To make reference to the full title of his mentor Jay-Z's album The Blueprint 2: Kanye West is both a "gift" and a "curse." On one hand, he's one of the great talents of a generation, who at his height released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, regarded by some as the best album of the current decade. On the other, he finds himself with a growing number of (former) loyalists completely exhausted by his precipitous antics.
It's OK for an entertainer or a business to pick a fight now and again with the competition (that once was Apple vs. the other guys). It's OK to aggressively play the challenger role or be provocative to get attention. In doing so, you can even afford to alienate some people while you evolve your focus to appeal to new audiences. After all, it's Kanye's diverse talent and tenacity that drove him to break through barriers in the music and fashion industries.
But brand Kanye is also riddled in duality. His arrogance has finally blinded him. He has laughed in the face of the one golden rule that every entertainer, politician, brand, and company must always respect: If you cross the line with your loyal fans and customers, you're dead.
Throughout Kanye's artistic journey, his loyal fan base has always supported him. His "gift," in the context of today's business environment, is a creative vision that any investor evaluating a startup or a young CEO would relish. His ability to steer trends and create culture has recently forced the major fashion establishments to take notice. He has delivered the continued innovation that both emerging and established companies chase.
Perhaps it's those same qualities that led Elon Musk to pen a flattering tribute to Kanye in Time's most recent 100 Most Influential People issue.
Yet in the rollout of his new album over the last few weeks, the "curse" of Kanye West has tipped the scales.
Here is a blueprint, straight from Kanye's failings, of the things entrepreneurs should know about running a business and being a leader.
1. Never deceive your customers.
Kanye made waves when he announced his New York Fashion Week mega event at Madison Square Garden. He promised to bring the fashion and music worlds together in an innovative experience to debut his Yeezy Season 3 collection with Adidas and release of his wildly anticipated new album, The Life of Pablo. While his new sneakers and apparel were on display at the February 11 event, which I attended, the real excitement from his fans centered on Kanye's performing his new music live for the very first time. The event drew the fashion elite, celebrities, entertainers, and nearly 20,000 fans.
What transpired however, was unforgivable. Instead of rewarding the fans in attendance with an epic performance, he proceeded to pull out his laptop, plug it into an auxiliary chord connected to MSG's distorted sound system, and basically mail it in. Some of his most loyal fans paid hundreds of dollars to show up for this "concert" at 4:00 p.m. on a Thursday and received a lazy demo they could have sampled just as easily on their iPhones. Kanye gave his most loyal fans the ultimate bait-and-switch.
2. Don't abuse your employees.
Behind the scenes at Madison Square Garden, hundreds of models were prepped for the fashion show. Many accepted the job because they were longtime Kanye fans. But this wasn't your average hair and makeup routine or day at the office. For $10 an hour, hundreds of models embarked on what was documented as a 12-hour job from hell. It began early in the morning outside at MSG in 19-degree weather. The pack was stripped of their possessions, handed an NDA, bused off to a warehouse in New Jersey, and in assembly line fashion draped in tattered clothes. They were told to channel the vibe of a Rwandan refugee camp and then hand-delivered a preposterous list of 38 rules they would need to comply with. For hours they stood at attention for Kanye's big moment. And by the time the models were dismissed, West had turned another contingent of fans into dissenters.
3. Never disrespect those who came before you.
Kanye justifies much of his behavior in the name of opening new doors for the next generation of artists and creatives. So one would expect him to respect those who paved the way for him. However, since Adidas anted up and lured Kanye away from Nike, the artist has done just the opposite. At MSG, a chant of "f*** Michael Jordan" broke out in the crowd. And while Kanye did briefly try to quiet it, it started because Kanye was blasting his new song "FACTS," on which he proclaims he has now "jumped over" Brand Jordan itself. In reality, Michael Jordan is the centerpiece of sneaker culture and arguably the main reason Kanye even has the opportunity to make a shoe line in the first place. Given Kanye's past behavior, its not surprising he picked a fight with MJ and Nike, but what he wildly miscalculated is that his fans and customers were raised on Air Jordans, are intensely loyal to the brand, and wouldn't think of taking the opposite side.
4. You can't overpromise and wildly underdeliver.
The saga around The Life of Pablo is still playing out, but as far as product releases go, it's been a total debacle. First, it was promised to be delivered the day after the MSG event. It wasn't finished, and the release got delayed. Then Kanye announced on Twitter that it would be available for download and streaming exclusively on the music service Tidal. Thousands rushed to download the album (so they wouldn't have to commit to a long-term contract with the divisive service), yet the album never arrived in their inbox. Kanye decided, after the fact, to pull the download option and force people into Tidal subscriptions. As a result, Kanye managed to turn a huge number of paying fans into a modern piracy mafia. While the backlash against Tidal rages, The Life of Pablo has achieved the not-so-flattering distinction of being pirated over 500,000 times in a single day.
Some people would argue that Kanye is finally getting the dose of reality that he truly deserves. Other supporters have clung onto the performer, allowing his creative genius to excuse his improprieties.
The truth is, whether you're an entrepreneur or a performer, as soon as you think you are untouchable and your actions start alienating your most loyal supporters, you are destined to fail.