At Kanye West's speech during Art Basel for his second Yeezus listening party last week, he said, "I just felt that I would never be one of the great visual artists of the world." However, as any fan of Kanye knows, that hasn't stopped him from being one of the most important artists of our time OR from working with top-notch visual artists for the delivery of his albums, videos, and tours.
With the official release of Yeezus tomorrow, in all of its cover-less glory, we decided to take a look back at his album artwork throughout the years, even in the context of his single covers. Whether including the Dropout Bear mascot, commissioning artists like KAWS and Takashi Murakami, or creating a continuous style for a series of releases like GOOD Fridays, Kanye has shown that he keeps art and design paramount in his projects.
For Yeezus, Kanye told fans at Governor's Ball on June 9 that he's keeping the focus on the music by creating a minimal, Dieter Rams-inspired cover. It took an artistic journey to reach this point, and we invite you to take it with us.
The Design Evolution of Kanye West's Album Artwork
"Get Well Soon..." Mixtape (2003)
"The College Dropout" (2004)
The College Dropout (2004)
Singles: "Through the Wire," "Slow Jamz," "All Falls Down," "Jesus Walks," "The New Workout Plan"
Art Direction: Eric Duvauchelle
Before he made a name for himself in the rap community, Kanye was in school at the American Academy of Art, where he had gotten a scholarship to study visual art. He dropped out when he realized that he would "never be one of the great visual artists of the world" and didn't want to end up working for an advertising agency (he reminded everyone of this in a speech at Art Basel last week). For The College Dropout cover, the soon-to-be iconic Dropout Bear mascot sits on a set of bleachers inside a golden frame, which is meant to symbolize art, elegance, and style. There are also cherubs on the right and left sides of the frame, which closely resembles the cherub in the G.O.O.D. Music logo.
We reached out to Eric Duvauchelle, who is now a Design Director at Nike, about the concept and process behind The College Dropout. He says,
"The cover took about three weeks in total to design. I was working at the in-house brand design team for Roc-A-Fella at the time, and was given the project by my creative director. I first met Kanye in Damon Dash's office when he handed over a close to final edit of the album, and he told me to listen to it to get in the mindset of what he was trying to do.
We quickly discussed some ideas off the cuff about the title and what that meant to him. By the time I got the project, the photo shoot of the bear suit had already taken place, so I was handed a binder full of images to pick from. I quickly gravitated towards him sitting alone on the bleachers in the mascot suit. It was interesting to me as the Dropout Bear is meant to be the most popular representation of a school, yet in the cover, it shows Kanye in the mascot suit/head, all alone sitting on bleachers. The inside of the cover followed the visual vernacular of the college yearbook, where the other artists featured in the album all shared their original photos from their youth.
I remember in the last three days before having to hand off the designs for print, Kanye and I spent three days together locked up in the design studio riffing off ideas and visuals, and one night around 3 a.m., he got a call. We took the lift down from the 38th floor of the building by Times Square, and walked to a black SUV parked in front of the building. The window rolled down, and Mos Def handed us his original photo from school that he had just found for us to use. It was the same for many others who had to get their parents to hunt down those images.
The gold ornaments on the cover around the image represented the admiration Kanye has for art, and he wanted to drastically depart from the typical image of rap at the time—to bring a sense of elegance and style to what was typically a gangster-led image of rap artists. So we found these old ornaments from a book of illustrations from the 16th-century and overlayed them around the central image."
"Late Registration" (2005)
Singles: "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Stronger," "Good Life," "Flashing Lights," "Homecoming"
Art Direction: Takashi Murakami
Illustrator: Takashi Murakami
Kanye recruited Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami to art direct and design the artwork for Graduation, kicking off a new era for him musically and aesthetically. Kanye visited Murakami's Tokyo studio in 2006, and at that point, he knew he wanted to work with the "Japanese Andy Warhol."
The cover of Graduation continued Kanye's collegiate themes from Get Well Soon..., The College Dropout, and Late Registration, but this time he introduced the conceptual metropolis, "Universe City," which he also mapped on his animated website (at the time) and used to name his blog, KanyeUniverseCity. Of the cover image (that took weeks to design), Murakami says,
"The cover is based on Kanye's theme of student life. School. It's a place of dreams, of righteousness, a place to have fun. It's also occasionally a place where you experience the rigid dogma of the human race. Kanye's music scrapes sentimentality and aggressiveness together like sandpaper, and he uses his grooves to unleash this tornado that spins with the zeitgeist of the times. I too wanted to be swept up and spun around in that tornado."
The album booklet tells the story of Dropout Bear struggling to make his college graduation ceremony on time after being awoken by his alarm clock, hopping in a DeLorean that dies, trying to catch a cab, and walking (after being chased by a rainstorm) to his ceremony. He then gets shot back into the sky, which is depicted on the back cover (similar to the narrative progression and front/back cover layout of Late Registration).
Murakami also created the animated music video for "Good Morning."