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Kanye West's 'Yeezus': Is the artsy, dark album heaven-sent or a weak event?

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - To no one's surprise, Kanye West's sixth solo effort debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts last month. But "Yeezus" sold only 327,000 units that week — West's lowest first-week sales since he released his 2004 debut, "The College Dropout."

This week, the fourth week the album has been out, "Yeezus" sold 29,000 units, bringing its total to 459,356, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Could West's album be headed south?

Joe Levy, editor of Billboard, says the rapper hasn't promoted his album the way most A-list artists do, so "Yeezus" is performing nicely.

"With almost absolutely no promotion and certainly nothing traditionally defined as album release promotion, no single, no video, no magazine covers. ... This is a fan reaction based purely on interest and anticipation," he said. "I think given the way he's approached this release, he's doing quite well."

West wouldn't be interviewed for this story and his label, Def Jam, didn't immediately respond to an email requesting an interview or a statement.

"Yeezus" is an artsy, dark adventure that isn't easy to digest. The 10 tracks are made up of moody, electronic and erratic beats, with the lyrics focusing on race, religion and other topics. West's weird-boy, punk rock sound isn't a surprise: He began on a darker route in 2008 with "808s & Heartbreak" and went deeper two years later with "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." But the new album has put the multiplatinum, Grammy-winning rapper on a new wavelength outside the mainstream margin.

The album, though critically acclaimed, doesn't have any big singles, anthemic hooks or charismatic lyrics like West's past efforts. In fact, West officially released a single, "Black Skinhead," two weeks after the album dropped. The music video came days later.

West performed on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" a month before he released "Yeezus," debuting the songs "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" while lights flickered behind him and visuals of dogs barking and the words "not for sale" appeared behind him. He also was the headline act at the Governors Ball festival in New York and gave extensive interviews to The New York Times and W magazine. And West had his first child, daughter North West, with Kim Kardashian days before the album was released.

"It's like the difference between making an art piece and something that's just driving for commercial success, and I think he's at a level of celebrity where he can do that, and the next record he can come back and have an album with five singles on it if he chooses to," said Faith Newman, the A&R executive who signed Nas and also works with 2 Chainz. "He's just in a different class of artists."

The buzz around "Yeezus" shifted partly because of J. Cole's new album, "Born Sinner," released the same day as "Yeezus." Though it debuted at No. 2, J. Cole's sales have surpassed West with 478,647 albums sold. It features collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Miguel, who appears on the radio hit "Power Trip."

Jay-Z also is responsible for grabbing much of the attention from West. The rapper has been in the spotlight since he announced his new album in a commercial during the NBA Finals a month ago. Along with a business deal that shook up the music industry in which Samsung gave 1.2 million copies of "Magna Carta Holy Grail" to its Galaxy mobile customers, the album sold 528,000 units this week, debuting at No. 1.

"If you look at Jay-Z, who staged an enormous media event around the release of his record and is following it up with a tour, you're looking at an artist who is utilizing all available channels to promote his record, and, in fact, creating new ways to distribute and promote his record," Levy said. "If you look at Kanye, he's an artist who consciously decided to use no available channels to promote his record, and he's got good reason for it. Not only has he intentionally made a difficult work of art that he wants to stand on its own terms, he's just had a baby. He's got other things on his mind."

On Friday, police were investigating a scuffle between West and a cameraman at Los Angeles International Airport. TMZ posted a video of the incident that showed West lunging at a photographer's camera and trying to wrestle it away.

Newman, who is the senior vice-president of creative and business development at music publisher Reservoir Media Management, believes "Yeezus" might not hit platinum status unless it gets a musical face-lift.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if he goes on and remixes one of those songs on his album ... and comes up with the most amazing single and drops a bomb on people," she said. "He might be sitting in the cut and looking at what's going on with everybody else."

Overall, Newman said, "Yeezus" won't have a negative effect on West's career.

"Do I think it will hurt him in the long run in terms of popularity? I don't think so," she said. "I'm sure he's already got another something in the works. I think Kanye's going to be around for a long time — love him or hate him."

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Online:

http://www.kanyewest.com/

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Follow Mesfin Fekadu on Twitter: twitter.com/MusicMesfin

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