After his performance at this year’s Glastonbury festival, it’s clear that Kanye West’s vision of what art, technology and music can achieve together - in music videos and live performances - continues to push boundaries. Here, Akash Chohan looks back on an innovative career.
As early as his debut LP, The College Dropout, Kanye West had the stage in mind
Kanye West was a producer first and a rapper second – barely.
After signing to Rocafella Records, his beats helped shape Jay-Z’s seminal 2001 LP, The Blueprint, and he sang the hook for featured track “Never Change”; a hook intended to be an in-house nod more than a potential creative manoeuvre. That West wasn’t considered a rapper-and-producer was no oversight on the part of the Rocafella founders, Damon Dash and Shawn Carter: they admitted that the hook was a pay-off to stop West sending his beats to anyone else, which eventually resulted in a lack of funds and attention for his first LP, The College Dropout.
Two weeks after his now-infamous car crash in the October of 2002, West wrote and recorded “Through the Wire,” rapping through a broken jaw held together by strings of metal. “Through the Wire” would first appear on 2003’s Get Well Soon... mixtape alongside songs that would become future releases of Kanye-as-rapper, including “Jesus Walks.” West shelled out $35,000 of his own money, shot the video himself and, rather than choosing to premiere it in his hometown of Chicago, the video was shown in Jay’s 40/40 Club, New York City, in the November of 2003.
With an awareness of (and perhaps sentimentality towards) his early audience, and of how to maximise the critical reception and monetization of his music as product, it was the first of many moves from the Kanye who spent three summers locked away making beats, to the present day manifestation of Kanye as superstar.
West’s aesthetic imperative has been evident from the jump. His appearances on the 2004 Video Music Awards and the 2005 Grammy Awards were the first of many line-blurring exercises between what constitutes a music video and a live performance.
During the 2004 Video Music Awards, Chaka Khan (sampled on “Through the Wire”), John Legend and Syleena Johnson joined West onstage for a three-track medley. The curation of talent which would become a recurring theme of West’s live performances and studio recordings was clear: the linearity of “Jesus Walks” is repeatedly cut into with shots of a proud Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Queen Latifah, sat in the audience as West is followed by a 32-strong choir through the crowd, all in-shot and holding lit candles.
For the 2005 Grammy Awards, forcing the audience into “acting like y’all never seen a ghost or something,” he emerges from a chapel backdrop for the resurrection of a winged Yeezus; a choir procession grieves over him, accompanied by the hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” led by John Legend. Moments before, a dancing silhouette, unmistakably West, falls onto a praying angel, and a screech of tires and crunch of steel hark to The Accident.
A projection of doves and a time-lapse of rushing clouds dominate the stage-as-set, taken directly from the end of the first of the music videos and with the enduring emblem of the second: West all haloed up in a wooden box, his coffin.
In the early years, especially around the time of The College Dropout, West would perform to the crowd inside the building, interacting with and intermittently pulling people onto the stage (like his mother during a performance of “Hey Mama” on Oprah). As time passed, he abandoned this. He knew that the majority of those watching would do so at home, on YouTube. Interacting with the audience during the performance itself removed the illusion that the performance is not meant entirely for them (but they can still share in it and absorb it, regardless).
After DONDA, Kanye West patents a technology that changes his performances completely
On January 4th, 2012, West filed a patent for “Multiple Screens for Immersive Audio/Video Experience,” described as: “A audio/video experience comprises two or more viewing screens of at least one front-located screen in front and at least one of either an above, ceiling screen located above and/or one bottom screen located below or slightly forward of the viewer. Side, wall-mounted screens located on at least one side of the viewer can be provided.”
The light box is at once stage, vessel and coffin, for a figure so often torn between life, death and the chance of re-birth.
Since the patent, the impact of each premiere has gradually become more and more embedded with commerciality. Like Jay-Z, too, West’s commerciality in turn is embedded with the aim of singular creative control, but to manoeuvre himself into a position to demand it, he needed a foothold of proven quality and access to knowledge of the industry. (In his time at Nike, interning at Italian clothing brand Fendi and the potential of an impending Apple Music co-sign, he’s closer than ever to one of his idols, Steve Jobs.) The patent, then, has become one such manoeuvre: live, in play and repeated.
Beyond the investment, these multi-screen performances have become effortlessly re-watchable, too. Performances such as those on Saturday Night Live are no longer just consumed live, with the majority of views now after the fact. The effect of this becomes its longevity: if the performance hasn’t provided lasting talking points, it’s failed. Part of this live development is that West has become increasingly selective about who is allowed to occupy his personal, performative space.
On Saturday Night Live 40, “Wolves” was performed as the final track in a triplet, with featured artists Sia and Vic Mensa, but in opening with “Jesus Walks” West lies on his back, alone; with his head facing the audience and illuminated by a hovering sheet of white light. It’s amplified in the 2015 performance of “Only One” (the literal translation of “Kanye” from Swahili) on The Jonathan Ross Show: all black everything erect in the stark, patented light box.
The light flickers at the mention of Donda, and the opening chords chime. The tiptoeing backwards, reaching for the light switch, is a personal solar system in gentle spin, acting as vessel between mother and daughter. (Ross does his utmost to disrupt the space, though, by lying on the floor and making jokes about West’s wife, Kim. The weight of the experience and symbolism seems lost on him.)
Along with the thunder, the flickers are reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film Poltergeist, in which TV sets and windows frame the howling of the dead. The light box is stage, vessel and coffin at once, for a figure so often torn between life, death and the chance of re-birth.
The introduction of the light box into his live performances, in its monochromatic starkness, also signalled a shift in emotion, attitude and taste. Before DONDA and the patent came his fifth LP, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; the release, promotion and tour for which was awash with striking colors that made up four, George Condo-painted album sleeves, including his favourite red (a dominant, “Thriller” jacket-shade that evokes a satisfyingly grandiose pop culture familiarity). He’d rock this in his “Power” performance on Saturday Night Live, in red leather apparel and his own Nike Red Octobers, against subtle shades of silver and gold.
Post-DONDA, the color is stripped away. The lead single of Yeezus, “New Slaves,” was premiered through a guerrilla-style marketing campaign; projecting his face onto 66 buildings around the world with only a few hours notice. With each rushed assembly unsure of what to expect, the close up of West’s face with those uncensored lyrics, of his role on a planet dominated by white supremacy, the projection as performance rendered the sonic and visual stark and inseparable.
With the birth of Yeezus, Kanye West’s shows become more raw, and real, than ever before.
Photographer Nick Knight co-directed the charged “Black Skinhead” video and remained a key part of its promotional campaign. In a press release accompanying the projections, it’s outlined how Knight worked on the “New Slaves” visuals, “experienced by millions across the globe via guerrilla outdoor projections and online viral captures”. The latter feels of particular importance. Through people sharing their own recordings of it, the song and video were premiered to the world: a unique viral marketing project and a far cry from dropping it on a VEVO account.
Compared to the interactive music video, the “Black Skinhead” performance on Saturday Night Live is, at key moments, barely indistinguishable from the former. The Dobermans are back from the “Jesus Walks” video, this time as a three-headed Cerberus; eyes so white they’re iridescent, their barking syncing intermittently with the heavily rumoured sample (then mysteriously cut from the credits) of “The Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson, the industrial kick drums leading the charge. A silhouette bounces on his toes like a boxer before a clash, the stage bathed in flickering ambers, oranges and reds as price labels scroll through the backdrop; occasionally fixating on a “NOT FOR SALE” sign, mirroring his lyrics: “Want me to stay at ease / fuck you and your corporation, y’all ni**as can’t control me.”
In the “Black Skinhead” video, a CGI-rendered Yeezus slides into the uncanny valley with its erratic movements, but it’s still West dancing around on that bare Saturday Night Live stage setup, with his distinctive on-stage mannerisms. The three Ku Klux Klan hoods spin like a centrifuge of dark matter, similar to the accelerated vocal sample at the beginning of “New Slaves.” Nearly all of the imagery is reproduced come the music video, posted on his website and promoted as an interactive experience that “allows users to adjust the motion speed and corresponding sound.”
The Ku Klux Klan hoods would be incorporated into the backdrop for the Saturday Night Live performance, but in black as opposed to white. Flipping the imagery of white power is a theme that West loves to revisit. In the Nick Knight-directed video for “Bound 2,” West’s initial idea of “white-trash T-shirts” bursts into technicolor; majestic stallions, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, he and Kim clad in all American double-denim (a style revisited in the video for “FourFiveSeconds”).
These are themes depicted by American white supremacist imagery, with a difference: with West repeatedly referring to himself as a God. In caring that the structures of power reinforced by white supremacy are not typically associated with people that look like him, he’s attempting to change the way his audience processes these images.
In taking these risks, though, he is not without his problems. In flipping the “white trash t-shirts” for the Yeezus tour merchandise he would use the Confederate flag, a symbol that carries a painful and loaded history. He’s deliberately positioning himself as vulnerable to criticism: on a tectonic fault line, with tremors ominous and imminent.
I went to the American Academy of Art. So the joke that I’ve actually played on everyone is that, the entire time, I’ve actually just been a fine artist.
The Yeezus LP credits read like a film end-reel, from Mike Dean to Evian Christ, Arca to King Louie. Cathleen Cher, who worked on the Yeezus tour’s creative process, believes that West “has a knack for sourcing diverse groups of top-notch creative talent to help him develop and realize his visions. Even more noteworthy is the trust he has in these people. He listens and respects peoples’ opinions and truly believes in their abilities. He is eager to learn from them, and puts people together in a way that forces them to learn from each other. He understands the necessity of collaboration: I’ve heard him humbly state a number of times that ‘Everybody needs help’.”
When you unpack the fact that the LP’s name was meant to be read as ‘Ye Is Us,’ and with Cher’s words re-applied to the recording process, the papyrus scroll of idiosyncrasy continues to unravel. “One of the most recognized and most parodied songs on the album, ‘I Am A God,’ was specifically written in hopes that those who listen to it will sing along and say those exact words: ‘I am a God’ – a misinterpreted attempt to instil confidence,” says Cher.
“Mostly unnoticed, the very first audible sensation that the audience is exposed to is Mozart’s Requiem played backwards. Symbolic of the unease in which the show starts, this same piece is replayed forward in its recognizable state at the end of the show – a point when the mood takes a turn for the better; and the section of the show that is supposed to reflect Kanye’s life in the present day.”
When West chooses someone to occupy his personal space, it goes deep. Virgil Abloh is DONDA’s creative director. After the two met in their hometown of Chicago in 2002, Abloh graduated in 2005 with an architecture and design degree and joined West in Los Angeles to work on the DONDA project, alongside his DJing and OFF/WHITE clothing line. The 2010 Runaway film began as an idea between West and Abloh after exchanging movie stills, and before the writing and recording of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Shot in Prague, Runaway tells the story of Griffin (played by West) and a fallen phoenix (played by Selita Ebanks). In not accepting the ways in which humanity treats eccentricity and difference, the phoenix escapes the planet and leaves Griffin haplessly headed towards the jet stream. The film shares themes with the “Power” music video: filmed in a single shot video tableau, a moving painting that slowly reveals itself to the viewer with continuous camera movement.
That dozens of black men in all black everything invaded a space expected for one, and typically given to whites, positioned West as a vessel for visibility and change in an industry tangled with disturbing racial undercurrents.
The entire film ran like a collection of thematic music videos for a compilation of songs from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Interestingly, the LP tracklist was taken directly from the film's track sequencing: a visual palette for a sonic canvas. As West insists, “I’d been in national competitions from the age of 14. I got three scholariships to art school – to St. Xavier, to the American Academy of Art, and to the Art Institute of Chicago – and I went to the American Academy of Art. So the joke that I’ve actually played on everyone is that, the entire time, I’ve actually just been a fine artist.”
“All Day,” the BRIT Awards and Skepta made Kanye a vessel for shock, and change
“Walked away inspired by his words” is something that British grime MC Skepta touches on in his 2015 Red Bull Music Academy lecture, after describing the time he spent with West after Abloh’s introduction: that the most important thing is “to make the world better so that the younger generation, those that look up to you, don’t have to go through what we went through.” Discussion is the motivation and lasting change is the goal, with the music as by-product: West was already in the UK working on his seventh LP SWISH when he was due to perform at the 2015 BRIT Awards.
Grime has nearly always had a bad press in the UK, since it often reflects society's racial insecurities back onto itself. More recently, it's been exacerbated with the enforcement of Form 696 (explained in this short film for Noisey by Skepta’s brother and fellow grime MC, JME). Since the genre has long struggled to exist visibly, for some of its key players to be on stage at the BRITs was to take it to a level barely possible before – and not without West. (An hour or two before the gig, Virgil sent a text to Skepta saying that West wanted Skepta and his “30 goons” on stage with him.) That dozens of black men, in all black everything, invaded a space expected for one and typically given to whites, positioned West as a vessel for visibility and change in an industry tangled with disturbing racial undercurrents.
Afterwards, grime star Wiley summed it up best: “Kanye West opened a door that’s closed to most of us. There's no way Skepta or JME or Novelist or Stormzy were gonna get onstage without Kanye doing that. The doors are still shut in a way, and what he did won’t just happen again next year, but people will be more open-minded about the people he got into the building and onstage.”
The shock of the BRITs performance was also perhaps in part a response to the jumbled lead-up to “All Day” emerging into the world. In the August of 2014, a strange, minute-long recording of “All Day” was leaked (an unplanned leak, too, unlike the “New Slaves” campaign). On December 1st, the leak was edited by an unknown source to become a second, longer, “phantom” leak, which caused Twitter to blow up for a matter of hours before being dispelled by “experts” (listed as a radio rip, but with no DJ shouting over it). The BRITs performance came with no “Black Skinhead”-style press release, no indication of what track he was going to play, no prior warnings. The themes behind SWISH were (and largely are) still a mystery.
Unusual as it is for an artist to premiere the full version of a new track live on an awards show - in most instances, the performance is of the biggest hit the artist has had in the past year – it didn’t deter West. The uncensored recording from the BRITs performance would become the official music video, now on YouTube, accompanied by two mammoth flamethrowers that could scorch the o-zone layer and made Lionel Richie’s face do this.
A recurring motif in West’s televised performances is less of how the camera pans across and acknowledges the audience as he performs: more specifically, it’s of whom the camera chooses to focus on. The looks of low-key shock and indifference from Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Jessie Ware and Daniel Radcliffe flipped the portrait of the onstage energies so hard that they inspired the bridge-sample of Skepta’s – “#SHUTDOWN” single, which dropped days after the BRITs: “A bunch of young men all dressed in black dancing extremely aggressively on stage, it made me feel so intimidated and it's just not what I expect to see on primetime TV.” That West shouted out Skepta in the final seconds of “All Day,” in thank you and recognition, tied him to the song-as-spectacle.
West’s shorter music videos feel more like art installations: attempting to redesign the lens through which people view music videos, and allowing for a wider scope for others to follow suit.
Like the performances of “Power” on Saturday Night Live and “Bound 2” on Later with... Jools Holland (regardless of proximity, they’re still cast in the dark and remain unacknowledged throughout), the general absence of the audience in shot contributes to the illusion that it is, in fact, a re-watchable music video.
West has used the audience as a prop before, like during the “Blood on the Leaves” performance at the Video Music Awards. The intro has the camera fixed on a shot of his face, reminiscent of “New Slaves,” but after the drop it’s performed silhouetted onto grayscale forest backdrop. The arms trying to reach out to and claw at Wests feet are those of the crowd. With the BRITs performance of “All Day,” whether or not the broadcasters were told to focus on celebrity reactions is irrelevant.
The audience was, again, used as a deliberate visual mechanism to enhance a performance for which he knew he’d get a strong reaction. Ralph Lauren and Kim would appear in appreciation, and the camera would often seek out Jay-Z and Beyoncé as key reference points of approval whenever they are in attendance, but this isn’t new. The shock and awe of a Lionel Richie is new.
With West choosing to rap uncensored (an out of character choice, given his penchant for clean edits on American television), broadcasters were caught off guard: the live video on British terrestrial television would have segments where the audio was blanked out. The following May he performed “All Day” again, without a dress rehearsal, at the Billboard Awards. The public and in-house reaction to the BRITs performance lead to the previously uncensored version now being heavily muted throughout the Billboard Awards, which led to criticism of the spectacle overall as opposed to the UK outrage shown at lyrical content. West is, in light of his past performances, a victim of the standards that he and others have placed on him.
It begs the question that - maybe, with the first fully uncensored edit of an awards show performance of his being hosted in the U.K. - he was using it as a testing ground; before he took the performance back to the States.
It’s a recurring antagonism for him. In an interview with film director Steve McQueen for Interview, West insisted that, “People are strategically trying to do things to mute my voice in some way, or make me look like I’m a lunatic, or pinpoint the inaccuracies in my grammar to somehow take away from the overall message of what I’m saying.”
Kanye West collaborations are more than just hook-ups – they’re unique relationships
“Bound 2” on Later with... Jools Holland is equally jaw-dropping in its insularity. The crowd are eye-level and close, as Holland’s studio set-up dictates, yet hidden in darkness. Both the music video for “Bound 2” and this performance share a different intro to the recorded album cut. The Wee - “Aeroplane Reprise” synth sample which plays during Charlie Wilson’s vocal parts is now an unfiltered piano; Wilson provides his signature adlibs for West, exuding joy at the clean edit. Only when West holds his arms out during the bridge, reviving himself when he changes the lyrics from “Jerome” (a reference to the ‘90s TV show Martin) to “Uncle Charlie’s in the house, watch ya mouth,” does he acknowledge, like during the BRITs, who he’s thankful to be with.
Similar to the ways in which Michael Jackson redefined how pop fans thought about music performance on television, with developed storylines and bold cinematography, West’s shorter music videos feel more like art installations: attempting to redesign the lens through which people view music videos, allowing for a wider scope for others to follow suit, and through working with one main visual collaborator over the course of an album (Nick Knight on Yeezus, Nabil Elderkin on 808s & Heartbreaks and most recently Spike Jonze, with a simplicity that he has on lock, like a smart-phone portrait orientation, for SWISH).
None of the above relationships, though, compare to the one that West has with Mike Dean, a classically trained musician who made his name producing for Selena and Pimp C. Since his first involvement in West’s 2004 release “Two Words,” his role as West's “music director” cannot be understated. In an interview with NPR, as well as touching on the studio sessions in which Nicki Minaj and West co-wrote her “Monster” verse, he refers to himself and West as being “like a band for good.”
After becoming frustrated at the experience of seeing others perform poorly onstage with West, Dean took it upon himself to replace them on keys and guitar, alongside another keyboardist and a DJ on Serato. With Tony Williams on back-up vocals (a first cousin of West’s, who has featured on at least four tracks per each album since The College Dropout) and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, this completed the setup at last week’s Glastonbury 2015 headline set.
The set-up was characteristic of his light box; a colossal platform harnessing a square grid of spotlights above, reminiscent of a performance of “Only One” on Scandinavian channel Skavlan; illuminating fog and smoke in pre-set harmony. Midway through “Touch The Sky” West would tell Dean to stop the track, reappearing soon after on an illuminated, crane platform similar to his Coachella performance in 2011; soaring above the crowd to a euphoric crowd led “Sky high / I’m, I’m sky high.” (The move feels like a knowing nod to Michael Jackson, who used it for the first time during his 1996-97 tour, for “Beat It” and “Earth Song.”)
Preferring live instrumentation, Dean balances out West’s sampling background. Symbolised by his penchant to play the MPC during “Runaway” and elaborating on existing samples, it becomes another creature entirely; fitting the new, industrial, more unfiltered edits of Yeezus and their live performances. (The live version of “Cold” features the Foreigner sample of “Cold As Ice,” with Dean on a screaming guitar hook.) Whenever rock star Kanye West is on stage, purposefully alone, Dean is orchestrating behind the scenes.
As the lights went out on the Pyramid stage, West’s auteurism both divided and confirmed his long-term goal of the multi-faceted live experience. He creates music videos with live performances in mind – and then flips them back on themselves for the highest social and monetary impact. With the growth of the later he can go further and create, collaborating with an array of curated, trusted thinkers. With all of this, and most vividly in moments of adversity, Kanye West creates art within a brutally self-carved enclave – and when he thrives, he exhales loudly: “But I'm a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph / Make music that's fire, spit my soul.”