performance consisted entirely of old hits (fittingly so, perhaps), and that none of the new songs were included, nor was there any mention of Coming Home.

Usher’s new Coming Home was expected to become his first No. 1 album in 12 years upon its release on Fri. Feb. 9.

Regarding the battle at the top, Vultures 1 did not have any physical versions released (all of its pure album sales came from digital downloads), while Usher’s Coming Home was available as a standard digital download, a standard CD, five different vinyl variants, two deluxe boxed sets and a deluxe digital album with a bonus track and alternative cover art.

Adding even more salt to Kanye’s would-be wound was the fact that Usher’s album was promoted in a SKIMS ad campaign and sold via SKIMS’ online store.  For those unaware, SKIMS is the lingerie brand founded and owned by Ye’s ex-wife, Kim Kardashian.  

Then there were the legal hurdles.  Vultures 1 contained song samples from many artists who claimed that Ye and Ty hadn’t obtained proper clearance for using their material, including songs by Ozzy Osbourne, Donna Summer, James Brown, and others. 

The song “Good (Don’t Die)” contained interpolations of Summer’s 1977 classic, “I Feel Love,” and, as a result, was pulled from streaming services on Valentine’s Day (it obviously remains on copies of the album available through Ye’s website).

With the song’s removal (and associated copyright infringement claim), that meant the Vultures 1 album was no longer available for digital downloads on retailers like iTunes and Amazon, further hindering its sales.

While song clearances (reportedly there are about 50 samples that would need approval) are still being worked out by Kanye’s lawyers after the fact, there still may be legal action from Osbourne’s camp who vehemently opposed Ye’s use of the song “Iron Man” or West’s own 2010 song “Hell of a Life,” which interpolated Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”

Then there was the issue with the album’s initial distributor, FUGA, an independent company that distributes albums to streaming platforms.  For reasons that are still unclear but had to do with unauthorized distribution during the album’s launch, FUGA took down the project on Feb. 15, leaving Ye & Co. to scramble to find another distributor, which they did later that day.

But none of that raised more eyebrows than the active campaigning against Ye’s music by a certain band of Swifties who encouraged people not to stream his songs and, instead, stream Beyoncé’s new country music singles, specifically “Texas Hold ‘Em,” while that song battled it out with Kanye’s top Vultures 1 track, “Carnival.”

“Texas Hold ‘Em” by Beyoncé was a contender for No. 1 on this week’s Hot 100 along with Ye & Ty Dolla $ign’s “Carnival.”

Even with a late-Sunday release (essentially three days into the seven-day chart tracking period), it appears “Texas Hold ‘Em” will have the edge over “Carnival,” which had a longer period to accumulate sales and radio play.  “Texas” will debut at No. 2 on this week’s Hot 100, one position above Ye & Ty’s track.

While “Texas Hold ‘Em” and Beyoncé’s other new single “16 Carriages” sparked their own controversy, at least they garnered some radio play.  Few, if any, of the songs from Ye’s and Ty’s album did the same, which takes us back to the biggest controversy and self-imposed hurdle that Kanye will likely never overcome. 

That is the public relations nightmare created by his antisemitic remarks, remarks for which he’s apologized (before including those lame lyrics on Vultures 1), but which have slanted public opinion of him perhaps permanently. 

At a time when Black-Jewish relationships are being tested more than ever in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel in October 2023 — and Israel’s unrelenting retaliation — it didn’t help that the mercurial Ye has continued some of his tropes on an album that, instead, could have been about reconciliation and unity.

We live in an era where built-in fan bases, curiosity, and controversy can actually fuel consumption of a product despite the public outcry, protests from ethnic or religious groups, active campaigning by opposing fans, legal threats, and even technical difficulties that an album might face.

But don’t believe for a minute that any of Kanye’s actions were unintentional.  Whether it be the unauthorized uses of samples or the polarizing lyrics, Ye knows fully well where he stands in the public domain, and how people are loathe to stop him.

After all, as he raps on the song that closes Vultures 1, “After everything said, ‘Crazy, bipolar, antisemite’… and I’m still the king.”

At least he’s King of the charts this week. 


DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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By DJ Rob

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