Kanye West: The Transformer
With limitless ambition, Kanye West is out to remake the world in his image. Christopher Bagley meets the man who would be god.
Over the past few months, the habitués of a central Paris neighborhood, one that’s home to many upscale law offices and accounting firms, have been noticing some unusual activity. A chauffeur-driven Porsche Panamera Turbo, painted matte black and resembling a late-model Batmobile, frequently zooms up to an elegant 19th-century building and disgorges various nonlawyer and nonaccountant types, including Kim Kardashian and the rapper Nas. Late at night, thumping hip-hop beats have been emanating from a loftlike apartment within the building, occasionally provoking complaints from the neighbors. If the voice in the songs sounds familiar, it’s because it belongs to the notorious man of the house, who’s been working on his latest album in a studio he’s had installed in the middle of his living room. “There’s leaders, and there’s followers,” he raps on one track. “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.”
Yes, Kanye West is in town. The rapper–producer–designer–scandal magnet, now a part-time Parisian, is bringing his trademark raw-nerved swagger to one of Europe’s most discreet and tradition-bound capitals. But anyone who makes it inside West’s apartment will quickly realize that his impact on Paris has been far less consequential than Paris’s impact on him. Visits with the Kardashians have been punctuated by the arrivals of people like the haute-minimalist architect Joseph Dirand and the Belgian interior designer and antiques guru Axel Vervoordt, along with deliverymen hauling in West’s latest purchases: rare Le Corbusier lamps, Pierre Jeanneret chairs, and obscure body-art journals from Switzerland. For West, it’s all part of a crash course in the rarefied upper reaches of design, architecture, and overall good taste. The goal? “To make Kanye West as dope as possible,” he says, sitting in a midcentury swivel chair and wearing a plain dark hoodie and black cotton pants by a label he declines to identify, since he no longer believes in dropping brand names, except for his own.
When it comes to personal dopeness, of course, West is not known for admitting that there’s much room for improvement. Even by hip-hop standards, his boastful self-regard is so extreme that it has inspired several analytical essays and countless jokes, not to mention an entire South Park episode. Addressing the crowds at his concerts this year, West has likened himself to such fellow creative geniuses as Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, and Michelangelo. And in the course of our interviews, which take place over several days in March and April, West goes even further, favorably comparing himself to Le Corbusier, the Beatles, Marlon Brando, Tiger Woods, Azzedine Alaïa, Kate Moss, and the Soup Nazi, among others.
But for all his brazen posturing, West, 36, is one of the rare top artists in any field who’ll eagerly embrace the role of subordinate when he knows he’s got something to learn. This is the guy who moved to Rome for four months to work as an intern for Fendi before launching his own fashion line. His current exile in Paris—a town famously lacking in yes-men, where even a star like West is just another outsider who can’t get a table at his favorite restaurant if it happens to be full—seems like his latest exercise in self-abnegation, in the name of self-improvement. “In Paris, you’re as far as possible from the land of pleasant smiles,” West says. “You can just trip on inspiration—there are so many people here who dedicate their lives to excellence.” And inspiration is particularly crucial to West these days, given his ultimate ambition, which goes way beyond making hit records or developing a discerning eye for console tables. He’s plotting to create operas, stores, films, product packaging, amusement parks, and, possibly, entire cities. West is essentially out to redesign the world, if the world will let him do it.
“How do you spell Mies van der Rohe?” West has logged on to his MacBook Pro laptop—custom-finished in matte black, just like the Porsche—and is Googling modernist architects while playing around with new beats for his album. As usual, there are several collaborators, friends, and minions milling around his living room studio, including the producer No I.D. and the Canadian rapper the Weeknd. When West is at the microphone, alternately freestyle rapping and bouncing up and down, it’s clear why his bona fides are unquestioned, at least in the realm of music. He blasts a new track at top volume, and its wailing Deep Purple–esque guitar riffs have the Weeknd holding his head in disbelief. “That shit is awesome,” the Weeknd says. “Just fucking reckless. A lot of people who hate you are just going to hate you so much more.” West says he wants the record—whose title, Yeezus, is a mashup of “Jesus” and West’s nickname, Yeezy—to be like a “one-man gangbang.” He plays one intensely dark, primal track that he worked on with the French electro duo Daft Punk: the defiant anthem “I Am a God,” which he debuted live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala in New York in May.
It turns out this song was inspired by a serious diss—not from another rapper but from a major fashion designer. Last fall, a few days before Paris Fashion Week, West was informed that he’d be invited to a widely anticipated runway show only on the condition that he agree not to attend any other shows. “So the next day I went to the studio with Daft Punk, and I wrote ‘I Am a God,’ ” West says. “Cause it’s like, Yo! Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go. Man, I’m the No. 1 living and breathing rock star. I am Axl Rose; I am Jim Morrison; I am Jimi Hendrix.” West is not smiling as he says this, and his voice is getting louder with each sentence. “You can’t say that you love music and then say that Kanye West can’t come to your show! To even think they could tell me where I could and couldn’t go is just ludicrous. It’s blasphemous—to rock ’n’ roll, and to music.”
Later, West gives a more measured take on the incident, explaining that he was “just very hurt” by the designer’s attempt to control him. “How can someone stop my opportunity to see something that he can teach me, that I can help teach the world?” West asks. But it’s precisely those types of outbursts, as well as the tortured semi-apologies that often follow them, that have come to define West’s public image. Whether it was his onstage ambush of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards (a fiasco that prompted President Obama to call West a jackass) or his declaration during a live telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” (a moment that Bush called the low point of his presidency), West’s eruptions have made it all too easy for people to forget that he’s spent the past decade creating some of the most brilliantly original music of any genre. Rolling Stone, in its rhapsodic five-star review of 2010’s Twisted Fantasy review” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, lauded him for “blowing past all the rules of hip-hop and pop, even though…he’s been the one inventing the rules.” (The reviewer added: “Nobody halfway sane could have made this album.”) Last year in The Atlantic, David Samuels hailed West as “the first true genius of the iPhone era, the Mozart of contemporary American music.” (He also called him “a narcissistic monster.”)
Of course, West’s bright and dark sides are fully interdependent, and they’re equally essential to his art. Both are very much on display during our conversations in Paris. It’s a big deal for West to invite a journalist into his house: He hasn’t given many interviews in the past few years. This is due in part to a string of PR disasters, the last of which was an on-air clash with Matt Lauer about the George Bush accusation, which led West to cancel a live performance on the Today show. West is especially wary of print interviews, since the writer retains the power to choose which of his quotes are relevant (though at one point he asks me to streamline his more rambling comments or, as he puts it, “to turn my flea market of information into a beautiful living space”). Another issue: West’s opinions evolve so quickly that by the time a profile comes out, he might have totally changed his mind. And finally, there’s his self-acknowledged deficiency in the eloquence department. “God’s little practical joke on me—as an intellect who doesn’t like to read a lot—is like, I’ll say some superphilosophical shit, but I’ll say it the wrong way,” he says, laughing. “I’ll use the wrong word, so it goes from being really special to completely retarded.”
For a while, West’s communications strategy involved pouring his heart out on Twitter, where his droll one-liners and 80-tweets-in-160-minutes rants earned him almost 10 million followers. But a few months ago, West deleted all his posts. He agreed to do this interview because he feels like he’s reaching peak creative potential—“bubbling at the highest level of output”—and he’s ready to talk publicly about his thoughts and theories and plans, in entertainment and beyond.
West knows the risks of extending himself beyond the music world; he learned that the hard way in 2011, when he debuted his women’s fashion line in Paris. Many reviewers panned the collection, deeming it sloppily overwrought and marred by unfortunately placed zippers, but they were kinder about the second, which showed more focus and discipline. West is convinced that the critics got it backward. “The first collection was way better than the second,” he says. “It was more artful. It was 30 collections in one. It just takes time for me to slow down and think like a normal person.” Established designers, West notes, are already “in a position to go crazy. I tried to come out of the gate going crazy. And it didn’t work. So now I have to somehow put out something that says, ‘I look sensible!’” That might be accomplished by his new men’s capsule collection for A.P.C. It includes jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies that combine West’s fashion-forward silhouettes with the cool minimalism for which the French brand is known.
Lately, however, West’s biggest impact on the fashion world has come not through his designs but through his personal wardrobe choices and those of his equally camera-ready girlfriend, Kim Kardashian. Having evolved beyond his earlier signature looks—the pink polos, the shutter shades—West now favors streetwear crossed with Parisian edge, confidently pairing the right Air Jordans with tuxedo jackets or Givenchy leather pants. And when Kardashian began surprising everyone last winter by stepping out in high-end European labels, she made it known she was dressing to please her man. For some people, that would mean more Victoria’s Secret, but pleasing Kanye West these days means more monochromatic and structured looks, more Dries Van Noten. West tells me he hasn’t been masterminding Kardashian’s makeover to the degree that everyone assumes. “Nobody can tell my girl what to do,” he says. “She just needed to be given some platforms of information to work from.” Since virtually everything Kardashian wears is instantly broadcast around the globe, West adds, “one beautiful thing is that as she discovers it, the world discovers it.” This includes Kardashian’s inevitable stumbles. “For her to take that risk in front of the world, it just shows you how much she loves me. And how much she actually loves the opportunity to learn. You got, like, a million companies saying, ‘This is impacting your brand! This is impacting your fans! And blah blah blah.’ But she still sees this light of beauty.”
One night when I’m scheduled to meet West at his apartment around 10 p.m., I walk in to find some Kardashians in the house. Kim has just headed back to Los Angeles after one of her brief Paris visits, but her brother, Rob, is sprawled on West’s gigantic Living Divani sofa with his girlfriend, the English model Naza Jafarian. They both offer friendly handshakes, then return to their smartphones. Next, Kim’s mother, Kris Jenner, drops by and looks around the apartment, which she’s seeing for the first time. “This is amazing!” she says as West shows her some of his favorite objects, including a new set of ceramic cups by Frances Palmer. Jenner’s rapport with West evinces equal parts jokey affection and in-law awkwardness. He plays her some of his unfinished songs, including “Awesome,” which is clearly about Kim. When she exclaims, “Great job!” West doesn’t find it as flattering as Jenner evidently intended. He raises his eyebrows. “Great job?” he says and sets off on a comic riff that cracks up everyone in the room. Toasting with his champagne glass, he says, “Great job, Baccarat, for making a glass that can hold liquid!” He looks down at his waist. “Great job, belt loops, for keeping my pants up!” Jenner laughs off the mockery but soon is ready to leave. Hugging West goodbye, she tells him, “I love you. You know where to find us, at the George V. Call us tomorrow, if you want.” It seems apparent to everyone, including Jenner, that West will not call.
Visiting my mind is like visiting the Hermès factory. Shit is real. You’re not going to find a chink. It’s 100,000 percent Jimi Hendrix.
Much has been written about the celeb mega merger known as Kimye and about whether the match was made in heaven, or hell, or some unknown strange place. Undoubtedly, the West-Kardashian union further validates and indulges both stars’ unerring knack for making headlines. But given West’s current thirst for refined Euro cool, one might expect him to fall for some chicly cerebral French artist rather than a trash-TV queen who epitomizes the kind of branded mass culture he’s rebelling against. West dodges several of my questions about Kardashian and their future child. But when I ask him if he has any qualms about making appearances on shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, he says, “Oh, that’s just all for love. It’s simply that. At a certain point, or always, love is more important than any branding, or any set of cool people, or attempting to impress anyone. Because true love is just the way you feel.” Some intellectual ambivalence clearly remains, however. “Thoughts and feelings can disagree sometimes,” West says.
In recent months, West has been dutifully making his homes more baby-friendly, working closely with the architect Oana Stanescu, a tall, coolheaded Romanian from the New York firm Family. In Los Angeles, he and Kardashian are redoing their recently purchased 9,000-square-foot manse in a gated community. The house is very L.A., a faux-French-Italian-whatever style that West admits does not quite meet his newly elevated aesthetic standards. Stanescu puts it bluntly: “It’s so bad, seriously—it couldn’t be any worse.” Both West and Stanescu have much higher hopes for the pared-down Paris loft, where they are streamlining the surfaces and spaces and adding a baby room. West’s hunger for expert opinions has led him to simultaneously consult with several competing designers and architects for the project. This is a huge no-no in the design world, but West is not the type to let etiquette get in his way; so far he’s been meeting with Dirand, Vervoordt, Tristan Auer, and a few others, sometimes on the sly. “I mean, it’s uncomfortable for every single person,” acknowledges Stanescu. “But it’s supposed to be—that’s what I think is the cool thing. Right now Kanye is just sponging things up, observing how these people work. He’s going to take an idea from Joseph and one from Tristan and make it his own.”
One afternoon I join West and Stanescu on one of their many educational field trips—a visit to Le Corbusier’s iconic Villa Savoye, the 1929 house turned museum outside Paris. We weave through highway traffic as West makes calls about an upcoming Jetsons movie on which, he tells me, he is creative director. Giving West a tour of the Villa Savoye, Stanescu explains why the reinforced-concrete structure, with its open plan, ribbon windows, and flat roof, was so radical for its time. West, fascinated, begins ruminating about how visionaries like Le Corbusier and himself can be misunderstood by their unenlightened peers. (Stanescu listens attentively, though she ignores a few of West’s comments, such as, “I love banquettes and shit.”) “Someone else’s negative opinion, it just doesn’t matter,” West says. “I bet there were people at the time who said to the owners of this house, ‘Why would you spend your money on this?’ And those people, I bet you that today nobody is visiting their house.”
On the way home, West talks about his notions of utopia, his deep Christian faith, and his unreleased sex tape.
Last year, when someone threatened to go public with a recording he’d made of himself and an unidentified woman in a hotel room, West was on the verge of releasing his own copy of it, to neutralize any threat of extortion. “For the most part, I’d rather people have one of those home videos than some of the paparazzi photos that get published,” he says. “At least I recorded the shit myself. That tape couldn’t have hurt me in any way if it came out—it could only have helped.” He finally decided against releasing it, but don’t be surprised if he changes his mind. “Now, I just do exactly what I want, whenever I want, how the fuck I want,” West says. “ ‘Fuck you’ is my message.”
Sometimes it can seem as though West has a gift for making his life as complicated and difficult as possible. It’s a tendency he doesn’t deny. “I’m not comfortable with comfort,” he says. “I’m only comfortable when I’m in a place where I’m constantly learning and growing.” His creative process, like that of many of the geniuses he compares himself to, can be perfectionist to the point of masochistic. In March, when West first plays me some of his new songs, he says the album is almost finished. In April he tells me it’s only 30 percent complete. Noah Goldstein, West’s chief sound engineer, says this is typical of West, who thinks nothing of throwing out half an album if he composes a new beat that inspires him to change direction.
Although West may be one of the hardest-working artists in Paris—“The people around him come and go in shifts,” says Stanescu—meeting deadlines is not his forte. “It took us two years to create just three items,” says A.P.C.’s founder-designer, Jean Touitou, who has developed a close friendship with West despite some very tense moments during their collaboration. “Kanye has strong obsessions and wants to go in so many different directions—basically, he wants to redo the whole universe. When we finally finished this collection, I felt like, Okay, if I made this happen, then I can achieve peace in the Middle East.”
In person, as in his song lyrics, West’s bombastic hotheadedness alternates with endearing displays of vulnerability and clear-eyed self–awareness. In the 2007 hit single “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” which came out as his growing fame was bringing new degrees of both adulation and ridicule, he rapped these lines:
“I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny.
And what do I do? Act more stupidly.
Bought more jewelry, more Louis V.
My momma couldn’t get through to me.”
At one point I ask West why awards shows—where his occasional losses have sparked several of his most memorable public tirades—matter so much to him. He has already won an astonishing 21 Grammys, more than any other rap artist, including his friend-collaborator-rival Jay-Z. His five solo albums have all gone platinum and been mainstays on critics’ best-of-the-year lists, and he’s considered by many to be the top producer in hip-hop, with an unequalled gift for discovering talent. Who cares about getting more Grammys? West glares at me. “I care,” he says. “I care about everything. Sometimes not giving a fuck is caring the most.”
Friends say that for anyone trying to navigate the knotty terra incognita that is West’s psyche, all roads lead back to his mother, an iron-willed college professor whose goal was to instill in her only son the belief that he could accomplish anything. Donda West died in late 2007, from complications following a plastic-surgery procedure. Earlier that year she had published the book Raising Kanye: Life Lessons From the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar. (West contributed a witty foreword that begins: “I’ve known my mom since I was zero years old. She is quite dope.”) Donda devoted an entire chapter to the subject of West’s alleged arrogance, which she preferred to see as confidence. Back when West was in kindergarten in Chicago, she recalled, his teacher pointedly told her, “My, he doesn’t have any problem with self–esteem, does he?” Even then, Donda knew the remark wasn’t entirely a compliment, and in later years she was repeatedly advised that her “snot-nosed kid” needed more parental discipline and, perhaps, some time in the Boy Scouts. But although she wasn’t proud of some of West’s off-the-handle histrionics, she had no regrets about always nurturing his self-assurance and conviction. “When Kanye was very young, I began teaching him to love himself,” she wrote. “As a black man and as a man, period, he would need to be strong.”
“Basically, Kanye is hardwired to believe that anything is possible,” says Virgil Abloh, West’s close collaborator at Donda, the creative agency that oversees his nonmusical ventures. Abloh—who once spent a month holed up at Tokyo’s Grand Hyatt with West in the aftermath of his mother’s death and the Taylor Swift debacle—believes that today, West’s triple threat of talent, ambition, and fearlessness puts him “one meeting away from becoming Walt Disney.” West would not disagree. Across several fields, he predicts, “people are going to look back 10 or 20 years from now and say, ‘Man, I remember such and such was like this, but then Kanye got involved, and now it’s like this.’” Signs of West’s artistic drive are visible in the installation he debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival: a “surround-vision” film linked to his album Cruel Summer, with seven moving images projected simultaneously on separate screens in a pyramid-shaped tent.
The details of many other projects remain fuzzy, since West is still dreaming them up. He’s planning his return to fashion and has set up an atelier in Milan, but right now, he says, his priority is “absorbing as much as possible” and finding the best people in every field to work with. The idea of failure seems to serve not as a deterrent but as a stimulus. Whenever he tries something new, West observes, “people say, ‘Why do you want to destroy your name?’ But I don’t care about my name as much as I care about my ideas. I could do something completely wrong, and people could hate it, but then someone else could see it and do it completely right. And it’s a push forward for civilization.”
West is not oblivious to his own narcissism. “On one end, I try to scale it back,” he says. “Because I don’t want to close any of the doors needed to create the best product possible. But my ego is my drug. My drug is, ‘I’m better than all you other motherfuckers. Kiss my ass!’ ” The people on West’s team seem to tune out his boasting, since they realize it serves a purpose. “I understand how it can be off-putting for people to hear it,” Stanescu says. “But I think it’s how Kanye pushes himself. If he didn’t have this belief that he could do major things and have a global impact, he would just go close himself off in a room.”
One afternoon, while West is taking a break from recording, eating stir-fried vegetables off an Hermès plate, we talk about some of the tracks on the new record. Few musicians like explaining what their songs mean, and West is no exception, but if you write one called “I Am a God,” you can’t avoid certain questions. I ask West outright what he’s getting at there. “Hmm,” he murmurs and stays silent for a few seconds, looking out the window.
“I made that song because I am a god,” he says finally. He laughs for a second, then stops. “I don’t think there’s much more explanation. I’m not going to sit here and defend shit. That shit is rock ’n’ roll, man. That shit is rap music. I am a god. Now what?”