1. Yeezus has no hit singles.
This is pretty crucial — most anyone buying Yeezus was doing so because they were invested in Kanye West as an artist, not because they were into a particular single. This was very much by design: West deliberately avoided a traditional promotional rollout for Yeezus and kept things limited to debuting two songs on Saturday Night Live, projecting “New Slaves” on buildings in hip neighborhoods in major cities, headlining the Governors Ball festival in New York, and granting a truly epic interview to The New York Times. Yeezus was a huge cultural event, but one that existed mostly outside the realm of radio and television. Compare this with Daft Punk, who had a similarly high-profile but minimalist promo schedule but scored a bona fide radio smash with “Get Lucky” weeks before Random Access Memories was released. Hits matter a lot.
2. Yeezus leaked too late.
This may seem a little counterintuitive, but hear me out. Yeezus leaked four days before it was available to purchase. This is very rare for major records, and with some consumers, that was a bad thing because there are a lot of people who like to live with an album a bit before deciding to actually buy it. The number of people who want to hear music is greater than those inclined to purchase it now, and the window between the time most people acquired Yeezus and when they could actually buy it was so narrow that many people who may eventually buy it were still on the fence about whether they enjoyed it or not last week.
3. The physical packaging for Yeezus did not exactly encourage anyone to buy it.
Part of the reason a lot of people still buy CDs and LPs is because they enjoy owning a physical copy of an album and having an object they can display in their house or car. Yeezus’ ultra-minimal packaging, while intriguing in concept, is a mockery of all that. I was actually pretty into the idea of the Yeezus packaging at first, and walked into the Best Buy near BuzzFeed’s office in Manhattan fully intending to buy it on CD. When I saw the CD in person, I was actually surprised by how empty and pathetic it seemed. I could not bring myself to purchase it; it just seemed like a rip-off, especially with the sticker on the back instructing people to visit West’s website for song titles and credits. I would definitely buy Yeezus on vinyl, but that doesn’t exist yet, and there’s some question to if it ever will be released in that format at all. Daft Punk, on the other hand, released Random Access Memories on both CD and LP with lovely packaging and an instantly iconic sleeve design.
4. Daft Punk put their album up for presale, and Kanye did not.
Daft Punk capitalized on massive advance buzz for their album by putting it up for presale on iTunes weeks before it was released. This encouraged a lot of excited fans to make impulse purchases of Random Access Memories before really knowing what the record would be like aside from “Get Lucky.” West refused all pre-orders, insisting that people buy the album on the day of release. It stands to reason that if West played the same game as Daft Punk, Yeezus would have sold just a little bit better.
5. Kanye released Yeezus in a very competitive week for hip-hop.
J. Cole’s Born Sinner and Mac Miller’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off both debuted last week and sold very, very well: 297,000 for Cole, and 101,000 for Miller. To some extent, this could be evidence of a “rising tide lifts all ships” effect, but at the same time, it’s evidence that a lot of the market for mainstream rap was more interested in those albums than the arty, confrontational Yeezus. The success of Cole’s album, which often sounds like a throwback to West’s early work, could be interpreted as a large segment of the hip-hop audience opting for a familiar sound rather than embracing West’s most experimental record yet.
Yeezus may have underperformed based on early estimates, but it’s still a big hit.
Yeezus has the third-biggest debut of any album this year after Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience — which sold 968,000 in its first week — and Random Access Memories, which sold 339,000. Yeezus is West’s sixth No. 1 album, though it marks the lowest first-week sales of his career, since every other record has sold at least 440,000.