When last we checked in with Kanye West, the mercurial hip-hop superstar turned footwear magnate, I was tiptoeing through a parking lot crop circle composed of hundreds of pairs of his Yeezy sneakers. “I’m not a numbers guy,” he explained ten months ago. “To ask me to somehow translate this to numbers is to ask your grandmother exactly what the recipe of the cake was.”
There’s only one number that West cares about. A billion, as in dollars. And he cares a lot.
When we featured West on the cover of Forbes last summer, delving into his incredible success with Yeezy, he seemed pleased at first. His world-famous wife, Kim Kardashian West, even tweeted her congratulations, to the positive affirmations of 32,300 of their closest Twitter friends.But without sufficient documentation on his unusual stake, versus just his word and industry guesstimates, we didn’t call him a billionaire. And that grated on him. As the year wore on, he protested publicly. (“I showed them a $890 million receipt, and they still didn’t say ‘billionaire,’” he told an industry panel, about something that no one at Forbes remembers.) In private, he was more biting. (A “disrespectful article,” he texted this week, that was “purposely snubbing me.”)
When our annual billionaires list appeared earlier this month, again with West absent—still no documentation, and now a pandemic to boot—West again reacted with hurt and venom. “You know what you’re doing,” he texted. “You’re toying with me and I’m not finna lye [sic] down and take it anymore in Jesus name.” At one point, he texted that Forbes was “part of a group of media” that was trying to suppress his self-made narrative because of his race. That sister-in-law Kylie Jenner did make the list also clearly stuck in his craw.
Then, yesterday, a breakthrough: West directed his team to provide what we feel is an authentic numeric look into Kanye Inc.
Three things became clear from this exercise. First, it reinforces why we put him on the cover in the first place—West, in just a few years, has created a brand that’s challenging Nike’s Air Jordan for sneaker world supremacy. It’s one of the great retail stories of the century.
Second, it reinforced that West, who claims both in words and in this paperwork that he’s worth more than $3 billion, is as overly boastful as his political idol, President Donald Trump. Not a numbers guy? We agree.
Finally—and perhaps most critically to West—it does confirm, based on our estimates, that his stake in Yeezy indeed makes him a billionaire. A bit over $1 billion, actually.
In the process, we can now share more details about Yeezy than ever before revealed—as well as some insight into what drives this extremely creative, extremely enigmatic ten-digit artist.
Yeezy is a complicated asset. West owns 100% of it. But it’s functionally tied—at least for five-plus years based on the documents we saw—to Adidas, which produces, markets and distributes the shoes. There’s also a separate apparel division that we don’t believe makes money. Last year, our sources projected the shoes would finish 2019 with revenue north of $1.5 billion (Adidas would not comment then, or now). Per recent conversations and internal documents, we believe the final revenue number ended up closer to $1.3 billion.
Our sources told us last year that West’s agreement calls for him to receive a royalty around 15% of Yeezy revenue from Adidas. Upon closer inspection, it appears some expenses are carved out of that slice, bringing his actual cut closer to 11%. At that rate, he would have received royalties of over $140 million from Yeezy sales last year.
West’s aggressive $3 billion self-appraisal is clearly based on the idea that the business is infinitely portable. It’s not. Taking Yeezy away from Adidas seems almost prohibitively cumbersome, if not contractually impossible. A safer way to value it: as a royalty stream, like music publishing or film residuals. Multiples, based on data from services like Royalty Exchange and reports of large private transactions, can range from as low as 3 for something faddish like Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” to 17 for an evergreen asset like the Eddie Murphy film Trading Places.
A handful of experts surveyed felt West’s interest would fetch a multiple somewhere in the middle of that range, were it ever made available to outside investors. The convenience of the Adidas setup trumps publishing catalogs, where owners must actively collect payments from a complex web of sources—or outsource that labor to someone else in exchange for an administration fee. “His place in the capital stack is a preferred place to be,” says Royalty Exchange chief Matt Smith, who pegged the multiple at between 10 and 12.
Conservatively—as we typically are with such figures—a 10x multiple, applied to West’s Yeezy cut of $140 million, makes his stake worth about $1.4 billion. But it’s a private, highly illiquid $1.4 billion; our rule-of-thumb for private assets like that is to lop off at least 10%. That’s $1.26 billion.
Shouldn’t West have also socked away hundreds of millions more, given his incredibly successful recording career and burgeoning Yeezy dividends? If you spend like a superstar, not necessarily. (The guy owns a tank.) The statement of assets supplied by his team yesterday lists just $17 million in cash and $35 million in stocks.
The biggest items, according to his internal team, are $81 million in “buildings and improvements” and $21 million in land. His homes are surely most or all of that. The Los Angeles mansion Kanye West shares with his wife and four children is itself a work of art—down to the floors, made of a special Belgian plaster that, if scuffed, can be fixed only by summoning a crew from Europe. “The house was all him,” Kardashian West told me last year. “I’ve never seen anyone that pays such attention to detail.” A pair of $14 million Wyoming ranches—nearly 10,000 acres between the two of them—has been taking up more cash.
Customized real estate often sells for less than the money put in (buyers in that range tend to want their own features, versus Kanye’s Belgian plaster). If you want to start scraping, there’s $3,845,162 for “vehicles,” $297,050 for “livestocks.” Then there’s the matter of his music. Documents we reviewed show West’s G.O.O.D. label—and his own recorded music and publishing rights—to be worth at least $90 million.
We tend to look at self-appraisals somewhat skeptically. Aside from the music, half of all this presumably belongs to his wife, although she’s no slouch and that math goes two ways. Given the illiquidity of these myriad assets and the lack of independent backup, we’re giving all of this a 50% haircut, leaving about $125 million in assets outside of his Yeezy crown jewel. Then there’s debt: Between mortgages, advances and other liabilities, we saw about $100 million for which West is on the hook.
All told, our current net worth estimate for Kanye West: $1.3 billion, which he’ll be pleased to note is $300 million more than little sister Kylie.
Over the past 40 years, two people have stood out for their fixation on what Forbes estimates their net worth to be: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and President Donald J. Trump. This year, Kanye West makes that a vainglorious trinity. Over the past few months, he has steadily taken his complaints up the Forbes editorial ladder (“You’re snubbing me and avoiding the truth at all cost”) while publicly waxing for the validation. “When people say it’s crass to call yourself a billionaire, I might legally change my name to Christian Genius Billionaire Kanye West for a year until y’all understand exactly what it is,” West explained in November. “It will be on the license plate.”
The chip on West’s shoulder dates back to his early days growing up in Chicago, where teachers sometimes scolded him for sketching sneaker designs instead of doing his schoolwork. Later, he produced songs for Jay-Z, but felt the elder mogul didn’t view him seriously as a solo act. Over the past decade, West instigated more than his share of narcissistic episodes, including a self-appointed nickname, tour and album, Yeezus, which never seemed to treat his savior complex with much irony. (Typical song: “I Am A God.”)
When viewed through that lens, his famous affinity for President Trump makes a lot of sense. (And it continues unabated—one text to Forbes’ chief content officer this week ended with “Trump 2020” and a raised fist emoji.) As does West’s net-worth lobbying—an art practiced, with gusto, for decades, by Trump.
“It’s not a billion,” West texted us last night. “It’s $3.3 billion since no one at Forbes knows how to count.”
For years, Forbes has had an informal “Trump rule”—take whatever the future president insisted he was worth, divide by three, and start honing from there. Like mentor, like mentee. Welcome to the ten-digit club, Kanye. You may not like our number, but in that regard, you’ve joined the highest company.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg Forbes Staff
Additional reporting by Randall Lane