How a Tech CEO Ended Up Writing Lyrics on Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’
A tech CEO named Alex Klein was invited to Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’ sessions and wrote lyrics on “Water.” He told Complex how it all happened.
Image via Getty/Robin Marchant
The CEO of a computing company seems like a strange person to be writing lyrics for a major rap album. But with an artist like Kanye West, who has a fascination with the world of tech, and a history of collaborating with a variety of songwriters, musicians, and producers, it makes a little more sense.
Alex Klein is the co-founder and CEO of Kano Computing, which is a company that makes build-your-own computer kits that focus on simplicity. He first encountered Kanye at the 2019 CES trade show, and the two have been working together all year on a still-secret project.
In addition to the undisclosed project, Klein recently found himself in Cody, Wyoming with Kanye during the Jesus Is King sessions, and he was part of the team of people who wrote the lyrics to “Water.” Klein, who was a journalist before founding his company, had a little bit of a musical background, but had never worked on anything like this.
“There’s a lot of typing, a lot of listening, and a lot of people throwing out different ideas,” he says of the ultra-collaborative creative enivronment he experienced during the Jesus Is King sessions. “And Kanye driving, Kanye demanding. One part of the process that I found extremely helpful was the ask for more versions and variations, and then the sharing of those versions and variations with a group.
We got him on the phone to talk about the experience. The interview, lightly edited for clarity and length, is below.
How did you first connect with Kanye West?
We met in January at CES and we spoke on the phone. He came by our stand. He loved our make-your-own computer kits. He told me on the phone, “I love the simplicity. I love the transparency. I love that anyone can understand it.” He described it as “that dope, clear tablet joint.“ He’s an inspiration to me and an inspiration to what we do at Kano. After that phone call, we started working together on education, community, technology, and business. He gave me this fantastic quote: “Experience is the best teacher.”
We can’t show what we’re working on together yet, outside of Jesus Is King. But I was incredibly proud to contribute to Jesus Is King and to have been collaborated with so many wonderful, brilliant, purposeful artists on the piece.
Tell me about how you ended up in Wyoming.
We were in L.A. and we were working together, and then Kanye invited me out to Wyoming. We’ve been working together regularly for about nine months, and the recent trip to Wyoming coincided with the move. It’s a beautiful town, Cody. It’s a far cry from the day-to-day experience of a major urban center where LEDs are flashing and traffic is blaring and people are rushing.
You could feel the momentum building as the album came closer. There were so many good voices and so many powerful thinkers from all walks of life: technologists, architects, designers. It feels like Skywalker Ranch. It feels like Pixar. It feels like early Apple. Everyone we met there was engaging and welcoming.
There were so many good voices and so many powerful thinkers from all walks of life: technologists, architects, designers. It feels like Skywalker Ranch. It feels like Pixar. It feels like early Apple.
Who were some of the other folks who were out there?
Well, a lot of them you would already know about, like Nick Knight and Nico Ballesteros and James Turrell and all the artists on the album. There were many others, but I wouldn’t want to infringe on their privacy.
I saw on your LinkedIn that you had an all night session writing the lyrics for “Water.” Take me inside that. Were you all working on lyrics, or talking about ideas?
It’s all of the above. There’s a lot of typing, a lot of listening, and a lot of people throwing out different ideas. And Kanye driving, Kanye demanding. One part of the process that I found extremely helpful was the ask for more versions and variations, and then the sharing of those versions and variations with a group. Then, as a group, responding to those versions and variations. And then Kanye laying them down. [It was] him really driving the writing of it, and driving the next iteration. It weaved in all sorts of directions, and then landed. The way I would sum it up is as a kind of relentless drive for excellence, and a relentless drive for purity. That all comes back to Kanye, his leadership.
At what point did you become aware that you were a credited songwriter on “Water”?
We’d worked on lyrics a couple of times before that, and so he’d asked me to come in and work on those lyrics. I became aware shortly before the album was released.
What was it like to be in the middle of Kanye making an album?
A great privilege and an honor. The level that he’s working at is beyond musical. It’s philosophical; it's theological; it's societal. It’s focused, but also broad, which is such a rare combination. And he really is a leader.
I feel like I learned a lot from Ye. The way he approaches music, I can’t touch that. I can’t even comment on that. To get the shout to work on some lyrics with the greatest artists is something that I’m very lucky to have had happened. It’s just the beginning for me in this world of music. I’ve done a few things over the years, but certainly hadn’t gotten exposure to the creation of music at this level.
What is it like? I think it was the philosopher Goethe who said music is what reminds us that there is something greater than our day to day existence at play. This album will stand the test of time, because it was informed not just by the desire to entertain and make a great musical work that you could dance to or listen to or enjoy, but to bring people closer to the ultimate reality. The search for truth is something that we all need at this stage, in a very distracted and confused and information-suffused moment.
You said a couple of years ago that if you got a chance to pitch your company to one person it would be Kanye West. I assume that was before you met him.
I completely forgot about that! That is amazing, because that’s true. And there’s one thing that Kanye and I have both laughed about, which is my company’s called Kano and his name is Kanye. K-A-N, K-A-N. It's uncanny. What can I say? I’m a fan and I think it’s a beautiful thing. I don’t have idols, but he would come close. That [article] is an illustration of where I was a few years ago. That was the question that CNN asked: Who would you want to pitch? But when we met, it never felt like a pitch. It was just this honest exchange. And it goes beyond the commercial. It goes beyond the business. In our relationship, what I care more about is it generating ideas and work that’s useful to humanity. Because this is one of the greatest minds humanity has produced—and I’m not talking about myself.
Kanye's religious bent on this album has been the topic of much conversation. How did Christianity figure into the sessions and into your interactions with him?
I mean, it’s a Christian album. It’s an album in service of Christ. That's something that everyone working on the album, including me, was wholehearted about. We’re in a moment, by the way, where people are designating or appointing kings in all facets of society. We’ve got the rise of totalitarianism. We’ve got the Snapchat founders who issued, for the first time in an initial public offering, nonvoting shares, so they’re basically the first-ever kings of a public company. Now, for there to be a piece that declares, “Jesus is King, Jesus brought a revolution,” looking to the most high for salvation, direction, information—that was a hugely invigorating, creative challenge, mandate, directive. Did it figure in? It was the foundation. And it made it such a powerful creative collaboration for those involved, because we were standing on the Word. We were standing on a strong foundation of the text. I was reading the Bible every day, still am. And I think the results will speak for themselves for many years to come.
I guess the daily Bible verse on your home screen came in handy?
Yeah, well-spotted. Exactly. He works in mysterious ways. What I’ve started to notice and learn from him is every day there are these things that line up. These things that can seem like coincidences. If you start thinking of them not as these odd coincidences, but as elements of the ever-unfolding now that we’re all in, and that we all find mysterious, it’s very freeing. It’s very relaxing and you notice these creative juxtapositions. Creativity is about connections. And if those are being revealed to you, I find it much more productive to look at them as a conscious forward-directed, like the philosopher Hegel put it, unfolding of time as a great world spirit. I find that so helpful and I think it’s another thing I learned from Kanye. I was happy and grateful to him and to God for it.
What does it mean to work with Kanye West on a project, on the business side?
He’s a visionary in multiple fields. He's the creator of one of the most-searched brands in the world on Google. He has, as he’s been talking about recently, a strong sense of manufacturing and operations and engineering that he’s developing. To the extent over the course of the collaboration that I could learn from him, I did. Throughout the whole year, there's been a lot to absorb on both sides. I’ve got nothing but incredible things to say about Kanye as a business person, as a human being, as an authentic servant of God. Working together with him in every capacity just reaffirmed that.