Inside DONDA: Kanye West’s Plan to Rule the World (and Save His Bank Account)
On his recently released—to Tidal, if that counts—album The Life of Pablo, Kanye West took time out of his busy schedule of being this generation’s Steve Jobs to fire a shot at his wife Kim Kardashian’s former sex tape co-star Ray J: “I bet me and Ray J would be friends / If we ain’t love the same bitch / Yeah, he might have hit it first / Only problem is I’m rich.”
Now, referring to the mother of your two young children as a “bitch” and publicly invoking the most embarrassing moment in her life for the purpose of boosting your own ego aside, West’s comment about Brandy’s little brother’s money situation seemed to echo a previous statement he made while accepting BET Honors’ Visionary Award in February of last year. “I wanna say that my wife has dated broke black dudes,” said West. “So it got nothing to do with money.”
But was West talking about himself?
On Saturday night, hours before performing on Saturday Night Live and releasing his much-tinkered-with album, West claimed that he was $53 million in debt:
This left the Twittersphere scratching its head. After all, West has moved over 32 million albums and 100 million digital downloads worldwide. He just sold out Madison Square Garden—as well as movie theaters across the country that simulcasted—his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show in collaboration with Adidas. Last year, he moved into a reported $20 million sprawling mansion with his family in Hidden Hills, California. And just a few weeks ago, he posted a photo of a pair of custom-fitted luxury vehicles—a Rolls-Royce and a Maybach—to his social media, alleging he’d purchased the duo for him and his wife.
Then on Sunday morning, West casually implored Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg, who is worth a reported $44.6 billion, via Twitter to “invest 1 billion dollars into Kanye West ideas.” If you’re asking why West didn’t go the Facebook route, well, he’s one of the only major music artists who doesn’t have an official Facebook page, nor does he have an Instagram page (a Facebook subsidiary). For some reason, West has chosen to leave millions of dollars in promo money on the table to not create accounts on these Zuckerberg-owned sites.
West doubled down Sunday night, spending his Valentine’s Day evening imploring Zuckerberg—on what he believed to be Zuck’s birthday, which is actually May 14—to throw him a billi.
He went on to say that he was “this generation’s Disney,” and that he doesn’t “have enough resources to create what I really can.”
And the thing West wants to create is DONDA: a comprehensive network of businesses investing in everything from medical research to find a cure for HIV and cancer, to holograms and hovercrafts, to matchmaking and “emoticon auto correct.”
According to West, he presented this chart to VC investors four years ago and “everyone laughed” at it. So let's use this opportunity to take a look back at the beautiful, dark, twisted history of DONDA.
On Jan. 5, 2012, West announced DONDA, a nebulous company named after his late mother, Donda West. The announcement came in the form of a (since deleted) 1,600-word Twitter rant where he vaguely outlined what DONDA would do.
“DONDA is a design company which will galvanize amazing thinkers and put them in a creative space to bounce there dreams and ideas,” wrote West.
He continued: “DONDA will be comprised of over 22 divisions with a goal to make products and experiences that people want and can afford. I want to put creatives in a room together with like minds that are all waaaay doper than me. We want to help simplify and aesthetically improve everything we see hear, touch, taste and feel.”
“We can collectively effect the world trough design. We need to pick up where steve jobs left off.”
In 2013, Valleywag ran a fascinating piece about West’s failed attempts to court Silicon Valley investors into backing DONDA. He’d reportedly bounced the idea(s) off of everyone from Instagram founder Kevin Systrom to Zappos head Tony Hsieh, whom he later torched in an interview on Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast: “I got into this giant argument with the head of Zappos that he’s trying to tell me what I need to focus on,” said West. “Meanwhile, he sells all this shit product to everybody, his whole thing is based off of selling shit product.”
West's 2013 DONDA speech at Madison Square Garden aimed at Google cofounder Eric Schmidt.
During his startup tour, he also swung by Fancy in New York, where Business Insider reported that West gave a bewildering speech about DONDA: “While he did not get into the details of how he'll do it, West says he wants DONDA to become a trillion-dollar company that completely disrupts the fashion industry.”
Valleywag cited a source at the time claiming that the DONDA meetings with investors were not going so well. “I think he’s getting frustrated. People are enjoying meeting him because he’s Kanye and they want to take him around, but then they’re not actually investing,” the source told Valleywag, adding, “If you see his behavior, it’s so erratic, he’s not focused and kind of all over the place.”
The site, which is owned by Gawker Media, also interviewed Rap Genius (now Genius, and since fired) cofounder Mahbod Moghadam about West’s close friendship with Ben Horowitz, who co-founded the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, which had invested in Rap Genius.
“‘Kanye is not good at articulating what DONDA is. He is the Maboo of DONDA, but DONDA has no Ilan or Tom for now,’ referring to himself (by nickname) and his cofounders, who are occasionally able to keep his ADHD antics in check. ‘I mean, what is DONDA? so far it is just a brand.’”
Since the failed DONDA money-raising tour, the company’s designed book and album covers, and handled all the brand and marketing for the albums and tours for Watch the Throne and Yeezus. In March 2014, it entered into a partnership with mentor Jay Z’s Roc Nation, whose job is to manage DONDA Music.
West is, without question, a brilliant musical artist—perhaps the best of his generation. And, as Dr. Dre proved with Beats, he could just be one big Apple acquisition away from solving his alleged financial woes. Perhaps he should follow the advice of his idol, Steve Jobs, and narrow his focus.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all,” said Jobs. “It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”