A decade of i-D covers: Kanye West, 2010
Shortly before the release of his career-defining fifth album, Kanye opened up to us about Taylor Swift, his fashion ambitions and insecurities, and his plans for the next 70 years.
This story originally appeared in i-D's Back to the Future Issue , no. 310, 2010.
Kanye West’s audacious statements have polarised popular opinion, yet even the haterz have to agree that the American rapper, producer and writer is one of the most creative ﬁgures working in contemporary culture today. Whether blogging about his favourite architect, giving away free music every Friday via Twitter, ploughing his cash into extravagant stage shows, popping to Prague to direct his debut ﬁlm or “hanging out with Madonna at the heliport”, the 33 year-old rapper, producer, writer, designer and budding director is always – ALWAYS – interesting, innovative and inventive.
Pushing the boundaries of pop music, tearing apart the hip-hop rulebook, upsetting upstart singers, aggravating authority but always ﬁghting the cause of culture, he’s ﬁnally learning to enjoy “being Kanye West”. His offerings to modern music have been some of the most signiﬁcant of the last decade, and now, as we fully enter the next 10 years, the Louis Vuitton Don’s beautiful, dark, twisted fantasies are giving lesser talents nightmares. To mark the release of his ﬁfth studio album My Beautiful Dark, Twisted Fantasy, i-D’s Music Editor Hattie Collins meets Mr. West for an exclusive interview in New York.
3pm, Electric Lady Studios, New York, September 2010
i-D ﬁrst featured Kanye West in 2004 when he was a rising beatmaker turned rookie rapper. Back then the Chicago creative told us “I am what music will be for the next four years…” A brave statement, bold even. But he was wrong. He’s been at the forefront of some of the most exciting sonics and similes of the past six years, whether that’s creating cutting-edge compositions for the likes of Jay-Z ("Izzo [H.O.V.A]", "Encore"), Beyoncé ("'03 Bonnie & Clyde"), Alicia Keys ("You Don’t Know My Name") Drake ("Find Your Love"), T.I. ("Swagga Like Us"), Ludacris ("Stand Up"), the Game ("Dreams") and Lil Wayne ("Comfortable”), or his own epic opuses like College Dropout (2004), Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2007) and 808s & Heartbreak (2008). When you consider all the hits he’s had a hand in, it makes you wonder why Michael Eavis hasn’t made that call yet; "Jesus Walks", "All Falls Down", "Slow Jamz", "Diamonds", "Gold Digger", "Stronger", "Can’t Tell Me Nothing", "Good Life", "Flashing Lights", "Heartless", "Love Lockdown", "Amazing"… In recent months, "Power and Monster" (Ft. Jay-Z and i-D obsession Nicki Minaj) from his forthcoming ﬁfth album, My Beautiful Dark, Twisted Fantasy, have set the World Wide Web on ﬁre. Kanye doesn’t just make records, he creates an event.
Sartorially too, his style has seen hip-hop kids trade baggy jeans for backpacks, and sweats for suits. He smartened up the culture, taught rap kids how to dress and, via his blog, continues to school the world at large on everything from his picks in music to architecture, design, art and fashion.
More than just a rapper and producer, Kanye West has become a fully-ﬂedged artist, an auteur even. Accused of rampant egomania in the past, the person i-D finds on a sunny New York day in Soho’s infamous Electric Lady studios is humble, nervous even. On his arrival, there’s no fuss, fanfare or huge entourage typically found with a star of his A-List status; just his best friend, Sakiya, and West’s own oversized Hermès bag. He asks if we can “wait to do the interview for, like ﬁve minutes” and instead “have a conversation.” In fact, the conversation never stops, the interview never really begins; he’s serious, earnest, thoughtful, unexpectedly funny and utterly open. It’s easy to see how his words are sometimes skewed; what’s missing from some of his more sensationalist pull quotes are the interspersed grins, the self-deprecation and self-awareness that he often displays, the sense of humour that can be difficult to capture in print.
He also enjoys a tangent; for the first 30 minutes he simply speaks on whatever pops into his head, yet you get the impression this is a man searching for redemption, keen to impose his impression on people, not the media’s, a man whose artistic brilliance is occasionally outshone by his own mistimed, inappropriate outbursts. “You might want to record this,” he says a few minutes after arrival, as he begins to talk about his new album and the impact that Taylor Swift incident has had on him, both professionally and personally.
Where do we find Kanye West in 2010?
Album number five is a real 70s project. I really wanted to go back to my soul roots. You could see that I was trying to push into the digital category – or the white music category – but this was a return to the instrumentation of what made Q-Tip and Wu-Tang connect with people in a more visceral fashion. I’m trying to find the emotion, and deliver ideas where it’s blurred, almost abstracted. I say, 'You’re living in the future/ Your present is your past’, because I’m always thinking in terms of 2012, 2013, 2014. I see the future.
I live through the movies I fell in love with as a child, Star Wars, Back To The Future, Total Recall, ET… all these films affected me and I try to reconceptualise them and bring them back to reality, whether that’s putting a glowing sole on the Nike [Air] Yeezy or referencing Akira shots.
There appears to be a pervading Kanye aesthetic in all that you do, whether music, stage shows, fashion, the forthcoming film Runaway …
What I want to do onstage is very graphic novel and very punchy. The visuals all match up to who the person is. And the person I am is very bold and graphic. If you study Michael Jackson, he never put anything graphic on his face. He was very good at knowing his body and his shape and how things work. I’m trying to learn more and more about dressing and the importance of looking nice because I do get photographed and I am so influential. So I’m trying to be my own visual guide. I’ve dedicated so much of my time to trying to do – quote unquote – “my own clothing line”. I needed to realise that in this lifetime I’d never be Martin Margiela. People who wear Margiela, Dries Van Noten and Alexander McQueen will never wear a piece of clothing a rapper designed, because of the heritage behind it.
What is your heritage?
For me, as a celebrity, I’m trying to learn aristocracy, I’m trying to learn luxury, I’m trying to learn royalty, I’m trying to find my African and Egyptian roots through a jewellery store on Canal Street. I have some affinity to gold and connect with it, but I don’t have the education on how to really put it on and wear it. I take the responsibility to educate myself as much as possible in this lifetime. Hedi Slimane says that he looks at his work on a 50 year time period, whereas most people are concerned with what’s happening next week. Hopefully I have 100 years on this earth; what can I do, how can I build a pyramid in that amount of time? Even right now with the amount of bashing and damage I’ve had to my name, my brand and my public perception the last year for being an asshole, being drunk and being onstage and saying what me and a lot of people really felt, it’s going to help me in the future. People get to see me grow and that with all my shit-taking, I have imperfections, which is very human, very real, very believable. The greatest thing an artist can be is believable.
MTV VMA Awards, New York, September 2009
In September 2009, several hundred million people (maybe a billion with all the YouTube hits, but who’s counting) saw Kanye West storm the stage when country singer Taylor Swift won the MTV VMA Award for Best Video. Uttering the now infamous line ‘Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, and I’m a let you finish, but...” (There are actual URLs dedicated to that phrase, truefax), Kanye pointed out that the correct winner should have actually been Beyoncé’s rather amazing ode to putting a ring on it, "Single Ladies". Cue a huge backlash as indignant commentators, an upset Swift and even Barack Obama weighed in on the stage invasion that would rule headlines for months after. “'Single Ladies' was the second most downloaded video, next to 'Thriller',” Kanye points out today. “I felt like you’re not going to rewrite the history books, not on my watch.” Unfortunately for him, it has become an unfortunate footnote in West’s history, a continual presence on Wikipedia, no doubt, for years to come. Though he’s since said sorry (several times) to Taylor, who accepted his apologies, he’s still keen to put across his point of view about the event that continues to haunt him.
So, the VMA’s…
Much like the Phoenix character in my forthcoming film Runaway, I had to learn from my mistake, burn as a Molotov cocktail got thrown at my career and rise and become a better person. There were pieces of my character that hadn’t been fully developed. I’d been on a creative tirade for two years prior to my first album dropping, that was the first time I had to slow down and re-adjust my take on how I express myself and how much power my words actually have. How do I use my power for good in an extremely tasteful way? Timing had to be the worst part of it. It’s so crazy that people have tried to throw me in a box for being racist. Have you ever known me to not like white people? I like everyone. I’m the only hip-hop guy that’s said ‘Stop bashing gays’.
One of the main things I wish people would understand is that I would do the exact same thing for Taylor. If it were 15 years into Taylor’s career and she makes the most pivotal video of her life and they randomly give the award to someone else. I really want to express my empathy and my newfound humility that I am sorry – extremely sorry – for cutting her off. I’m really sorry for that. But I still feel the same way about the construct of award shows. The reason that award shows are important is because they’re one of the most important documentations of the impact that our music had throughout the year. The last four Grammy winning albums are Taylor Swift, The Dixie Chicks, Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock. Everybody’s fine with this? To this day people hate me. I’m considered a racist that should die because I cut her off? A campaign started on Twitter saying, ‘Kanye West is dead’ and people said ‘good’. But I do understand why America’s apprehensive towards me…
Why is that?
I think of myself as a person who tells the truth but is not always in a time and place to tell the truth. If you’re dating a girl and she tells you right before you get to the restaurant that you should be wearing a different shirt you’re like ‘Great time to tell me, now you fucked up the whole evening’ (Laughs). That’s what I am to America. All I can do is get better every day and wear the scar that I have for the rest of my life. That moment also made me realise the concept of celebrity: there is no reality to that. It can all be taken away any second. You’re hot today, you’re not tomorrow. Another thing I came to grips with is ‘perception is reality’.
I love gay people, I love white people, I love women – in hip hop we use the word ‘bitch’ so much that people think I have a problem with women – I love and accept people. I love douchebags too because they are who they are. Everything that I want to express is more about making the world a better place. That’s why I had to stop being a bitch about being a celebrity. ‘Oh I’m so disgruntled, oh I want to do this’ blah blah blah. How the fuck could I be disgruntled, why would I live my life like it’s so sucky to be me? Why don’t I just have an awesome time being me cos I’m living the dream? Be an example of happiness and good energy so people say, ‘Oh man I’m happy he’s around’ versus ‘He’s so difficult.’ You shouldn’t worry what people think, but you should respect that what they think is their truth.
What do you think people think of you?
The media in America have done everything possible to make people not love me. I think I’m extremely loveable because my will is good and I have new creations to bring to the world. It’s put me in a position where I had to rethink my whole approach to everything. I couldn’t get away with the same bullshit. I had to step my whole game up, from the way I dress, the way I act, the way I treat people, punctuality, and, as you see, the music and the raps and how often I deliver it…
What I do know and feel in my heart is that there is a God. Everything is in his will and all I gotta do is get out of bed everyday and go to sleep every night. I’m getting up and I’m trying to do good. As far as death goes, it’s promised. I don’t know why everyone’s so afraid of the only thing promised in life. I’m not afraid to die, and you can see that I’m not afraid of anything. After my mom passed, I think it’s insensitive for people to say to me about caring about winning an award or not. I really don’t care if I win another award or not. Everything has been taken away from me so there’s nothing that I can lose at this point.
Fendi HQ, Rome, November 2009.
Kanye West loves clothes. When he released The College Dropout he was known for pastel Polos, Louis Vuitton backpacks and preppy aviator jackets. Soon, everyone was wearing BAPE, BBC and skinny jeans. At the forefront of boxfresh streetwear, he’s mixed vintage American denim with futuristic Japanese designs, while spawning a series of shutter-shades around the globe (they still sell on street stalls today). In his current incarnation, everyone around him in his studio is rocking a sharp suit, while he appears today in grey YSL trousers. Passionate about fashion, he’s interned at Fendi, designed his own high-end trainers for Nike and Louis Vuitton and is currently working on a loafer line. More than a mere hobby, fashion has been his saviour over the last year; when the press were hounding him over Swift, Kanye found refuge in the world of hemlines. A part of his life since a small kid following his mum around fur stores in Chicago, it’s a world he admires, is inspired by and is slowly becoming a part of.
Tell us about your experience at Fendi?
After the MTV thing, I moved to Japan for three weeks, stayed in a hotel and worked on designs, just to stay out of the way of paparazzi. Then I moved to Rome and I interned at Fendi for five months. At weekends I’d take time off and go to Stockholm and meet up with Jonny from ACNE or I’d go and see Giuseppe Zanotti in Italy and work in the factories with him.
The summer before that I was working on a capsule collection with Gap, and then I went to Korea to work on shoes and went to lots of different shows to show respect to the designers. I’ll go to a show for a really unpopular designer, but it’s not a media ploy; I need to see this thing firsthand. This whole ‘don’t go to too many shows’ – why not? I want to soak in the creativity. No one can tell me not to go to shows.
I was able to make Glow In The Dark because I was given the opportunity to see these things firsthand. I might be ‘burning my celebrity’ but fuck it, let it burn. My celebrity burnt to the ground last year when I was turned into Public Enemy No. 1. I cannot believe that I missed the last Alexander McQueen show. If he had actually allowed me to go, cos there’s been times when he wouldn’t allow me to go cos of the ‘no celebrity’ thing [laughs]. When I saw that show, before his passing, I sat with my people and had meetings about how important this show was… that’s the place I want to get to. I’m nowhere near there creatively, but what I felt from doing fashion and having such an uphill battle to get the factories to make the shoes I wanted to make, to sitting in the atelier with Karl [Lagerfeld] right before the Chanel couture show and realising that the women that worked with Karl would never work with a rapper, not in a million years. And so they shouldn’t.
I’ve got my own opinions about fashion, but everything I said, everything, Karl just shut me down. And that’s what I love; I love being around people that can tell me ‘No’ and give me more information. What I realised after being next to Karl and going back to the studio, what I realised was that I am the Riccardo Tisci of music, I am a Karl Lagerfeld of music. No. I cannot say that I’m Karl Lagerfeld. Let me take that back. I’m not the Karl Lagerfeld of anything because I haven’t been on this earth long enough and done enough great work to mention myself in the same breath as Karl Lagerfeld.
But I think I can mention myself in the same breath as a Riccardo Tisci, Alexander Wang or Christopher Kane, the newer kids that have a lot of ideas and a lot of influence and a lot of heat around them. But I could never mention myself in the same breath as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld or Azzedine Alaïa.
Who do you consider to be style icons?
Michael Jackson and Princess Diana both had it figured out as far as their place in life, how they represented themselves, what they could wear, what they could push, what they could influence, what they could influence.
How were you treated at Fendi? Were you able to just be ‘Kanye’ rather than ‘Kanye West’?
Yeah, it was really regular. I would walk about a mile and a half from my hotel to work everyday and put out ideas. Go get coffee. It was a great experience, like a Daniel Day Lewis experience. I have a love for clothing which people might not have understood at first or wrote me off as a rapper and tried to box me in. But I feel belittled to be classified as anything, the only thing you can classify me is as everything. Yes I’m a rapper, Yes I’m an entertainer, Yes I do these things but in most situations, what I love and what I want is so far past the means, the ability, knowledge or skill to pull off on my own. You don’t think I want everything I do to look like Alexander McQueen’s level of aesthetic? But my standard is greatness, so anything under that tears me up inside.
5pm, Electric Lady Studios, New York, September 2010.
Every Friday, West puts out a free track for his fans. After this interview, he’ll rush off to put the following touches to "Runaway", Ft. Pusha T of the Clipse, before heading to an edit suite to oversee his forthcoming debut film, also titled Runaway. Described by West at a recent London screening as “A legacy building moment. It’ll be the last option at night before the porn on the hotel TV,” it’s been inspired by “'Thriller', 'Purple Rain' and 'The Wall' – as well as Picasso and Matisse.” Directed by West, it’s written by Hype Williams, though the story is Kanye’s, and wardrobe design is courtesy of Phillip Lim and Martin Izquierdo. “With the passing of Michael Jackson I feel a responsibility to bring things to our generation that can inspire and bring real culture to pop culture. I want to use my power in a proper way,” Kanye points out.
How has making a film altered your overall creative process?
I disconnected with five people while I was working on the movie just because I don’t go for bullshit, period. People have got away with murder in the old days, used me, or think they can keep on doing a half-assed job, and I’m not going for it.
What qualities do you look for in a woman?
Integrity. (pause) I’m a hopeless romantic and I’m looking and trying to decide who the mother of my child will be. It’s not going to be based off a whim of being in love; she has to bring a certain level to the table. I want to be married, I want that superdope counterpart, that one woman, but she has to be super-fresh, super-smart and not overwhelmed, because being with me is gonna be a job (laughs). She can’t be overwhelmed by her career. I’ll find her, maybe I’ll be 38… maybe I’m not fully who I am yet, maybe that’s why I haven’t found her... The main quality is that you know that this person will ride or die for you. Whether she’s mad at you, whether she’s with you or not, she still loves you, she still bigs you up in any circle. She doesn’t talk down about you to other people. That’s the main thing that I need.
What are you like in a relationship?
I take responsibility, that’s my thing. I take responsibility for my mom’s passing. Certain things are out of your hands, but if I had just spent a little more time… [pauses]. I always look at the other person’s side of things and say ‘I understand your perspective.’ In certain situations both people are actually right. Now the question is, are you guys on the same team or not.
There was a lot of surprise about you making a track with Justin Bieber and Raekwon…
Justin Bieber singing over Wu Tang Clan "Aint Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit." To say I wouldn’t work with Justin Bieber because he’s a popular singer would be just as bad as the fashion houses that discriminate against me coming to their shows. They did no research. They don’t know that my grandfather used to wholesale clothes or that my mother and I would go to stores that sold mink coats for cheaper cos she’s trying to find one that she can afford. I’m literally five years old surrounded by furs. I love it. It’s in me. They don’t know that I got scholarships to art school and dropped out to do music. They think I’m just a celebrity but I appreciate being able to buy clothes. As far as rich people go, I’m not rich. Who’s the guy who basically owns Mexico? Or Bill Gates? That’s rich. People see me as a ‘rich’ guy but no actually; I’m breaking my bank to be able to have some influence and design clothes. I want to have an opinion about the way fabrics are put together… Like, I come up with a new construct for a film for this album. I want to mix sex, whimsy, emotion, and social messages over new relevant music.
Tell us about the planned album you have with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne …
I don’t want to over-explain it and kill the magic. It’ll come out when we feel like it. I’m not trying to make people wait; I just want to drop it when I feel like dropping it. That’s why I said on "Monster", those Napoleon Dynamite quotes ‘Whatever I wanna do, Gosh, it’s cool now…’
You’ve said Nicki Minaj is in the top two rappers right now…
She has the potential to be, yes. Women influence culture, they run men’s lives, there’s a more vulgar way to phrase that, but you know what I mean; women make the world go round. Nicki has great potential but also a lot of responsibility because there’s no voice that loud for women… Yo, this is reminding me of a song with Jay that I want to do. Let me write a note to myself [picks up a pen and pad and writes] ‘Do a song about models with Jay’. You know how people always do a song about models, but no one’s ever really chilled with the models for real? I need to talk about how fucking hard that job is, really break into the fucking complexes these girls get. A lot of these girls are so fucking skinny. Constantly told they’re fat and all the competition behind them. I got the opening line for it, hang on… [Starts to write] ‘She said hello Jared Leto, just left Lenny’s crib… Oh there’s Kanye, bought his stripper girlfriend/ Off to the next show, Fashion Week is a whirlwind/ She fucked her man so she don’t speak to her girlfriend…’ [continues to write verse]. Bear with me… [mumbles lyrics].
What’s your relationship like with Jay-Z?
Yeah, he’s like my best friend. I made a decision. I was like ‘I should hang out with Jay-Z more’. How could you have the opportunity to hang out with Jay-Z and not do it? If you had the opportunity to hang out with Jay-Z, would you?
Do you hang out properly, as in dinner and partying, or is it just work?
No, we’ll go to dinner, hang out at Chris and Gwyneth’s crib, see Madonna on the heliport after the show…
Living the dream!
Man, life is really, really awesome. With everything I’ve been through this past year it was divine intervention that helped the making of this. God has prepped me to be soldier and to fight for my art. And that's what I'm doing.
Text: Hattie Collins
Photography: Fabien Montique
Styling: Rushka Bergman
Grooming: Ibn Jasper
Photography Assistance: Henry Cruz
Producer: Virgil Abloh
Kanye wears jackets and slippers Tom Ford , jeans Dior Homme , jewellery Erickson Beamon, belts stylist's own