The rappers’ anticipated albums — “Certified Lover Boy” and “Donda” — both potential streaming blockbusters, arrived within five days of each other, with very different rollouts.
Sept. 3, 2021 Updated 9:39 a.m. ET
For more than a decade, Drake and Kanye West have been locked in a dialogue at the top of the hip-hop heap — occasional collaborators turned friendly competitors turned bitter rivals, and sometimes all three at once.
Yet rarely have the two generation-defining stars so closely intertwined their musical fates as this week, when they released highly anticipated, long-delayed albums within five days of each another, with very different rollout strategies.
“Certified Lover Boy,” Drake’s sixth studio album, came out just before 1 a.m. Eastern time on Friday, the culmination of nearly a year of teases, promotional singles and false starts. The album — which had been scheduled for release in January but was mentioned obliquely as early as 2019 — features 21 tracks and a huge complement of guest stars, including Jay-Z, Travis Scott, Lil Baby, Future, Young Thug, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne.
West’s 10th album, “Donda,” arrived on Sunday with considerably more friction, which may have only fed its hype. Originally slated for July 2020 — and then July 23 of this year, then Aug. 6 — the 27-track LP came in the wake of three stadium-size listening events, during which West played the work-in-progress; built a replica of his childhood home; staged a mock wedding ceremony with his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian West; welcomed polarizing guests like DaBaby and Marilyn Manson; and declined to speak a word.Kanye West’s ‘Donda’ Era, on a Chaotic StageAug. 31, 2021
“Donda” has its own deep bench of superstar guests, including the Weeknd, Lil Baby, Pop Smoke and Roddy Ricch. A handful, like Scott, Jay-Z and Young Thug, appear on both LPs. (Few women appear on either release.) Their stuffed track lists have become a standard industry strategy to maximize streams, and may be a key weapon in the chart contest between “Donda” and “Certified Lover Boy.”
While pushing cultural buttons was a significant part of West’s release strategy, Drake invited some scrutiny too, by including R. Kelly among the eight credited songwriters on the song “TSU,” apparently from the use of a sample. Kelly, who has long faced accusations of sexual abuse, is currently on trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn for racketeering and violating the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting anyone across state lines for prostitution, and many people on social media took offense. (John Lennon and Paul McCartney also have a credit, for the Beatles’ “Michelle,” which is used in the album’s opening track, “Champagne Poetry.”)Sign up for the Louder Newsletter Stay on top of the latest in pop and jazz with reviews, interviews, podcasts and more from The New York Times music critics. Get it sent to your inbox.
West, who has taken to covering his face in public, opted for a plain black cover for “Donda,” while Drake went splashier. “Certified Lover Boy” uses readily meme-able album art from the British contemporary artist Damien Hirst that depicts emojis of 12 pregnant women of various skin tones.
But even as West struck first, “Donda,” named for the rapper’s late mother, was still being updated the morning of its release, with additional versions of multiple songs added to the track list. West claimed on Instagram that his record company had “put my album out without my approval” and that it had initially blocked a track featuring Manson and DaBaby. (“Jail Pt. 2,” with appearances by both, is now included on the album. Def Jam, his label, declined to comment.) Additional collaborators slated to be on the album, including Chris Brown and Soulja Boy, expressed their own discontent with the finished product.
Yet even amid the scheduling bumps, mixed reviews and nontraditional weekend release — which left West two fewer days of sales and streams than a standard Friday drop — “Donda” is on pace to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart with one of the biggest opening weeks of the year. According to Def Jam, “Donda” had 180 million streams in its first 24 hours.
Based on Drake’s streaming dominance — he was the first artist to hit 50 billion streams on Spotify, by at least one count — “Certified Lover Boy” is all but certain to reign as one of the year’s biggest releases. And although Drake’s first-week sales will not be finalized until Sept. 13, precluding a direct repeat of the West vs. 50 Cent chart face-off of 2007, fans have been eager to compare the two new works, commercially and artistically, in line with the pair’s latest stoking of their own long-simmering rivalry. (The rappers’ record labels share a parent company in Universal Music Group.)
After Drake appeared to poke fun at West’s age on a guest verse for a Trippie Redd track last month — Drake is 34 and West a decade older — West posted a text exchange online in which he wrote, “You will never recover. I promise you,” and included an image of Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. (West also uploaded a screenshot of what appeared to be Drake’s Toronto address before deleting it. Drake seemed to respond with multiple photos of himself laughing.)
Listeners on Friday were quick to notice Drake’s apparent ripostes to West. “Give that address to your driver, make it your destination/’Stead of just a post out of desperation,” he raps on the track “7am on Bridle Path.”
The digs, in song and on social media, continued a pattern of petty slights, direct and indirect, between the two that dates back years, with the relationship having seemingly curdled irrevocably around Drake’s musical beef with Pusha-T, a West affiliate, in 2018.
In the years since, the artists’ paths diverged, even as they occasionally butted heads online and on record. West embraced former President Donald J. Trump, embarked on an ill-fated run for president and turned toward gospel, releasing a Christian-themed album, “Jesus Is King,” in October 2019. He vowed to stop cursing in his music, a promise he upheld on “Donda,” even censoring his guests.
Drake, meanwhile, released a steady stream of music even as he made himself more scarce. In the spring of 2020, the rapper followed the single “Toosie Slide,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, with a surprise mixtape, “Dark Lane Demo Tapes,” featuring songs that had leaked online. He promised a studio album that summer, and the would-be lead single, “Laugh Now Cry Later,” topped the singles chart in August. But the album never came; another holdover, the three-song EP “Scary Hours 2,” followed in March and resulted in another No. 1 single (“What’s Next”).
After months of only cryptic updates on the album’s status, a collision course with West began to seem inevitable as the summer wound down and the two A-list rappers resurfaced. As West toured a still-in-progress “Donda,” Drake appeared to stake a claim to a Sept. 3 release date late last month with a lo-fi, guerrilla-looking ad that cut in during an ESPN “SportsCenter” broadcast.
And on a Trippie Redd track titled “Betrayal,” the rapper indicated that the hubbub surrounding West’s “Donda” would not affect his final release date. This time, Drake rapped, “it’s set in stone.”