Many rappers have used controversy in recent decades to attempt to promote themselves as artists. There is a wide variety of controversial rappers such as Ice Cube, Young Buck, Eminem, and, in particular, Kanye West.
Kanye has headlined various papers, magazines and blogs with his audacious behavior, questionable tweets and topical lyrics. Some of his well-known outbursts have come from the Hurricane Katrina relief concert, covering Rolling Stone as the Black Jesus, and cutting off Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV VMA’s. This past year West has continued in his controversial ways by incorporating profound cover art into his 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF). The cover art was banned by several major outlets, including Wal-Mart. According to an interview conducted by The New Yorker in early January 2011, George Condo, the cover artist, was consciously and deliberately asked by Kanye to paint something that would get banned. Condo had painted eight or nine different covers for West, including two “portraits of West himself, one in extreme close-up, with mismatched eyes and four sets of teeth. Another showed his head, crowned and decapitated, placed sideways on a white slab, impaled by a sword. There was also a painting of a dyspeptic ballerina in a black tutu, a painting of the crown and the sword by themselves in a grassy landscape, and a lurid scene of a naked black man on a bed, straddled by a naked white female creature with fearsome features, wings, no arms, and a long, spotted tail. West chose that one,” (The New Yorker). Out of all the options created by Condo, it seems evident to me Kanye did not hesitate to choose the most bizarre and controversial. After selecting the art piece and finishing up the final draft of the CD, major outlets refused to put it in their stores. Although he knew this would most likely be the case, West took to Twitter and wrote “Yooooo they banned my album cover,” adding “In all honesty … I really don’t be thinking about Wal-Mart when I make my music or album covers.”
Although it might be considered wrong to deceive the public, the banned cover art has proven beneficial for Kanye’s album promotion. MBDTF debuted at number 1 on the US Billboard 200 chart and in the first week sold 496,000 copies in the USA. The banned cover attracted a lot of attention as people, including myself, wondered ‘what has kanye done now?’ and wanted to have a look at it.
This is not the first time, however, that this controversial PR technique has been employed. A recent example of the same tactic can be found in the field of basketball, where APL had their shoes banned by the NBA because they claimed they would make customers jump higher. Although this claim is highly debatable, many purchasers came to believe that the shoes would increase their vertical leap simply because the NBA had banned them.
I think the use of this PR strategy, and the controversy that ensued, was very clever on Kanye West’s part as it caused a lot of hype to revolve around the album. The stunt did not detract from West’s image; it actually heightened the sense of drama surrounding the album and got people talking excitedly about his work. Kanye was clearly successful in promoting MBDTF and, in my opinion, his PR acumen was a big part of the success story.