The myth of great art is that it’s created through spurts of inspiration, genius, and epiphanies. This isn’t always the case. Rather, great art can evolve from what seems like very ordinary, average, rough drafts, often created during very ordinary moments. Not unlike an agile sprint or a lean startup, artists will then get feedback, iterate on their drafts, and take it to the next level.
When Kanye West released his debut album “The College Dropout” in 2004, it earned him ten Grammy nominations. He would win the Best Rap Album award, where he gave an unforgettable victory speech. “Dropout” would go on to sell millions of copies.
West’s mixtape, “Freshmen Adjustment 1,” consists of tracks recorded before his debut album, “The College Dropout.” However, I only heard “Adjustment,” a few years after I listened to “Dropout.”
There’s a song entitled, “Self Conscious,” which contains two verses that would appear on his single, “All Falls Down.” I remember watching the video for “All Falls Down” at my friend’s house after school. I started following his work much more closely after that.
West’s vocal delivery on “Self Conscious,” is not as strong as the one on the final “All Falls Down,” and the beat is entirely different. But it is very curious. I imagine that he thought these two verses were good, but the song as a whole wasn’t. He spent some time creating a new beat to match the caliber of the two verses.
The product of his effort would be early version of the reworked song, “All Falls Down,” on the “Adjustment” mixtape. It features a sample of Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity.” The sample never cleared, and West would enlist singer-songwriter Syleena Johnson to sing the hook in the “All Falls Down.” In contrast to “Self Conscious, ” his delivery on the early “All Falls Down” is much closer to — but not quite — his final “All Falls Down” on the “Dropout” album.
It’s difficult to imagine that “Self Conscious” would receive the level of recognition that “All Falls Down” has. “All Falls Down” would hit #7 on Billboard’s Hot 100 on May 22, 2004 and get nominated for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 47th Grammy Awards.
Great art like “All Falls Down” doesn’t require a “Eureka!” moment, an epiphany, or a huge jolt of inspiration. Sure, this happens sometimes for some artists. It’s partially true of the verses in “All Falls Down” too, which West says he wrote the verses to in 15 minutes in an interview with the New York Times. But that would be nothing without West being dissatisfied with “Self Conscious,” finding and creating a new beat, and enlisting the help of Syleena Johnson to create the final “All Falls Down.”
Not all of West’s verses get written so quickly. His wife, Kim Kardashian West, has said he wrote 90 bars to wrap up “No More Parties in L.A.”
West’s example is probably the most prominent as proof of this point: great art can emerge from an average first draft. It takes effort to mine the gold from most good ideas. Hard work can turn what seems like average work into great art.
That’s not to say that there’s gold to be mined in every idea. Nor is great art simply produced by throwing random things against the wall without planning or consideration. Artists are relentless and tireless in their re-working of the original draft. Great art is then moulded through critical thinking, collaboration, and experimentation.
When I first noticed this thread, I thought to myself, “What a relief!” I would certainly not consider myself a particularly talented writer, nor did I grow up writing constantly. But my parents did raise me with a very rigorous work ethic. Between the ages of 6-16, there was day school and weekend school. I remember my Saturdays being filled with Chinese school in the morning and math class in the early afternoon. Despite how much I hated — and was terrible at — sports, Saturday mid-afternoons were spent practicing basketball. Friday nights were spent swimming or at floor hockey.
I want to debunk the myth that the only way to create great art is through epiphanies and inspiration, and that we must sit around and wait for them. Rather, great art is not just born randomly from inspiration. It can be constructed through rigor, patience, and perseverance. As West would say in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, probably to the delight of both his greatest haters and fans, “I would say my determination is way higher than my smartness.”
The myth of epiphanies
Great art is appealing and resonant in part because it’s extraordinary. It seems so far beyond the creative ability of mere mortals. There’s a lot of mystery that shrouds the creative process. There’s a good reason for that. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner says in “Getting There: A Book of Mentors”:
I remember studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” in high school. According to Coleridge, upon waking from a deep, opium-induced reverie, he recalled a vision and immediately wrote the 54 famous lines. But when we started doing the poetic analysis, it became clear that there was no way this poem came out all at once. It has this amazing structure. We learned from letters and notes that had been discovered that it was likely Coleridge had not only worked on “Kubla Khan” for several months, but that he also sent it to friends for feedback.
Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.
Artists deliberately, and consciously, hide the extraordinary effort it takes to make their masterpieces. There’s a word for this type of concealing, sprezzatura, which author Seth Godin describes as, “being able to do your craft without a lot of visible effort.”
With this combined narratives of effortless sprezzatura and “first thought, best thought,” art can be equal parts confusing and intimidating. No wonder so many people believe that art requires flashes of genius and “Eureka!” moments.
There’s also a practical reason that artists don’t discuss their process. This part is much more straightforward. Essayist T. S. Eliot writes, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” And the late innovator Steve Jobs says, citing Picasso (perhaps inaccurately), “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
Sometimes, artists find inspiration in each other’s work, or they subconsciously process and re-express common elements. And sometimes, they deliberately rip off other works shamelessly, duplicate the art, without even trying to put their own spin on it. But regardless of intent, imitation is a byproduct of the process. Painter Salvador Dali says, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
Weiner and this generation of artists are much more open with their sources and process. This type of transparency generates mixed reactions. Here’s a clear example of what happens when you’re open with your influences. Enter writer Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detective and screenwriter for Magic City. Author Rich Cohen writes in his article for Vanity Fair:
Nic was at first startlingly open about his influences, extolling writers and books that stood behind Cohle’s soliloquies. Laird Barron, John Langan, Simon Strantzas, Emil Cioran. He urged fans to read Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow and Karl Edward Wagner’s “The River of Night’s Dreaming.” He seemed to play with the legend of Carcosa, a mythical city first chronicled by Ambrose Bierce. He cited the horror writer Thomas Ligotti, especially the book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, all of which gave the show pedigree, a mystical sheen. He’s since become touchy on the subject, Ligotti fanatics having accused him of too much borrowing. It’s a bullshit charge. You can’t steal a cast of mind. But when I asked Nic about influences, he bristled. “I tend to be influenced by places as much as anything,” he said. “You look around and notice details and it starts to form a world and then you find characters to inhabit this world.”
So this transparency clearly points out how art is made, and the artists’ influences in that work. There’s less guesswork and ambiguity. They can also judge how the artist borrowed from other people. Or they can cry out when they feel the artist (Pizzolatto) ripped off another artist (Ligotti).
It’s also unclear whether consumers of art actually appreciate the transparency or not. Perhaps they prefer the mystique that comes with the art, the magic of not knowing how something was created.
No wonder artists want to keep their creative processes to themselves. The method. The secret. The sauce.
Artists like Jay Z have been known to go into the booth almost immediately after hearing an instrumental, without writing a single word down, and deliver the vocals that will end up on the final version of his track. Tupac would do something similar. According to The Studio Years, rapper Big Syke says, “He never went back to the same song twice, when that session was over, the song was done too… Because he’d write his shit on the spot, then go in that motherf–ker, and drop it in one take, and you’d be like ‘Woah! Woah shit!’” Bun B has spoken about how long it takes him to write his best verses, “Probably fifteen, twenty minutes. No longer than any other rhyme I’ve written.”
Yet in Beats Down, Money Up!, West says, “Jay Z might take ten minutes (to write and lay down a lead vocal, and)…who’s to say that, in the ten minutes, it isn’t perfect? But when I hear the word perfectionist, I think of someone who burns the midnight oil.”
So what happens to the artists that don’t — or aren’t able to — create genius work on demand? What happens to the ones that choose to — or have to — burn the midnight oil, the ones that have to tinker endlessly? What do they even do during that time?
The unmagical truth: a lot of drafts
Author Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird By Bird, “[Perfection] will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
Artists who believe in epiphanies tend to get writer’s block. This is how it works: The writer gets inspired. They tell people about it, they get more excited, and they realize it’s going to be the one that changes their life. They might even try writing it down. But it’s not quite there yet, and it looks shitty.
They know from this draft that it’s not going to change their life. So they take a break and try something else, but they’re still dreaming of the idea and building it up in their heads. And they get scared that the idea really isn’t as great as they thought it would be, so they don’t execute on it — or they work on it in private, frustrated that the gap between their expectations and their reality is increasing.
The concept of the shitty first draft is so important. It’s much easier to paint on a canvas with an imperfection on it than it is to paint on a purely blank canvas. The possibilities are too endless. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams says, “I find that I am most happy when I have boundaries.” The key is to improve on the shitty first draft over time. The vision will come to life, as long as you work on it relentlessly.
Musician John Legend writes 50-80 songs per album. Writer Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different versions of the ending to his book, “A Farewell to Arms.” Writer Ray Bradbury advocates aspiring writers create a short story every week, in the hopes that not all of them can be bad. That’s a lot of drafts.
Lately, the most obvious public example would be Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo.” By no means is the initial draft of “Pablo” shitty (I loved it on first listen and still listen to that version), but West’s updates to “Pablo” are undoubtedly for the better (Jon Caramanica covers details in the New York Times).
Then there’s also the numerous demo tracks, like the original pre-”Pablo” version of “F.M.L,” which features West rapping unworded syllables over the track to fill in the audio space, and both The Weeknd and Travi$ Scott on the hook.
There’s also The Weeknd’s “Inside The Dangerously Empty Lives of Teenage Girls,” where he shares early versions of “Loft Music,” “What You Need,” and, “The Morning.” These tracks all end up on his first, and breakthrough, mixtape, “House of Balloons.” (“Girls” might be named after this Maclean’s article.)
The early version of “Loft Music” in “Girls” doesn’t have the beat switch up that makes the song so memorable in “Balloons.” The differences in the two versions of “The Morning” are particularly undeniable. In “Girls”, The Weeknd distorts his voice and doesn’t quite have the raw sound that the final version in “Balloons” does.
The processes of the Weeknd and Kanye West fit into a different type than the processes that Jay Z and Tupac use. Author Malcolm Gladwell would label Jay Z’s and Tupac’s rapid breakthrough method as one more similar to Picasso. It typically works after long periods spent consciously or unconsciously assembling a coherent vision.
The Weeknd’s and Kanye West’s methods more closely resemble those of Cézanne, in which they execute over and over again, refining a final product from rough first drafts. And so, for artists like Cézanne, the Weeknd, and Kanye West — and I would argue, for most people — inspiration is not so much a romantic, simple, “Eureka!” moment. Epiphanies do not come to most of us, and we can’t tell when they do. Rather, great art is gradually moulded through constant revision and iteration. In this case, inspiration can be considered a fuel — perseverance, and determination — to keep the artist centered on making great work.
Gladwell explores the Cézanne method in depth in this podcast, he brings up the example of singer-songwriter Elvis Costello’s “Deportees Club,” which evolved into “Deportees.”
Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” might be the one most people are familiar with. Yet as Gladwell explains, it’s not a cover of the original “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen, but a cover of John Cale covering Cohen’s version. It took 15 years for “Hallelujah” to catch on.
This is yet another interesting spin on the Cézanne method, one that involves iterating on other people’s art. In some ways, this can be considered using other people’s work as first drafts for something greater.
Giving and taking from other people’s work
If the line exists between inspiration and “borrowing”, and ripping off someone’s work, it’s a thin one. Perhaps it’s one of plagiarism, where rip offs don’t change a thing and simply spit it back out with their name on it. It could also be one of taste, where rip offs aren’t as authentic as the original. I remember hearing someone laugh, “We do a lot of R&D. And no, that doesn’t stand for research and development. It stands for rip off and duplicate.”
This type of thing happens all the time, but in plenty of different circumstances. Consider how Supreme’s logo is relatively recent adoption of artist Barbara Kruger’s work from a few decades ago. Or, Appleton Monthly copying Madison magazine’s covers. Or Kanye West hiring Marco Brambilla to create the “Power” music video after seeing Brambilla’s “Civilization” tableau. Or West using Vincent Desiderio’s painting, “Sleep,” to create his “Famous” sculpture and music video.
Also consider West’s favorite song, Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” “I don’t know if anyone has done my songs better,” Dylan said of Hendrix’s cover. “He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day,” Dylan tells the Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1995. Dylan also writes, “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way. I liked Hendrix’s record, and ever since he died, I’ve been doing it that way.”
In more contemporary terms, consider the mysterious and mystical rise of the Weeknd. His initial mixtapes featured racy photos of women and a strange design that he became well known for. “In the beginning, I was very insecure. I hated how I looked in pictures. I just fucking hated this shit, like, crop me out of this picture right now. I was very camera shy,” said the Weeknd in an interview with Complex. “People like hot girls, so I put my music to hot girls and it just became a trend. The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing, I just ran with it. No one could find pictures of me. It reminded me of some villain shit.”
I thought that decision was really lucky and unusual, until I learned that Chic had done it for their debut album, “Chic.” (Roxy Music also hid their faces for their “Country Life” album cover.) I have no idea whether the Weeknd and his creative directors knew of this, but it seems almost impossible to tread in territory that hasn’t been explored before.
The 48 Laws of Power author Robert Greene writes, “Learn to use the knowledge of the past and you will look like a genius, even when you are really just a clever borrower.”
Today, in the age of reference tracks (e.g., Drake and the reference tracks from PartyNextDoor, Quentin Miller, and such), many artists can be considered “clever borrowers” and curators. Selection is a different skill than synthesis, but still a challenging one. But with so much content to select from, perhaps it’s one more relevant in today’s art.
Robert McKee writes in Story, “When actors compliment each other, for example, they often say, “I like your choices.’ They know that if a colleague has arrived at a beautiful moment, it’s because in rehearsal the actor tried it twenty different ways, then chose the one perfect moment. The same is true for us.”
Save all your drafts
Kanye West’s Glastonbury stage (2015)
Kanye West’s Saint Pablo Tour stage (2016)
The iterative nature of the Cézanne method reminds me of my time at Xtreme Labs. I saw how great technology products were actually made firsthand, not through one huge “Eureka!” moment or a long run in a silo, but through weekly sprints, feedback, iterations, and gradual improvements. It was unexpected, but not entirely surprising, to see this happen in the art and creative worlds as well.
Now, I write all my ideas down and carefully organize them. I write drafts and let them sleep for a few weeks before picking them up. I rewrite rigorously. I recommend you do the same. It’s hard to tell, especially early on, where the gold is hidden. It takes days, weeks, months, and sometimes years of mining to figure it out, refine it, and get it prepared for the world.
What a shame it would have been if West released “Self Conscious” impulsively and prematurely, before the world had an opportunity to hear “All Falls Down.”