The always fascinating Kanye West went on the BBC this weekend for an interview that covered everything from his presidential candidacy, which he insists is still on, to his deal with IKEA that fell through, robbing the world of the chance to assemble a Yeezy Season bookcase with an infuriatingly small wrench.
But per usual, amidst all the grand pronouncements I locked onto one small nugget and immediately became obsessed. While talking to host Annie Mac about the response to TLOP, especially in regards to radio, Kanye said that his music's always taken a while to warm up to and he's never had radio success right out of the gate.
"I've never had a first single that really did well at radio ever in my career"
What an interesting claim, is it true? So I looked up the lead single off every Kanye album (not counting Cruel Summer) and discovered that, as is so often the case with Mr. West, he's not right, but he's not wrong either.
- 2003, College Dropout: "Through the Wire" (Peaked at #15)
- 2005, Late Registration: "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" (Peaked at #40)
- 2007, Graduation: "Can't Tell Me Nothin" (Peaked at #41)
- 2008, 808s & Heartbreak: "Love Lockdown" (Peaked at #3)
- 2010, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: "Power" (Peaked at #22)
- 2011, Watch the Throne: "H.A.M." (Peaked at #23)
- 2013, Yeezus: "Black Skinhead" (Peaked at #69)
- 2016, The Life of Pablo: "Famous" (Peaked at #34)
First and foremost, it may sound like a cliche, but looking at that list really made me re-realize just what a chasm can exist between mainstream radio and hip-hop culture. "Can't Tell Me Nothing" has to be one of Kanye's most beloved songs, a song I'd argue has some of the best opening lines in modern music history, and it didn't even crack the Top 25, while "H.A.M.", a song that somehow managed to feel outdated the exact second it first dropped and didn't even make the eventual album, did go Top 25? Fuck out of here radio.
Similarly, looking at this list is a reminder of how much less the lead single as an entity matters than it did even just a few years ago. When "Love Lockdown" dropped it was really the first taste the larger public had of what the album might sound like, but while "Famous" may technically be the lead single off TLOP, we'd heard "Wolves" a year before and "No More Parties" and "Real Friends" before we even knew if they would make the album. What's a "lead" single in the age of the surprise album release?
Still, though, there are some lessons to be learned from looking at Kanye's lead singles. While the numbers prove that Kanye's first statement about his first single never doing well isn't technically correct - I'd have to call "Love Lockdown" at number three pretty damn good - it's interesting to see that an artist who's had such an enormous impact on music so often didn't have hits out the gate, and serves as an indicator of mainstream America's feelings about him.
Not at all shockingly, his most successful lead single was a pop song about love, while his least successful came after (the first) TaylorSwiftGate and was titled "Black Skinhead." There's nothing America likes more than violently powerful music from a black man titled "Black Skinhead," although surprisingly that song would eventually find mainstream acceptance via a phone commercial.
But while Kanye has had some lead single success in his career, and fascinatingly his second most successful lead single, "Through the Wire," was also his first ever single period, he is right in saying that unlike Desiigner, it seems like it's often taken the general populace a little while to catch up.
Wait, what's Kanye dressing like now? What's he sound like? That constant shifting may have made for some dud lead singles, but ultimately it's also made for a hell of a long career; which would you rather have? Exactly.