The following is an excerpt from Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kirk Walker Graves, out June 19. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon, Bloomsbury.com, and wherever 33 1/3s are sold.
For all his presumptions of being misunderstood, Kanye West has received more critical adoration over the course of a decade than most artists will find in a lifetime. In the lead-up to the deafeningly overhyped debut of Yeezus (2013), his sixth studio album, the New York Times featured him on the cover of its Sunday Arts section (“Behind Kanye’s Mask”) for an interview. The accompanying image of West, snapped by fashion photographer Nick Knight, speaks volumes. Wearing a red balaclava, thick gold chain, and high-end black T-shirt, his arms crossed and his eyes closed in the deliberate manner of someone affecting impatience, he looks more like a petulant character from Wes Anderson’s cutting room floor than a self-styled agit-pop provocateur – maybe a stowaway fashion student on Steve Zissou’s ship with dreams of becoming a mercenary. Yet the mere fact of his presence on the front page of the Sunday Times Arts section signaled a crucial shift in his relationship to the public, an improbable point at which his untethered narcissistic sensibility had found a wider audience eager to call it art.
Writer Jon Caramanica spent three days interviewing Kanye about his nebulous extra-musical ambitions, the arc of his career, and the new direction indicated by Yeezus, a bleak drive down an electro-nihilist autobahn that West describes as “aspirational minimalism.” As Caramanica notes in his excellent introduction to the interview,
No rapper has embodied hip- hop’s oft en contradictory impulses of narcissism and social good quite as he has, and no producer has celebrated the lush and ornate quite as he has. He has spent most of his career in additive mode, figuring out how to make music that’s majestic and thought-provoking and grand-scaled. And he’s also widened the genre’s gates, whether for middle-class values or high-fashion and high-art dreams.
The interview turns particularly fascinating in the discussion of MBDTF and the impulses behind its creation. West describes the album as “a long, backhanded apology” made to regain his place on the shelves of an alienated audience. “That was the album where I gave people what they wanted,” he says. Caramanica counters with the question, “Does that make Dark Fantasy a dishonest album in some way?”, to which Kanye replies with a few bumbling ideas about the inevitable compromises of all visionaries and an implicit self comparison to Steve Jobs, finally declaring that his sense of MBDTF as a compromised record is an example of his “never being satisfied.”
Throughout his career, one of the most appealing and appalling parts of Kanye’s persona has always been the doubleness of his ego – a weirdly complicated childish streak that charms and disgusts in the space of a single gesture. Watching footage from the infamous 2005 Katrina relief telethon, you can measure the shakiness in his voice with a seismograph. What he wants to do, his shaky voice tells us, is gather up all of the floating corpses and detritus and outrage in New Orleans, smash it into a bolus of righteous indignation, and fling it splattering into the living rooms of an ignorant and apathetic public. What he does is something different. Rather than bear witness to a moment of political courage by a precocious pop star, we see an embarrassingly inarticulate person who, though he yearns to say something meaningful about racial inequality and America’s permanent underclass, talks instead about feeling guilty for shopping. That tension – a struggle between self-rationalized good intentions and reckless execution – is an animating force in West’s life and music. So much so, in fact, that in spite of the status he enjoys as beat maven and rap genius, a plurality of the American public associates his name not with a corpus of inspired baroque rap futurism, but with two high profile and incendiary incidents that occurred during live TV broadcasts. The first of these, call it the “Bush Push” (mentioned above), was an unsolicited verbal sucker punch to a sitting U.S. president. Th e second incident was, of course, the buffoonish hijacking of Taylor Swift ’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. His intentions were, once again, avowedly noble – you see, he stole Swift ’s spotlight to shine it on the more deserving art of someone else (Beyoncé). He was the corrective principle of the pop universe, he was deconstructing the tastelessness of award shows, he was etc, etc, etc. The stunt was a bridge too far. The Taylor Swift brand is a sacred force in the marketplace, an ocean of commodified self-regard for millions upon millions of tweens, teens, and twentysomethings around the world. The outburst was self- destructive on a spectacularly visible scale, and in his usurpation of an otherwise unremarkable moment, he may have permanently alienated an entire generation of women. For those who already found his records distasteful, his antics proved his music to be the bombast of a narcissistic clown, the meretricious noise of a child drunk on his own Kool-Aid. His reputation grew to accommodate a host of social grievances, from incivility to race baiting to celebrity entitlement. The worst moment of his public life got its own meme on the Internet, when people across the globe began digitally superimposing his image on unrelated photos, captioning each one with some variant of his infamous interruption (“Imma let you finish, but. . .”). After an August during which political antagonism over healthcare reform became a blood sport in town hall meetings across the country, Americans found a vital center in their shared disgust at West’s behavior. Watching his stillborn come-to-Jesus moment with Jay Leno a few days after the incident, it was clear that for Kanye West, atonement would require a lot more than penance. It would take a miracle.
More than any other poet of spiritual exile, Dante gave the world its most elegant rationale for taking time to figure shit out : “Midway through the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” No less than Don Draper, the wayward enigma at the heart of Mad Men, meditates on those first lines from the Inferno while sunning on a beach in the show’s sixth season. And why not? The image endures down through the ages as a catechism of what it means to be human, a sentient and mistake-making creature adrift in the chaos. Given his compulsion for grandiose analogy, and his positive genius for self-deporting from the straightforward path, the image of Dante’s wanderer is a fitting one to describe the state of things for Kanye following the Swift debacle in late 2009.
Complex magazine editor-in-chief Noah Callahan-Bever became a Kanye confidante over the years, and in early 2010 West invited him to spend time at Avex Honolulu Studios in Oahu, where MBDTF was recorded. Since a prophetic 2002 profile in Mass Appeal magazine (where he describes West as “hip-hop enough to appeal to the most thugged-out cats, but thoughtful enough to resonate with the underground”), Callahan-Bever has charted West’s trajectory through the cultural ecosystem, providing anecdotal glimpses into an inscrutable psyche. For the November 2010 Complex cover story “Project Runaway,” he provides an indispensable eyewitness account of the process by which our era’s most dynamic pop star conceived his magnum opus.
Recounting a phone call with West in mid-October 2009, he writes: “Kanye West was over it, he said. Done with music. He’d clearly needed a break, and his subconscious had manufactured one. Now, he was all about fashion – red leather, gold details, and recapturing the decadence of late-’90s hip- hop in design. While I encouraged his pursuit since he was so obviously enthused, I confessed that it’d be a bummer if he abandoned music altogether.” West was calling from Milan, having left the country following the Leno appearance. He spent a few weeks in Japan before jetting to Rome, where he began an internship at the Italian fashion house Fendi. Reminded of the trying circumstances behind the creation of the Rolling Stones’ greatest LP Exile on Main Street in the south of France, Callahan-Bever admits he was intrigued by the possibilities of Kanye abroad. After a few months with little real communication, he received a brief email in January 2010 from the expat rapper: “Yooooooo, happy new year fam. I can’t wait to play you this new shit!!!!” By late March, Callahan-Bever was “at Avex Honolulu Studios, the seaside recording studio on Oahu where West tracked [fourth studio album] 808s [ & Heartbreak ]” and where he had block-booked “all three session rooms, 24 hours a day” until he was satisfied that the new album was complete.
One of the joys of reading NCB’s piece is his clear-eyed rendering of both the process and the stakes interwoven in the album’s production. He recounts matter-of-factly the hypomanic rhythms of West’s machinations:
Meanwhile, Kanye stares at his laptop, jumping between email and 15 open windows of art references in his browser. He polls those assembled on how risqué is too risqué for his blog, and occasionally barks mixing orders at the engineer, tuning subtle parts of the beat – all without breaking eye contact from his computer. This is how he works: all-A.D.D. everything.
None of this is surprising to anyone who has listened to the album, which is as much about aesthetic transformations of manic energy as is it is about anything else. “During my five days in Hawaii,” NCB writes, “Kanye never slept at his house, or even in a bed. He would, er, power-nap in a studio chair or couch here and there in 90-minute intervals, working through the night. Engineers remained behind the boards 24 hours a day.” Even more compelling is NCB’s account of the shared awareness among the production’s many players:
But mostly we talk[ed] about Kanye’s album: what it has to mean, and what it has to accomplish. At its heart, beyond the beats or rhymes, this conversation is the reason we were all summoned to the island (no LOST ). It’s never explicitly discussed, but everyone here knows that good music is the key to Kanye’s redemption. With the right songs and the right album, he can overcome any and all controversy, and we are here to contribute, challenge, and inspire.
Callahan-Bever expresses an unpretentious wonderment at getting to participate in “Rap Camp,” the playful moniker he gives to his time embedded in the album’s production. Likening the experience to a camp – a clinic put on by some of rap’s leading lights – makes a lot of sense. If you bother to take a census of the dozens of artists, producers, and engineers who worked on MBDTF , it’s easy to forget you’re not looking at the credits of a major motion picture. In addition to the sweeping scope of the production and the vivid after-images etched by its blaze of excess – the undeniable visual dimension of the surplus sonics – MBDTF feels like visual art in other respects, as well. The more one learns about the collaborative intricacies of the production, the more tempting it is to look at Kanye as director, as compositional auteur. To get at this idea, Callahan-Bever quotes legendary hip- hop producer Q-Tip, who was part of Rap Camp in Hawaii:
In art, whether it was Michelangelo or Rembrandt or all these dudes, they’ll sketch something, but their hands may not necessarily touch the paint. Damien Hirst may conceptualize it, but there’s a whole crew of people who are putting it together, like workers. His hand doesn’t have to touch the canvas, but his thought does. With Kanye, when he has his beats or his rhymes, he offers them to the committee and we’re all invited to dissect, strip, or add on to what he’s already started. By the end of the sessions, you see how he integrates and transforms everyone’s contributions, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He’s a real wizard at it. What he does is alchemy, really.
What Q-Tip describes is an update on the dusty divine-right-of-the-visionary idea, which holds that certain works of art owe their status qua art not to the hands that rendered the brushstrokes but to the presiding genius that commissioned them. Andy Warhol’s Factory springs to mind, but so does Steve Jobs’ Apple. Viewed in this light, Kanye’s self-comparison to Jobs is less far-fetched. Jobs’ singular genius lay in his capacity to creatively synthesize art, technology, and commerce – to unite disparate and ostensibly nonessential elements into products of transcendental beauty, eating up market share in the process. The iPod was certainly not the first portable MP3 player on the market, but it was the first to double as a functional art object. With its clean design and sleek aesthetic polish, it made an irresistible promise to transform an activity into an experience . We bear daily witness to Jobs’ thought touching the canvas in the round corners and bright icons of our everyday devices. Like Jobs, Kanye places total faith in his aesthetic ego. His production ethos is one of frenzied collage, an ongoing wager with himself that he can refashion (and rebrand) whatever he finds – in the pop music past, in contemporary art, in haute couture – into manifestations of his creative narcissism (his “dreams,” as he called them during mid- show rants on his 2013 Yeezus Tour).
As an art form collage is defined, of course, along literal lines of contradiction. In 1912 Picasso glued oilcloth on his canvas for Still Life of Chair Caning, bounding the elliptical work with a length of actual rope. By sampling the alien stuff of a foreign world, the world of everyday objects beyond the painting’s borders, Picasso deepened the possibilities of
the medium. From the heyday of Dadaism and Cubism onward, the most effective collagists, with materials as varied as industrial detritus, voicemail messages, and ATM surveillance footage, have used discontinuity to mirror indwelling ideas about art. Through collage, the artist insists on exemption from generic mandates and programmatic techniques, freeing himself to intuit undiscovered possibility. The importation of “foreign” material into a work of art, seen in this light, is less an act of disruption than one of correction: the slumbering sameness of expectation, the mirage of the world’s veneer, is a necessary but limiting illusion. Only through the personal act of selective appropriation, the collagist asserts, can we find what we never knew we sought – the elusive pattern inscribed within chaos, the harmony encoded in noise. As a mode that celebrates fragmentation and obscurantism, is there a form of art more commensurate with life in the twenty-first century? MBDTF embraces this idea as a cri de coeur, performing a formal miracle in which brokenness of every sort is the only prerequisite for aesthetic rebirth.