Beyond Human. Kanye West Is the Most Influential Brand in the Universe
For its April/May 2009 issue, Complex interviewed Kanye West in Beverly Hills on his fashion endeavors, '808s & Heartbreak,' brand building, and more.
Computer-Generated Imagery by Chris Milk
This story was originally published as part of Complex’s April/May 2009 magazine issue.
Kanye says that it usually comes effortlessly, but tonight he’s just not feeling it. And he’s sorry, too; he knows you must be bored. It’s 10 p.m., the night before the Grammys, and he’s trying to find the perfect fit for the evening. This process began two hours ago, with a mauve Balenciaga tuxedo shirt he had purchased that afternoon at Barneys (where you and he ran into Puff, of all people… But that’s a story for another day). He quickly assembled a dressy outfit around the piece and then proceeded, one by one, to replace each item in the look, until, 120 minutes later (take a second to consider all the mathematical permutations of a six- or seven-piece ensemble chosen from the 13 racks of clothes in the bedroom-size “closet” of his Hollywood Hills home), he has arrived at a simple but sharp jeans-and-leather jacket look, which he says he likes because it looks like he just threw it on. Attributing these two tedious hours to narcissism should be easy—he’s known for it, right? But you can’t. It’s just not that simple.
Kanye West is performance art. He’s an idea. A brand. A mission. An inspiring, infuriating, over-the-top, and constantly evolving contradiction of values that are articulated sometimes abstractly, and often heavy-handedly, through the man’s every expression—be it producing, rapping, singing, designing or, more often than not these days, just living. Whether it’s the curation of his clothing tonight, the selection of his beautiful, bald date tomorrow, the spare, design-forward architecture of his Los Angeles and Manhattan homes, or the costume party he and his posse threw in Paris during Fashion Week, it’s all presentation—a new vision of the world, starring him as the catalyst.
So it’s clear that tonight is not about ego at all. In fact, just like all the art he’s made in the wake of his mother’s passing and the dissolution of his engagement, it’s entirely about id. He’s just throwing paint at the canvas like a five-year-old, waiting for lightning to strike, for his unconscious mind to see the pattern, to put together the outfit that will capture the imagination. Effortlessly.
In the midst of all the painstaking spontaneity, Complex caught up with Kanye as he canvassed Beverly Hills for the perfect Grammy bow tie—and had a conversation that may make you laugh, think, roll your eyes, and even like him. All without trying.
You’re driving us through L.A. with no driver or bodyguard—
Yeah. I’m rich and I’m famous, but I try not to be extra with it.
[Laughs.] Has the recession affected you?
Yeah, I try to avoid it overly affecting me. But some shit has happened, like Best Buy was supposed to [shoot and produce] the tour DVD and they pulled out of it. I definitely got hit with that, because not shooting it was not an option, so I had to pay for it.
Did you consider how a recession might affect the reception of the “Martin Louis King” video you made in Paris?
People tune into me for escapism. When you went to the Glow in the Dark Tour, you were literally transported to another planet. I know there’s anti-rich sentiment right now, with corporate people not using their jets and Obama saying heads of banks can’t make more than $500,000, but I really feel like that tape embodied me and what Louis Vuitton is about. I’d like to think I give optimism to people when I stunt. When I have a pink watch on or tight jeans on, people talk shit about me, but it wore all gray and black, who would be the one to wear all the bright colors? How depressing would it be if I was always depressed, or, should I say, the press? I’m here to entertain people and to be the one that does the crazy, bold stuff so they can live through me and get their mind off the recession and the war and whatever else is going on in the world.
Was there a goal for that video?
I didn’t have a particular goal while I was doing it. But after the fact, I was like, this video is the greatest example of my true personality. This is the five-year-old before he was jaded. Before everyone told him what and what not to do and how to stay cool and what you had to do to be a rapper and what you had to not do. This energy was very pure and very exciting. I wasn’t downing people, either. I wasn’t telling people to step your shit up. I was just saying, “Are you serious?” Like, I just did a shoe for Louis Vuitton that was actually in the show, and I got the entire hood watching me and waiting for them to come out. Oh, SWAGGER IS ON A HUNDRED GAZILLION!!! And I was so exploding inside that it would have been a shame for me not to just scream out loud in a hallway. But I didn’t have a hallway. I had a video camera and Vimeo.
You know that video and those pictures made the internet go apeshit, right?
It blew their fucking mind, didn’t it? I’m going to honestly say I don’t know exactly what it was. Was it—
That’s what I was about to say! Was it Taz’s outfits? What does Taz wearing tights have to do with me? How does Taz—mind you, a dude who is straight—wearing tights make me gay this week? How am I gay this week?
You know, since then, people who know that I know you have asked two recurring questions: Is he on drugs? Is he gay?
[Laughs.] What do you tell them?
That I’ve never seen you do drugs, but I’ve definitely seen you go in, as far as chicks—
[Laughs very hard.] But, you know, that doesn’t prove anything [to them], right? Someone could just be like, “He’s just running in girls when he’s really thinking about fucking guys.” That’s, like, the devil’s advocate thing that they probably say. But drugs? How perfect is that? People think I’m on drugs! I didn’t even have to do drugs for people to think that I was on them. And what’s funny is that I feel like my outfits were very masculine and very hip-hop.
Why do you think there’s such a fixation on your sexuality?
I really think it’s because society tries to dictate the way a guy is supposed to dress and the way a guy is supposed to act, and I refuse to conform. A lot of these dudes would never be accused of being gay just because they all look exactly alike. If people could just realize the amount of mundaneness and followers that lack creativity… I think people’s mentality is like, only gay people are that creative. And it’s true there are a lot of gay people who are incredible creative minds, but there are straight people who are incredible creative minds—and there’s gay people who can’t dress or create at all, too. Closed-minded gay people probably say they dress “straight.”
What does the brand Kanye West mean?
Pop but Luxury. Edgy but Comfortable. I’m about clashing worlds that you think don’t belong together. This is our world, and everything belongs together. That’s the ill thing about our president. Our president is Black, but our president is white, too. And the original struggle of America is racism, and to have someone in office that represents both of those sides is what I think the world is about. Segregation and snobbery and elitism should be the wack words. That should be what people use to diss people.
Your fashion endeavors have been much more exclusive and expensive than your music. Does your brand translate equally to both mediums? Do they have the same audience?
It’s a similar goal. But I feel like when I do my own line, it’s not going to be anywhere near as mass as I am to start off with, because it’s impossible to start off there and be credible. I have to start small not only to gain respect, but to have time to learn and get better. I have to do some things that affect the world or affect culture, like I did with music. In fashion, trends are set on a high level, so I need to do stuff that hits the runway; like with the Louis shoe and its reverse tongue, that could set a trend that you’ll see on other shoes.
The Yeezys and the LV shoes represent two very different sides of your aesthetic.
I’m going to keep coming up with ideas, but I do want to state in black and white that somebody needs to give me a fucking chance. Don’t just one-off me! If Nike gave me the opportunity to be in there creating—not that they don’t already have genius designers like Hiroshi—I’m not saying that I think I’m the best designer in the world, but what I’m saying is that I think I can become that. I want to be able to be mentioned in the same breath as the greats. I just want to be competitive. Doing a licensing deal or something like that, that’s not real. What if Nike would’ve really given me a deal and allowed me to do lifestyle?
To do an entire sportswear line?
Yeah. You don’t think I would’ve killed that?
Sure. Could be ill.
Right. And I just feel like I’m screaming and jumping up and down; I feel like when I was trying to get a record deal and nobody would sign me. And yeah, I could put out an album independently, but without that Def Jam machine, I wouldn’t be able to get to a point where I could do the Glow in the Dark Tour.
Would you say your brand is about taking the niche and making it mainstream?
It all comes down to taste. It’s just saying, “I like this,” and I’d like to show other people that this is dope. It frustrates me that people say I don’t do my own blog, because I would never allow things to go up and say that this represents me.
Tell me about your process of discovery. You’re constantly absorbing new information, so who are you learning from?
I just keep a team of really, really dope people. Don C[from Kanye’s management] has to get the most credit because I respect his taste equally if not more than mine. I am me, but I am also a product of Don. So, basically, I am his artist even though he works for me. I’m a vessel of people’s ideas.
So you’re purposeful in the people you surround yourself with?
How ill is Taz?
Taz is crazy.
Taz Arnold, Willo Perron, Don C, Sakiya—it’s just about people that bring another level of creativity to what I bring.
For someone who’s known as an egomaniac, you seem to like to collaborate a lot—
Yeah. The fact that I love to collaborate with people, I think, is a very non-arrogant thing. I absorb information, and I want people to know where the information is coming from so those people can be in a position for people to listen to them and capitalize off of the genius that they bring to the table—because I surround myself with geniuses.
Do you think you’ve gotten to a place where there’s no self-consciousness or insecurity?
Yeah. There’s no insecurity in the work I do, the outfits I put together, the beats I make, the raps I say.
What was the turning point?
I guess my mom passing and getting out of certain situations and just being myself. Just getting the opportunity to be me and not be concerned about what people are going to say about things—to be my own worst critic. Like, I look at my Grammy speech from last year and I cringe. Me and Common always had an inside joke about releasing albums in different years, and it came off completely wrong. Nobody got it and it made me look like a complete asshole, and it just confirmed that Kanye’s arrogant and not appreciative. You should always be gracious in a situation like that because that’s their show. You know, who the fuck am I to feel like I have rights to any extra time when it’s their show? I came in as a bit of a hothead and now I’m completely respectful; I really have the opportunity to live my dreams out and have my Grammy moments and build a great relationship with these people. And I learned from that; I publicly apologized for it, and I apologized to Common for the way it sounded.
Speaking of public outbursts, why is it that you’ll flip on a journalist, like the dude from EW who shitted on the tour, but not another rapper that disses you?
Because I feel like I’m playing on the same intellectual level of a journalist and not of a rapper.
[Laughs.] I feel like if a rapper disses me, they’re just trying to get a rise out of me and get me to play in their field to find some way that they can beat me. I feel like there’s a lot of rappers that can beat me in ignorance. So why would I play a sport that I’m not particularly trying to get better at or beaten in? There’s a lot of rappers that can beat me in ignorance, but there’s only a few that can play with true intellect. [Long pause.] How fucking perfect is that fucking answer?!
Given all the information you get from those around you, what is the most important thing you learned last year?
It’s funny you ask that as a segue to this question because, if anything, it’s to have more belief in myself, in what I think. When I look at a photograph, I know if it’s the shit. I know if my outfit ain’t right, if my video ain’t right, if a song ain’t. Sometimes people will say, “Oh, it looks nice,” and I won’t think it looks nice. I know what level I want to be on.
So what would you say was the most important thing you learned about yourself in the last 12 months?
That I can be a very level-headed person. I would never spaz on MTV the way I did before. I feel like there are people who have given a lot to me and I wasn’t appreciative of them. MTV had a major part making me, so how the hell could I ever come out my mouth and diss them and just be like the crybaby-ass bitch over one performance? How the hell is a 29-year-old grown-ass man acting like a little bitch and getting all emotional? How spoiled can I get?
"How the hell is a 29-year-old grown-ass man acting like a little b*tch and getting all emotional? How spoiled can I get?"
Do you live in a state of anxiety over how you are being presented to the public?
In no way. It’s just that if I’m working with a writer that I feel don’t got my best interest in mind, I keep on telling them, “Put this in there” or “Don’t try to make me look like a monster.” But I’m not afraid. All I can do is be the best me and learn from the mistakes that I’ve made. There are mistakes that I’ve made that I deserve for people to look at me like a complete asshole; I have been a complete asshole. All I can do is just be a better person for myself—not to prove it to anyone, but just to be a better person, period. I beat myself up, and I make mistakes, and I get past it, and I get excited about the future.
So when you go to bed at night, there’s nothing—
The only thing is that I can’t talk to my mom anymore. Mistakes that I’ve made—things I didn’t do, things that I didn’t say, things I didn’t do to change that situation. That’s the only thing that hurts. In all the time that you’ve been around me, did I seem like I was really stressing shit?
I think you can tell in the amount of time that you were with me whether it really affected me—like, remember when that dude approached me and shit?
Oh yeah, homeboy on the street in Hollywood who asked you to be his Valentine… [Laughs.]
My response was like, “OK, this confirms that people are saying that about me.”
True. You didn’t sweat it at all. Yeah, I wouldn’t characterize you as stressed out or depressed.
I was a bit depressed when I made “Pinocchio Story” and made the album and shit. But you just gotta scream it out.
With your mom gone, who do you trust the most?
Don C, to be honest. Then my cousin and my dad.
You’ve said 808s is your most personal record. Listening to it, there are recurring themes of trust, cheating, and paranoia. Why is that?
Because of mistakes that I’ve made from the beginning by not establishing a proper foundation of trust, just being a young dude who’s not trustworthy. Whoever you’re with is a reflection of you. It’s hard to be fully forgiven. People forgive, but they don’t forget.
What did you learn about yourself in your last relationship?
That I have to believe in myself. Then I had to learn that a woman is a reflection of you, so if you make mistakes, you will pay for them for the rest of the relationship.
Are you looking for a relationship in the future?
I think everybody wants to be in a relationship. I’m more of a boyfriend type. If I was ever in a situation with a bunch of girls, it’s just by default.
So you feel like monogamy is a realistic goal, even given the nature of your celebrity?
Who’s to say having a relationship declares monogamy?
Good point. [Laughs.]