Who Is This For?
- Artists and creative independents. We live in an age of conspicuous production; the process is what gives the product its value. Kanye West thrives because he has essentially made his life a performance art piece, with each project and promotional campaign provoking new conversations.
- Leaders. Kanye is the orchestrator of his company, and now a key collaborator at a Fortune 500 company (Gap Inc.). Kanye’s work with Yeezy is a case study in rallying people and resources to keep going—keeping morale high, documenting and sharing milestones, and learning from failures.
- Thinkers. Knowledge work is the easy part. Keeping optimistic, amidst increasingly challenging experiences, is the difficult part. This is the emotional side of an intellectual activity, one that you need to manage if you’re going to make your worldview come true. Decades into his journey, Kanye is still going strong because of his persistence, powered by his faith in the future.
Recap: The first part of this series unpacked Kanye West as a religion and the first unified belief that binds him and his collaborators, customers, and followers together, which is that everybody can be a genius. This second part covers the second unified belief: that there is hope for the future, and design can save the world.
I’m ahead of my time, sometimes years out
So the powers that be won’t let me get my ideas out
And that make me wanna get my advance out
And move to Oklahoma and just live at my aunt’s house
— Gone, Kanye West, 2005
Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
“My greatest award is what I’m about to do. I’m always thinking about the future,” the Grammy website quotes Kanye West. Kanye is, very much, a quintessential American CEO. He positions himself as a creative genius and innovator. More importantly, he invests vast amounts of resources into backing his claims up with the projects and results to show for it.
As I write this, Kanye West finally has some of the infrastructure he needs to set his creative ideas in motion. But he has been through financial hell and back—literally spending over $50 million largely to fund his clothing ventures. He couldn’t make it work independently, so he demanded the world provide him with the infrastructure to do it, rebuking former collaborator Nike for providing him with exploitative deals.
Jon Wexler from Adidas approached Kanye with the deal he wanted, and together they worked together—during the time of which, Adidas’s market capitalization nearly tripled. Wexler and Adidas bought into Kanye, and Kanye gave them the future that they wanted—using them to bring about one he wanted for himself as well. After accepting a Shoe of the Year award, Kanye credits Wexler for saving his life.
The Yeezy line of sneakers achieve a rare feat; they live up to the hype. They are more than mere shoes; they are sacred objects in the religion of Kanye West. The lore behind the sneakers deserve an article on their own. At a glance, Kanye worked on the first variations of them with Nike. One of these pairs, retail for $245, ended up selling for $90,000 in an auction. A cancer patient credits the more recent Adidas Yeezy 350 Boost for saving his feet and helping save his life.
“I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail,” raps Chance the Rapper on “Ultralight Beam.” This is how associating with Kanye makes people feel—a supreme faith in the future and their own capabilities to make it happen. Sacredness aside, perhaps it’s not dissimilar to how someone might feel after service at a church centered on prosperity.
Disclaimer: Kanye West as a person is different from his persona, I imagine, and I don’t know the guy personally. Like many in the Church of Kanye, I am only familiar with the persona—the one at the core of millions, if not billions, of parasocial relationships.
I wrote this for entertainment value. Other people have written books about this topic, so feel free to look into them if you want a comprehensive, academic, view of Kanye West’s religion. For now, I see this as a foundational sketch—not a final painting—of his work. An introduction to ideas beyond the headlines, perhaps like a demo of a song, if you will.
Kanye, the Futurist
In The Time Paradox, authors John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo explore the psychology of how we think about and understand time, which affects how they experience and behave through life. Through their research, they categorize how people view time by measuring six categories (page 61). Here they are, with the first five definitions lifted from this paper and the final one here:
- Future: general future orientation, driven by striving for future goals and rewards
- Present-hedonistic: hedonistic, risk-taking, “devil may care” attitude toward time and life
- Present-fatalistic: helpless and hopeless attitude toward the future and life
- Past-positive: warm, sentimental attitude about the past
- Past-negative: a negative, averse view of the past suggesting trauma, pain, and regret
- Transcendental-future: the future beyond personal perspective, imagined death of the physical body to infinity, beliefs which may influence present behavior
John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo observe (page 174), “Protestants tend to be extreme on every time perspective and score extremely low on the past-negative and extremely high on the future time perspectives. Protestants take the positive from their pasts and work assiduously toward the ‘good’ future.”
That almost describes Kanye West’s time orientation to a tee. From watching dozens (admittedly, probably hundreds) of hours of interview footage, I believe Kanye’s persona is:
- Future: extremely high
- Present-hedonistic: extremely high
- Present-fatalistic: low
- Past-positive: high
- Past-negative: low
- Transcendental-future: low
Kanye clearly lacks the high fatalistic time perspective based on his religious belief and predestination (The Time Paradox, p. 108). That’s because he believes he has been chosen by God, saved from his fatal car accident for a reason. He compared himself to Moses on Twitter, and has previously declared that he would be one of the characters of today’s modern Bible. It’s likely he doesn’t mean this literally—but merely providing context to how he would like people to see his possibilities (like when he compares himself to Jobs, Disney, and such, see part 1 of this series).
It’s likely that Kanye wouldn’t agree with Boyd’s and Zimbardo’s categories of time. He suggests that the future is a mindset, and the concept of blending time together. He says:
“I do believe that all time is now. The future is here now, the past is here now. There’s certain people that you meet and you say, “Oh, you’re from the future.” You feel this in their spirit, people who are just staying in a time where the time doesn’t celebrate who they are, and there’s other people right now who the time does celebrate, and those people end up more famous or notorious. But I’m big on connecting with timeless energy, with people and musicians that I’m around. When working on “Runaway” with [artist] Vanessa Beecroft, it was very important to not define the time, to not give any labels to the environments that we were in.”
As mentioned in the first part of this series, since his near-fatal car accident, Kanye has recognized the impermanence of life. He is unwilling to compromise on important matters, and impatient in making things happen. John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo would guess that time passes too quickly for Kanye (The Time Paradox, p. 205), “…it makes sense that they feel they must accomplish everything today, because by tomorrow all of their time might have passed, and it will be too late.”
Perhaps the most interesting idea, from John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo, is their observation that the future time perspective is the most practical in today’s world. For example, leaders of governments and businesses all think and communicate in future-oriented plans and terms. Incentives are all geared to people who believe in future rewards—possible promotions, stock improvements, and such. They write in The Time Paradox (p. 292) “We live in a world created by futures for futures, and the devil take the hindmost—the presents.”
It’s no coincidence that Kanye West is reaching the zenith of the business world. He lives computer pioneer Alan Kay’s adage, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” And although innovation is typically associated with technology like computer hardware and software, Kanye chooses a different media to usher in the future.
Belief Two: Design can Save the World
I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected.’
—Harvard Design speech, Kanye West, 2013
The case has long been made that despite its practicality and nature of design, architecture is a fine art. At Pharos 2018, Donald Glover, who called himself “the son of Kanye,” lists architecture as a theme that connects people together (“Tribe, Ritual, Experience Abstraction, Architecture, Language”). And in an age where technology has removed barriers to many other fine arts, like painting and poetry, architecture still requires budget, resources, and infrastructure to bring buildings to life.
This makes architecture a relatively inaccessible line of work. As Kriston Capps writes, becoming an architect would require an advanced degree (before Kanye earned an honorary doctorate, as his debut album title The College Dropout hints, he had no bachelor’s degree), and 5,600 hours of internships, as well as a series of architecture licensure exams. AIA reports that 17 percent of registered architects are women, and different surveys report 1% to 2% of architects being black—with just 0.2% being black women.
Kanye’s choice of architecture and design highlights a tension he has to deal with—the formal training needed to get to the level that Kanye himself respects and admires, as well as the high amount of debt and time, inaccessible to people without that capacity or initial cash flow.
Like Sekou Cooke writes, “Cultural influence and social agency is far easier to acquire via a set of turntables, a microphone, a pair of Adidas, or a can of spray paint.” It just so happened Kanye reinvested his cultural influence and finances into his architectural practice. In an age in which it might have made more financial or strategic sense for Kanye to build software like his peers will.i.am and Ryan Leslie, chose to design buildings. In typical Kanye fashion, he was ahead of his time; venture capitalist Marc Andreessen recently urged technologists to start building again.
Since his debut as a recording artist, Kanye West has had an obsession with clothing and architecture. He had plans to launch his clothing line Mascotte in 2004, which morphed into Pastelle in 2005. Neither have officially publicly launched. Kanye has also spent—invested—significant amounts of money to work with architects on his own homes and on products. One of his close collaborators for over a decade, Virgil Abloh, also formally studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Kanye says, “I believe that the world can only be saved through design. I think that the fashion world has—and when I say through design, I know some snarky classist editor would want to take that and say, ‘Kanye West said the world will be saved with the couture dress.’ That’s not what I’m saying. The mentality behind design. Art is to be free. Design is to fix.”
Kanye believes it’s the mentality and philosophy of design that will save the world. By contrast, currently, the mentality of politics is the one the world operates on. “I believe that utopia is actually possible–but we’re led by the least noble, the least dignified, the least tasteful, the dumbest, and the most political. So in no way am I a politician–I’m usually at my best politically incorrect and very direct,” he says.
Note: I switch between architecture, fashion, and general design relatively frequently. That’s because Kanye does the same—using specifics when it matters, but usually referring to the general idea and discipline of design.
While reluctant to call himself a designer, out of high esteem for the craft (and his own lack of formal experience), Kanye constantly works with a group of architects, who are always within earshot. As the opening quote in this section says, Kanye believes in architecting the future—it’s not just going to happen, and design and architecture are his catalysts of choice.
As for examples—here’s how the Yeezy team is redesigning a website. Kanye’s creative partner, fashion photographer Nick Knight, says, “We’ve gotten used to the internet being a flat, two-dimensional place. But the internet is also this amazing tool that connects everybody in the world: What if we could use it to get to know the people we are looking at on the screen?”
Kanye’s Design Influences
I call architecture frozen music.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
At the time of writing, Kanye is working with the aforementioned Axel Vervoordt, light artist James Turrell, and the Italian architect Claudio Silvestrin to develop a new architectural language. The first words of this language are developing at the West Lake Ranch, with Turrell designing a new house for Kanye. It might not be an entire departure from what we know as Kanye’s design language—years ago he worked with Silvestrin to design his loft in New York City. Vervoordt had redesigned Kanye’s and Kim’s mansion in Los Angeles.
Prior, Kanye has spoken of being influenced by Rem Koolhaas, Oana Stanescu, Zaha Hadid, and Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret). Kanye cited the Corbusier lamp as one of the core inspirations for the Yeezus album and thesis. Kanye also talks about a wabi-sabi influence. (“Everything I do that’s not perfect/Only makes it that, that, that much more perfect,” he sings in his “I Want It All” freestyle.)
During Virgil Abloh’s formative years in school, he was heavily influenced by Rem Koolhaas and Michael Rock, who were two of three people making a think tank for Prada. He says, “That’s how I first made the bridge between architecture and fashion.”
Outside of architecture, Kanye has been heavily intellectually and emotionally influenced by design. He once broke into tears in an interview with Zane Lowe remembering Central Saint Martins College of Arts professor of fashion design Louise Wilson (who told Kanye and Virgil, in Virgil’s words, “You guys are idiots. You know more than my students. Why on earth would you want to go to fashion school?”), who passed away in 2014.
Similarly, Kanye has praised Jony Ive, calling him the world’s greatest living designer for the idea that, “People are so concerned about being first, as opposed to being better.”
While Kanye never quoted architect Stanley Tigerman, another honorary degree recipient, Kriston Capps notes a similar fire driving both of them. Capps quotes Tigerman, “To cause something to be built, you have to have something within you …. That really comes from a belief system that’s very deep in you, and that belief system is rooted in ethics and morality.”
The intellectual and spiritual influences I covered in the first part, including New Thought, Christianity, and the prosperity gospel, as well as all the films—in this case, the Tatooine huts from Star Wars—influence his perspective on design and architecture as well.
How to Design the Future
Currently, the most well-designed products and environments are inaccessible to the masses. With growing inequality, this will continue to be the case if left alone. Kanye has talked about an example of it in fine art, with artists compromising their own principles in order to afford the items and homes they want, which make them feel better.
He says, “These things are currently really, really expensive, so we’re on a mission to take what someone would call the highest sensibility — and, I don’t even like speaking in verticals, I like speaking horizontally to say take away the class and what’s high, what’s low and say it’s all on the same plane. So, right now, since this is the way we communicate, the simplest way is to say the highest sensibility and to be able to apply it to everyone, period.”
Kanye’s vision is one of abundance. The products he first created—his music—was distributed at price points accessible to everyone. His mission now is for everyone in the world to have a chance to experience well-designed architecture and products. He’s not the first to notice that through economics, and the price tags that come with luxury, good design has been denied to the masses. And thus, the mood improvement that comes with it—the happiness—is also inaccessible.
There’s evidence to show that your physical environment influences your work and creative breakthroughs. For example, consider that Jonas Salk’s breakthrough for his polio vaccine happened not in his basement lab in Pittsburgh, but at a monastery at the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Italy. That’s the reason the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is an architectural wonder. For at least over a decade, neuroscientists have been collaborating with architects, figuring out the relationship between the mind and its physical environments. Kanye himself has talked about light therapy and how James Turrell spaces make him feel more peaceful. And of course, enclothed cognition is just one of many concepts investigating the relationship between the mind and clothing.
While he has worked with luxury fashion houses in the past, his most prominent deals are with mainstream brands like Adidas and Gap. His mission fits their business models incredibly well—bring a luxury design sensibility to household brands at slightly premium prices (to set a price anchor and exclusivity as context), and then to bring the price down.
Granted, his Yeezy products are still priced relatively high; it’s positioned as an aspirational product to match current consumer behavior, and the prices will drop as Yeezy feels the climate is ready for it. (It’s not dissimilar from Tesla making luxury cars before mass producing the cheaper ones.)
In other words, Kanye bets that these well-designed products will enable more people to feel better—to tap into their creative breakthroughs, to behave as their most ideal selves, and to work together—which lead to actions that lead to greater prosperity and innovations for the human race as a whole.
Kanye’s mission requires investing a vast amount of education and collaboration, as well as creating context—otherwise, people won’t care. So, the first step is to redefine luxury—removing the high price tags, desirability, and exclusivity, and instead focusing on a product’s inherent quality, as Lily Shell writes in this paper. And the relatively “non-luxury” businesses he works with—Gap and Adidas, so far—are perfect for his thesis statement.
Note: Or at least, that’s the way I’m guessing he means for it to happen. Credits to him if the idea sounds good. If it sounds dumb, it’s probably my poor phrasing of it.
We only see a thin sliver of Kanye’s thought process through his persona, music, and products. Sometimes, it’s so far away that it doesn’t leave the laptop screen for years—maybe ever! There’s Mascotte and Pastelle, but also consider more secretive, speculative, innovations, like the Yeezy toothbrush, the Yeezy Athlet headphones, credited to designers who worked with him on the housing (Vadik Marmeladov and Ilya Kolganov.)
Kanye’s mission is grand—to critics, grandiose. When asked how he knows if Sunday Service will have succeeded, he says there will be world peace. When Kanye runs for president, he doesn’t think politically, he runs as the unity candidate—bringing everyone together, to move forward to the future.
While his unique style and design capabilities are still in development, he plans on bringing the future to the present by any means necessary, provoking it along the way. This has yet to happen in a drastic way in architecture—but it happened recently in the industry he’s most well-known for, the recording industry.
You can Also Choose to Design the Future
On October 30, 2020, in the midst of his presidential run, Kanye West wrote a letter entitled, “Dear Future,” published as an advertisement in the New York Times.
Kanye’s diction in the letter is equal parts. “Love” may not be the first word most people associate with “future,” but Kanye uses the word six times. That’s because Kanye believes love is the counterbalance to fear, and that love is the foundation on which we can create the utopic future.
Exacerbated by the pandemic, it’s not a stretch to say we currently live in an age of fear. The 2010s were called a decade of perpetual crisis. America’s values system is divided, as clearly shown in the elections, with each side hurt by and fearing the other—causing division, hate, and anger.
We lose our hope in ourselves to straighten out our own lives, placing our faith in the institutions like the government—which has, at best, fallen short of expectations. Fewer and fewer of us even have the safety nets we need to take big risks; many don’t even have $400 to pay for an emergency.
This stands out in contrast from what science journalist Matthew Hanlon calls “Golden Quarter, approximately from 1945–1971, which he describes, “Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights.”
As such, comparatively, technology has developed incrementally since. Entrepreneur Peter Thiel famously said, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Peter Thiel’s answer to this is his belief in definite optimism, and how we can return to our leaps in technology and innovation by restoring our optimistic attitude and nature.
Note: Kanye’s and Peter’s common beliefs and faith led to a meeting. David Perell wrote a great piece on Peter Thiel’s religion as an introduction to Thiel’s ideas, which influenced this series as much as Mario Gabriele’s modern gospels.
In order to deal with the fear, Kanye West tweets, “Fear is the absence of love and fear is the source of all of our evil. Love is the absence of fear and love is the source of all of our greatness.” He positions love as the opposite of, and antidote to, fear. He writes that these two emotions are the motivating forces of every action we take. He applies this to the conventional fear of God, choosing to not subscribe to that idea.
In this age of fear, Kanye believes more of us are living our lives based on fear instead of love. He advocates the opposite, to, “Be transparent as possible. Stop setting plays. Stop playing chess with life. Make decisions based on love not fear.” It’s the strategy of no strategy.
In interviews, Kanye expresses admiration for MIT’s alumni and training, but is critical of the mentality of its students as well. He says, “It feels to me like MIT is a place that has to be funded by people who want to take the smartest people on the planet, and make them work on the smallest things that won’t change anything.” He provokes the viewers, saying:
“So many people at MIT, let me tell you, MIT right now. Y’all in a box. They have you in a box. You can save the world, but you are working on things that are too small. Take a step back, stop worrying about your college loans, stop worrying about what job they got waiting for you in Silicon Valley. MIT, you can save the world. Kids in college, you can save the world. I’ll put my life on this interview right now. It’s up to y’all. Y’all have the ability to step back from what you think culture is today.”
And of course, because he believes everyone can choose to be a genius, and making the choice is the anointment to do something great.
This message comes with a genuine intention to inspire, but gets lost in the vastly different contexts Kanye lives compared to most of us. For starters, Kanye himself clearly has no aversion to debt, plunging his personal line of credit of $53 million in debt to learn design. I have a hunch that even if he were a student, he probably wouldn’t be that uncomfortable with student debt.
Given his faith in New Thought and the law of attraction, he would probably say he was certain of the outcome—that his bet in design would work—but to the rest of us, it was far from a sure thing. Not everyone has that capacity for risk. Moreover, Kanye has lived his own prophecy (“If I’m up way too much/I’m out of touch” from “Saint Pablo”), no longer acknowledging the circumstances that create fear and instead focusing singularly on love. This may come from his roots in New Thought; your reality follows your mind.
As Walter Isaacson writes in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, “This inability to ground his fantasies in reality has generally been regarded as one of Leonardo’s major failings. Yet in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time.” The same can be said for Kanye (who, as you may have guessed, has compared himself to Da Vinci).
Even though Kanye is a billionaire on paper, and knowing how leveraged he has been in the past, his financial position is still precarious. Most of his net worth is tied into the Yeezy company, and so it’s debatable whether or not he can actually be that generous with his cash flow. (Jack Dorsey says of his stakes in Twitter and Square,”It could be gone tomorrow.”)
If he wanted students to be more risk-taking, he would not only need to change how they relate to the risk (i.e., stopping the fear), he would need to change their circumstances (i.e., lessening or forgiving the actual debt, lowering the price of education) as well. For example, it would be ideal if Kanye could tap into other funds, which might provide one reason to his run for President.
Then again, in spite of the vague nature of his commentary, we can’t discount Kanye’s endeavours and accomplishments. Even just a quick glance at his accomplishments will put a veteran in any of his industries to shame—this is the guy who fell asleep while he was driving home from overwork, nearly losing his life in the process.
After success in the recording industry, Kanye then went to the one of the most expensive, time intensive, subjective, critical, and unaccepting places he could to spend his entire fortune and millions in personal credit to educate himself through projects and consultants. I’m not suggesting he’s in exactly the same situation as a student in debt—not even close, especially because he can turn on the music production or commercial spigot at any moment and cash out—but he is constantly walking a tightrope, deciding to stretch it to the limit when he could let it rest.
Note: Minus the financial risk, this is a credibility tactic that his partner, Kim Kardashian, is also applying in a different way—to emerge from her celebrity brand by becoming a lawyer, and fighting for prison reform. It’s a balance between self-interest and societal impact. If this is the future, and it means righting wrongs that we’ve made in the past. In this particular case, it is a very urgent fight. Frankly, Kim has just as good a chance at being president as Kanye. Some might say even a better one.
But nonetheless, Kanye is not going to stop—the challenge to work on bigger things, and to not focus on fear, will provoke the people it is meant to provoke, and will leave the rest of us scratching our heads. Kanye genuinely believes people can save the world through design, and if they’re simply motivated enough.
Start Your Future However You Can
One of the most remarkable things about Kanye West is his ability to work in relatively low fidelity. He talks about his early work on clothing designs with his close collaborator Virgil Abloh, designing only in Photoshop because they didn’t have access to the infrastructure or connections they needed. The specific moment he was talking about might have been in 2009, when the two of them were interning for Fendi, but I have no doubt Kanye, Virgil Abloh, and the rest of the team continued shipping prototypes in Photoshop for years.
Kanye starts with himself—doing whatever he can to find the truth by living it. He believes clothing and design can elevate the way a person thinks; he tries that with himself and his team. And while his products have only reached a small scale of his vision, we can get an idea of it by looking closer to how he lives and works.
In order to grok Kanye’s vision for the future, we can look at a few of his more prominent design and architecture projects:
Kanye West Loft, 2007—Claudio Silvestrin
Seven Screen Pavilion, 2011–2012—Rem Koolhaas (OMA) (for the fans, check out Michael Rock’s brief documentation of the process)
Yeezy Studio Calabasas, 2018—Willo Perron
Yeezy Home (prefabricated shelter renders), 2018—Yeezy Home
Yeezy Home, 2019—Yeezy Home
Yeezy SHLTRS, 2020—Yeezy Home
Kanye West’s and Kim Kardashian’s Los Angeles home, 2020—Axel Vervoordt
And again, we’re seeing just a fraction of the vision here. Most of the images and ideas probably still live only in the screen, tucked away in the hard drives of his team. Here’s a series of images presented publicly by Vadik Marmeladov (source 1 and 2):
I figure it’s best for me to let the architecture speak for itself and for you to experience its effects. Instead, I wanted to share some interesting excerpts as portraits of Kanye’s and collaborators’ thought processes:
- Kanye, he adds, while “he does not shrink from being controversial to say the least” is “very smart and well educated, he knows more about architecture than many of my American architect friends”. (Source: Telegraph)
- “It’s perfect for skating,” West says with pride. “It’s super soothing to walk into.” As he trails off, beaming with his signature childlike wonder, I suddenly realize what he’s just said. When you say skating, do you mean skateboarding? I ask. “Yeah,” West says. “That was the original brief for this house: It has to be completely skateable.” The architects all nod along. So is it still skateable? “Oh,” Kanye says matter-of-factly. “It’s more skateable than ever.” (Source: GQ)
- West had been consulting with the architect Claudio Silvestrin and the light artist James Turrell on the plans. Illustrations of the ecological and waste-recycling systems showed a vegetable garden, orchards, a pond and something labeled “bio pool.” One diagram detailed a “urine garden,” an aquaponic-like system that converts human waste into plant food. There was a sketch of a skate park. West mentioned something called a “hydrogen pulse detonation pump” as a shower technology. He called the entrance “the portal.” (Source: WSJ)
In an attempt to keep this piece as tight as I could, I cut a section on Kanye summoning the recording industry into the future in his fight to regain control of the master copy of his recordings. In eyebrow-raising fashion, he broke the Internet again by uploading a video of him urinating on his Grammy—warning the recording industry that he wouldn’t stop until he got them back.
Kanye clearly isn’t held back by ancestor worship, and we shouldn’t expect his architecture and design to be like anything we’ve seen, even from his prior collaborations. Even though he doesn’t use the words, like his friend Elon Musk, Kanye designs from first principles.
Kanye’s level of irreverence for tradition is shocking to most people—and his declaration of it perhaps even moreso. Despite its slow, and occasionally fast, deterioration, most of human culture still has a regard for tradition and the way things used to be. While this respect is healthy—we must acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of giants—an abundance of it leads to an unwillingness to change, which slows down progress. And anyone or anything that gets in the way of progress is heresy in the religion of Kanye West.
Note: In particular, I go deeper into the idea of low-fidelity creativity in my book. A lot of Kanye’s creative process is in it—as well as insights from his collaborators, including Joe Perez, DJ Dahi, and Virgil Abloh.
Keep Faith in the Future
Visionary and innovative, Kanye pivoted from being a hitmaker to being a pioneer when he didn’t—perhaps couldn’t—keep up with the charts. He says, “And I don’t wish to be number one anymore, I wish to be water. I wish to be closer to UNICEF or something where I can take the information that I have and help as many people as possible, not to just shove it into a brand.”
Kanye bets that design and creativity can save the world, hence his obsession with architecture, and with product. He pushes to have more decisions driven by ethics and consideration, the hallmarks of good design, instead of coercion and power—the hallmarks of good politics.
And while Kanye used to believe in dreams, he is at the point where his ambitions are no longer limited to his imagination. “The word ambitious is beneath my abilities,” he says. “I’m just a doer.. You can see in my eyes there’s not one bit of fear.” He no longer believes in dreams, saying, “No more dreams… These are ideas that could be put into action. Sometimes to say something is a dream is almost to say that it isn’t possible, or to say that you’re trying but — It’s like the word try. Sometimes the word try for me it sounds like fail also.”
The idea Kanye wants to put forth is, if he can do it, so can you. Like Steve Jobs says, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you… You can build your own things that other people can use. And the minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will—if you push in something will pop out the other side that you can change it, you can mold it!” These are the types of shocks that Kanye wants to spark in the people who watch his interviews and his projects—and it’s why people keep coming back for more.
Kanye has described his vision for Yeezy to be the McDonald’s and Apple of apparel. At the current stage, Yeezy bears closer resemblance to Pixar, which was acquired and financed by Steve Jobs. Pixar’s collaboration with Disney, Toy Story came at a crucial time, when Disney animation was plateauing, and ultimately was acquired by Disney—and practically is the engine for its next generation of filmmaking.
Yeezy is similarly the foundation that Adidas, and now Gap, are building on for the future. It’s not going to be long before we see Yeezy grow enough on its own to acquire a business for its infrastructure and overhaul, or abandon, the sub-brand entirely. But by then, should he succeed, Kanye will probably be onto the next thing. He’s already building a campus, experimenting with dome housing, starting a school, and exploring an opportunity to build a city in Haiti. (Not coincidentally, Kanye’s manager at the time of writing is Bu, whose brother is Akon—who has plans for his own city as well.)
In doing so, Kanye’s vision taps into a common element in every person—one of making their ideas come true. Whether you call it creativity, hope, greed, ambition, or innovation, it’s the same force. We can all relate to it, and it draws people to his movement.
Like collaborator and architect Axel Vervoordt says (emphasis added), “I’m not from the pop world, the rapper’s world. But I discovered Kim and Kanye as wonderful human beings. We have common values in life, important human values, like a respect for the beauty and spirituality of art… You can call it religion, but this is perhaps beyond religion, a search for cosmic values of peace and positive energy.”
If you like what you read, you can support me by buying my book! A lot of Kanye’s creative process is in it—as well as insights from his collaborators, including Joe Perez, DJ Dahi, and Virgil Abloh.