Kanye West: Free Form
How the musician, fashion designer, and artist plans to make the world a better place.
Interview by Spencer Bailey
Portraits by Albert Watson
Video by Jeff Vespa
November 20, 2016
A conversation with Kanye West demands staying on your toes. Just as his music combines many startlingly original sounds, in person he moves between unexpected ideas and makes unexpected associations. He speaks in freeform, similar to his raps, letting it flow from one sentence to the next, often in a jumpy way that—somehow—circles back to where he began.
In certain moments, he’ll pause for a few seconds, reticent and hyper-aware of how his words will be received. Other times, he’ll let out a flurry of ideas, confident and upbeat. There’s a rhythm to his words. A syncopation. Nearly every sentence he says packs potency. West speaks his mind, and he couldn’t care less what you think. This has made him one of the most loved and hated artists of our time, in addition to being one of the most critically acclaimed.
Despite all this, West’s public persona remains stubbornly one-dimensional. The press cares largely about things like his marriage, his braggadocio, and his beef with this person or that, creating depthless gossip in the pursuit of clicks. This churn ignores the fact that West is acutely engaged with art and culture, in a way that perhaps no other world-famous pop star is. His immersion in a range of creative realms—including architecture, design, fashion, film, and music—has little to do with his being a celebrity. When you speak with him, it’s clear where his heart is.
Not coincidentally, there’s a social aspect underlying all of his projects. West’s stated mission—streamlined and simplified—is to empower and inspire. And not just through his music, but through many other endeavors, too. There’s his multifarious company, Donda. There’s his seven-screen film, Cruel Summer, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. There’s his Adidas Yeezy fashion line, now in its fourth season, and collaborations with brands like Louis Vuitton and A.P.C. There’s his involvement in the music-streaming service Tidal. If there is anyone with the power and drive to effectively bring so-called high and low cultures together, it’s West. For years, in not necessarily obvious ways, he has been doing exactly this, and he only plans to build on those efforts.
Over the past decade, West has emerged as a stereotype-shattering force who refuses to fit any mold. On a recent afternoon at a photo studio in Los Angeles, in between stops in Winnipeg and Edmonton on his Saint Pablo Tour, I spoke with him about his deep-seated belief in the power of art to transform the planet. Here, a condensed and edited version of our conversation, which took place in a small space cleared of everyone on set except for me, a three-person film crew, West’s personal assistant, and our Dec./Jan. issue’s feature section co-editor, Willo Perron.
Let’s start with your company, Donda. When you announced it nearly five years ago, you said it would encompass 14 different categories: everything from hospitality and marketing to consumer finance and medical research to transportation and protection services. Why did you envision all of these things together in one organization?
I’m really bad with answering questions. Usually, I don’t even answer them. I try to find inspiration inside of the question. I think, and I jump from one beam of inspiration or energy to the next, as opposed to explaining the energy.
In general, the hard part about interviews, for me, is the idea of two plus two equals four. I always refuse to land at four. Landing at four is hella basic.
What’s your dream for Donda?
In some ways, my dream is already happening because of the people I’ve worked with and the mental pushups they go through. I hate when someone comes and works with me for a couple weeks or two months, and then they try to tell people they’ve worked with Kanye West. You haven’t worked with Kanye West unless you’ve had to redo a project 100 times, or had to word something in a specific, perfect way, to communicate it in the exact. That [last statement] was ironic, because I’m not communicating well at all.
People come, they go away, they work here for a bit, they work on other projects, we argue. We’re all these fighting artists with a common goal of wanting to affect the world through positive change, which is this really politically correct way to say “save the world.” If you don’t have the vision to see where you could go, there’s no way you can believe in the possibility of a utopia.
When you say utopia, it sounds like a bad word. It’s something people can use to make fun of you or make you look stupid or overly optimistic.
What’s your version of utopia?
I don’t think people are going to talk in the future. They’re going to communicate through eye contact, body language, emojis, signs. Imagine that. If everyone was forced to learn sign language.
When I was a kid, I’d see people who only spoke sign language and think, Wow, that’s gotta be difficult. I was really happy I could speak. Now, I would prefer to [West pantomimes someone signing], do that without having to use words. It’s funny because I’ve made a living off of words, but words get in the way of what you really want to say.
Wordless communication would be your preferred method?
Yeah, sign language, eye contact. Or thank God for emojis. So often one emoji goes a long way and lets me get on with my whole day.
I don’t want to be a jerk, but there are certain people who are geniuses. Their emotional and social IQ is super high and they can get stuff done. Often, people who get really amazing stuff done have to cut off their emotional IQ. I can’t stand this whole “How was your day?” thing that agents always say. I’m like, “You don’t care about my day. Why’d you ask me about my day? Did we get done what we were supposed to get done?” But I do want to know how my daughter’s day was. I do want to get an explanation of what she learned in school. I sincerely care about that.
I think business has to be stupider. I want to do really straightforward, stupid business—just talk to me like a 4-year-old. And I refuse to negotiate. I do not negotiate. I can collaborate. But I’m an artist, so as soon as you negotiate, you’re being compromised.
How do you know when you’ve found someone or a group you want to collaborate with?
I like the idea of companies more than I like the idea of brands. There’s something about constant self-promotion in a brand. I’m sitting here. It’s me. I’m Kanye West, in Adidas. But the ultimate goal is to be like water, to create in an invisible way, to create something where you can add some kind of information that can help people along their path.
You mentioned that you view yourself as an artist—
I didn’t mention that I view myself that way. I just am. I never worded it like that. That’s really offensive. Why did you say I view myself like that? Do you not view me as an artist?
I totally view you as an artist.
So what is your personal definition of art?
I would have a George Costanza moment if I were to answer this right now. I would come back in three days and be like, “I got this!” And sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable by saying what you said was offensive. But it was.
Earlier this year, you tweeted, “The definition of art—or at least my personal definition—is to be able to see the truth and then express it.”
That’s the answer I wanted. Thank you. Lead the witness a little bit. If I’ve already answered a question, we’re just digressing.
West at Edge Studios in Los Angeles.
How do you manage to think about art and fashion and music—all of these worlds you’re working in? Do you ever have to compartmentalize them?
It’s all one. It’s in your hands, like being a piano player, the keys of life just playing a chord. People can’t wrap their head around why a wrong note drives me crazy, but I’m trying to hear a beautiful chord. People say, “If you’ve got this, this, and this, why are you so mad about that?” Well, I’m trying to play a chord with two hands, and then eventually a symphony.
When you made an impromptu appearance at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2013, you said, “The world can be changed through the power of design.” Why do you think design is powerful enough to change the world?
Did I already answer this before and you’re not letting me know the answer?
No, no, no! But this does connect with what you were saying about companies vs. brands. Some companies make great products; brands often just manufacture hype.
I think companies that are also brands can come together for a single mission to change the world. These might be people who are focused on prosthetic arms, or focused on cancer, or focused on some type of movie script, or focused on some new form of tech. I don’t want to pinpoint whom, but there is a collective that can figure out the killings in Chicago, for example, if that was their goal. I think it’s extremely difficult to figure it out through politics.
I don’t want to tell you an idea that’s so 17 years from now that it will get fucking ridiculed for 16 years, so I’m trying to figure out how to word it in a way that people can understand in the now. A simple now [statement] would be: There is currently a lack of people in power who are motivated by the idea of helping people, but thanks to the internet, there are people who would never have made it through a corporate system who are able to jump into positions of power in their twenties. They can collectively work on ideas for the new world.
I think I worded that in a 2016 way.
Yeah, there are a surprising number of leaders who are in their twenties and thirties, in large part because of the internet.
And those are the people who can make the change. And will. It’s not can; it’s will. You have to will things into fruition. I think that in our time, our civilization, we can get to a place where … [Pauses] When you say way overly optimistic things, they just get attacked.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t want to digress about why. I just want to word this in a way that somehow puts an idea out there without people beating me up for saying it out loud.
More people need to know that they’re not fucking cool. In today’s world, having money has allowed people who are extremely uncool to think that they’re cool and carry it like that. People who really are cool and people who really are artists and have ideas have to literally turn in their cool card to society just to make it past the age of 28. It’s either die at 28 or turn in your cool pass. I would love to be a part of creating a world that allows the artist to think and create at the highest form and be respected for their ability.
How did you develop the ability to seek out and find these kinds of people? Or do you think you were born with taste?
I’ve been struggling with the word taste. Who’s to say having good taste is a good thing? Some people say everyone was born an artist, and society and their parents beat it out of them. After I said I was going to run for president [at the 2015 MTV VMAs], I saw a video of someone making fun of me about it. I was thinking, Wow, if this person had been doing this to me from the age of 3, I would have never been me. People say geniuses are kids with good parents. How do you nurture the things that people will call weird into something that could be considered exceptional?
Maybe this will be an eloquent interview. It’s a 50/50 chance every time I open my mouth. At the end of the day, words get in the way. Regardless, whether you understand this or that, you know it’s Rain Man sitting here. You just fucking know it’s Rain Man. No matter what Rain Man’s doing, you know, if you take him to that fucking table, he’s going to pick the right cards.
One exceptional person you’ve mentioned frequently is Steve Jobs. Earlier this year, you tweeted about how he had wanted to lower the cost of textbooks. This was part of a series of several tweets about changing the nature of education.
Both of my parents are educators. I think that knowledge is power, and it’s not just about the information that’s held in books. It’s about codes that are held in cultures.
Which codes specifically?
There are codes in management to get from A to Z. Everything is like one of those drug movies. You’ve got the guy on the block who’s cool enough to figure out how to dodge the cops and also sell. Then you’ve got the guy who used to do that, and that guy has to figure out how to get a connect. Whether I’m going to visit Herzog & de Meuron—a shameless name drop that somehow relates to Surface magazine—or at a fashion show, I always just feel like I’m in Scarface, going to talk with the connect. It’s the idea of: What would you give up for the information about how to really accomplish what you’re thinking, and can you make it out alive?
West performing during the 2013-14 Yeezus Tour. (Photo: Courtesy Def Jam Recordings)
Can education help a person negotiate those systems?
People across the world just lack opportunities, period. I feel a responsibility because of my parents. They’re activists and were in the world-changing business. Any extra goodwill or good skills I’ve gained I learned from them, and take along on my Legend of Zelda role-playing path in life. Life’s like a RPG [role-playing game]. When you roll the dice, you’ve got three guys with you, and then you meet someone else, and then another person gives you information. That’s how I met [designer and dealer] Axel Vervoordt—and I don’t have to explain who that is; [you] can get it off of Google.
I met Axel through Willo [Perron]. It was eight times separated. A piece of information that led me to another piece of information that led me to another piece that led me to another piece … that led me to Maastricht—I might say it wrong.
The city in the Netherlands.
Willo says, “Man, I really like this guy’s blog.” He was referring to Justin Saunders—who runs the blog JJJJound. I’m into his perspective on art. Jound’s been doing it for 10 years, and I, to this day, say, “Is that Jound-approved?” I remember I once had this girl in my hotel. We were getting into the bath, and she was like, “I don’t know if my body is Jound-approved.” [Laughs] That was so funny.
I reached out to Justin and explained the certain elements of my background that you might not have been able to see just from the albums and videos I was doing, or the red leather jackets I was wearing. Or the minks. Or the furs. Or the [sings in falsetto] big-booty hoes! [Laughs] Sometimes I can be distracting like this in conversations. Just creating memes every step of the way.
It does remind me of—
Hold on one second. You’re going to break my thought. So I hired Justin, explained all this stuff, and we built this relationship. I was living at this hotel apartment in Paris, Justin was out there, and we were working on some ideas. I was like, “This space is wack. What can I do?” He said, “My favorite architect is Joseph Dirand.”
This is turning into a 12-minute freestyle. Which is good. When I talk it’s like a painting.
So I reach out to Joseph Dirand, he comes by, and he gives some ideas. He says, “You gotta cover up this nasty bookshelf over here, and you gotta cover up this glass bannister.” We went and plastered over the bookshelf and the bannister in the hotel room. We didn’t nail up a curtain, but plastered over it. It’s still like that to this day.
When did you become interested in architecture?
I’ve been interested in architecture and furniture design since I was 18.
I bumped into this one guy at the Paris flea markets who pulled me to the side and said, “I do furniture with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt”—that’s kind of relevant right now. He said, “I know a place where you can get Jeanneret chairs.” Jeanneret chairs are my favorite dining-room chair. Me saying it out loud, there it goes. I’ll now never get a real Jeanneret again for under a certain amount—first-world problem.
So he was like, “I know where we can get real Jeanneret chairs 45 minutes out from Paris.” The chairs were from this Le Corbusier project in—I’m going to say it wrong—this city in India.
Yeah. So he showed me a place where they were way cheaper and all wrapped up. This guy showed me where I would not get hit with the celebrity, Michael Jackson price. He said, “You should go to Maastricht.” I believe he said this. But I was also working with this architect, Oana [Stanescu]—who I still work with and kind of stole from Rem Koolhaas. Maybe she told me to go to Maastricht. If Oana told me, everything I said earlier was false.
So I go to Maastricht, and there was some nice furniture, some midcentury stuff, and then there was this booth we bumped into that was … [Pauses] Like I always say, words get in the way … spiritual. I said, “Who did this?” Axel Vervoordt did it. He was there, standing and talking to somebody, and I came up to him and said, “You are the master.” I might have bowed to him.
I think you should just run this interview clean. You gotta let the painting be open with this let-me-just-zone-out-with-Ye-for-a-second thing.
Unlike Axel, there have been decorators who have tried to diss my wife and me and position us in a lower-class way—not class as far as the idea of finance, but class as—
Cultural class! It’s like an editor completely trying to annihilate my credibility because we didn’t have water and the show started late [for the Adidas Yeezy Season Four runway presentation at Four Freedoms Park in New York]. I care about people’s time; it wasn’t on purpose. The fact that they can outright Lebron-James-went-to-the-Heat-level burn my jersey after all I’d contributed to art, fashion, and culture just in 2016 alone … They said, “Ye’s a genius. But in fashion, he doesn’t innovate.” Not having a bunch of colors was an innovation! They undermined a color palette that I worked on and studied. There’s a picture I painted in 1995, and it was basically a Pantone chart before I knew what Pantones were. Color is so important, and T-shirts are so important, and colored T-shirts are even more important! [Laughs]
For some reason, I just wanna say “Wiz [Khalifa] wears cool pants” right now. He really does. He dresses really good.
I want to talk about the idea of me saying these things in the color that I’m in currently—
Skin color. I’m not saying “currently,” as if I’m going to change. I’m saying currently because—I’m actually not that good at words; it’s better when a beat is on. What I mean by currently is that 10 years from now to be black is going to be a completely different thing, because of what we’re doing now.
Images from the Yeezy Season One look book. (Photos: Jackie Nickerson)
Through culture. And business. And interracial dating. There was an moment in rap, through the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, when people said, “Hey, I’m Jewish, own a record label, and I need a black guy.” Because of what we’ve done at Donda, collectively, 20 years from now, people are gonna go, “We need a black guy to creative direct something.” There have been very few directors, period, who are black.
When I’m under the gas at the dentist’s office, sometimes I think, One day, all the things that were only afforded to the rich—Hermès, Helmut Lang, Margiela, the bleached canvasses from Sterling Ruby… [Trails off]
When I go to Sterling Ruby’s studio, I go, “I want my daughter to come back here!” I’m just so taken aback and inspired. That inspiration needs to be taken out of the box of luxury and given to all people. The world would be better. People would be happier.
Do you see yourself as a bridge, as someone who’s helping bring the high and the low together on a mass level?
I think so. I will be a part of this because I don’t want to miss out. I don’t wanna be dead when the world starts getting good.
It seems like you have this crazy optimism about the world. Where does this come from?
Knowing that art can beat anything. Knowing that the artist shall rise. As sure as people have eyes, artists shall rise. Masters of visuals. Masters of communication. The art of conversation. Anything could be art in 10,000 hours.
I wanted to touch on something you said at the Design Dialogues event Surface hosted with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jacques Herzog, and you during Art Basel in Miami in 2013. You said you paint with words. You also brought it up a moment ago. Do you mean that literally?
I have synesthesia—I see sound. And I actually have paintings and drawings from high school where I was trying to show what the sounds in front of me looked like.
Inside the screening room for Cruel Summer at Cannes in 2012. (Photo: Philippe Ruault)
How has that helped your work?
I think it’s my mutant handicap. All X-Men have a little handicap that helps them become X-Men. I didn’t know the term synesthesia until I was working on Cruel Summer. Halfway into writing that, I really understood that my entire life I had been trying to describe this condition of mine: through painting, through this seven-screen Surround Vision film we shot in Qatar, through all these things.
Most people who run publicly traded companies have a tendency to be extremely fearful, especially if they’re not the founder, because they have to answer to people. And then they’ve got a wife and kids or a husband and kids. I think that often people can be scared of brilliant people throughout time—Einstein, Newton, Thomas Jefferson. I’ve said the successful man is the one who can afford to make the most mistakes. Or I’ll say something really obvious, like: You have to look past the surface to embrace opportunity.
I guess this is the difference of a visionary—they have X-ray vision. They can see past the surface, and they can also see into the future. It’s like Dark Side of the Moon: If you look through the pyramid, you can see the core and the beauty in the middle. [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon [album] cover is the best description of a visionary.
You don’t pigeonhole yourself. You’ve entered the realms of fashion, music, art, and design. What worlds do you want to enter next?
What’s more important, design or art? Design is the ability to put structure to art, and art is the ability to break from structure. It’s like a man and a woman, and obviously the woman, in the traditional sense, is the artist. I don’t have an answer. I’m just posing this as a question.
The only good thing about a project being finished is that it can give you, possibly, if people like it, the opportunity to work on more projects. So is it about the work, or is it about working? If it was truly about working, that you could move like a shaman from project to project and just sprinkle some magic on each one, and not have to worry about digging your feet into the ground [to gain] the respect of fucktards that couldn’t—I’m trying to use a better example than put their left and right shoe on correctly, but it’s just the best one. These people do not have the education; they just have the money and the position.
I believe in always empowering people. I don’t want to give you anything as definitive as “always do this.” It’s about finding a balance between being the person who knows the most and the person who’s the most naïve.
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