The first time this writer encountered Kanye West he was knee-deep in water, stood in a disused Czech mineshaft in 2005. Continually conferring with video director Hype Williams, the rapper-producer was enduring the mud and dirty air – filtered masks were a legal requirement when cameras weren’t rolling – to make a clip for the then-unreleased single Diamonds From Sierra Leone.
In comparison to the rapper-producer-fashion designer who simultaneously premiered his latest album, The Life Of Pablo, and the latest collection of his Yeezy label globally last night (11 February), West’s operation a decade ago was small. Back then his entourage extended to just a friend who doubled as his barber, while his then-girlfriend stayed behind at his Prague hotel. Travel between the city and the shoot was done in an old taxi, which we had to share because there were not enough cars.
West was enthusiastic and friendly through out, and though happy to discuss ideas, it was clear his self-belief was unshakable. Nothing could distract him from his creative vision. Director Williams was possibly the more famous of the pair at the time of the shoot – Kanye’s second album Late Registration was yet to be released – yet the rookie pop star was continually debating with the seasoned filmmaker throughout the shoot. The video itself was similarly bold.
The treatment included child slaves in a Sierra Leone diamond mine (which the Czech mud stood in for), the blood diamond trail plus an early morning jaunt across Prague’s iconic Charles Bridge. It was politically charged and a potentially difficult concept particularly considering the rapper was still a production-whizz-turned-artist and not yet established as a global star, but West’s creative vision won out.
Fast-forward a decade and that vision and self-belief is stronger and bigger than ever. The Life Of Pablo was brought to the world via a fashion show staged at New York’s Madison Square Garden and broadcast to 700 cinema screens in 23 countries around the globe. Q witnessed it in the of Vue Cinemas’ Piccadilly branch, surrounded by media and fans who had stumped up for the late night screening.
Immediately apparent is that while that creative urge is still the same, the entourage is very different. West arrived surrounded by a football team’s worth of rappers and producers, while wife Kim Kardashian and her family took their seats under blazing spotlights with Vogue editor Anna Wintour in tow – though she seemed somewhat isolated from the American reality TV stars, like a lonely wedding guest who only knows the otherwise detained bride groom.
Though West lived up to his promise of playing back The Life Of Pablo by plugging his battered laptop into MSG’s booming sound system, it was his fashion range that took centre-stage, literally, as without a catwalk or even movement, Season 3 was “exhibited” to the world. Revealed from underneath giant tarpaulin covers on the floor of “The Garden”, models directed by visual artist Vanessa Beecroft simply stand on giant platforms, instructed to look miserable while wearing West’s new creation.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 12, 2016
Beige and washed-out pastels dominate the aesthetic. The collection is part sportswear and trainers – Adidas are sponsors – but it’s also high fashion. It’s sci-fi stylish, the clothes the futurists of the 1960s imagined we’d be wearing now, but it’s also a little bit like Zoolander’s spoof Derelicte range as the pre-moth-eaten jumpers and the surly expressions inadvertently call to mind hobo-chic or post-apocalyptic gym-wear.
Yet music and fashion are not West’s limit. He reveals his creative vision now extends to computer games he reveals, playing a trailer for Only One: The Game on the hall’s big screens. It is, he explains on the PA, about “my momma flying through the gates of Heaven”. And then for the world to see is a pixelated Dr Donda West flying through the air, riding a Pegasus and growing angel’s wings. With titters of laugher rippling around the MSG – it’s fortunate Kanye couldn’t hear the gasps and belly laughs from the Piccadilly audience – he does at least acknowledge the unlikeliness of this vision. “It’s not easy to do, man,” he says addressing the room with a grin. “I went to [games companies in] San Fran and they laughed at me. I said I want to do a game and they went ‘Fuck You!’”
Whether or not The Life Of Pablo is also destined for a similar multi-player format, we don’t learn. In fact it’s hard to learn much about the record. Sure, West makes good on his promise to premiere the long-awaited album, but with so many other things going on it’s not the time to definitively judge the work (indeed West subsequently added more tracks to the album for its release via Tidal a few days later). A mix of atmospheric beats and minimalist music while boasting guest vocals from Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper, and more, on a first listen there are clearly moments where Kanye’s A-game is in play. The swaggering Freestyle chops up a surging hook invocative of Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance with fresh, punchy beats; the Nativity is reimagined in modern hip hop clubland for the haunting Wolves; while a soul-feel underscores Father Stretch My Hands, Parts 1 & 2 as it lyrically charts the lives of West and his father. There’s even a moment humourous of self-awareness in the middle of the record when Kanye raps about Kanye because that’s “what Kanye would do”. However elsewhere there are uncomfortable moments. Lyrics about a porn star with a “bleached asshole” jar, while West’s assertion in Famous about Taylor Swift that he “made that bitch famous” seem beneath him (NB following criticism West has subsequently defended the lines via Twitter).
Q will assess the album properly with a full review in a future issue, so just hours after its premiere we’ll just pass on West’s own summary that The Life Of Pablo’ is “really a gospel record.” What we do conclude, though, is that fly or fail, deft or daft, West’s vision is worth sticking with. With his self-belief insulating him from the fear of failure, he is one of the few artists in the world currently prepared to take monumental risks. And by walking that tightrope he constantly leaves the door open for him to do something special.
A classic album, a US presidential bid or a really good shoe, who can say, but West is a unique, strange voice and modern culture is enriched his vision whatever his success rate. And on last night’s showing, don’t bet against woollen crop tops becoming this year’s must-have item. Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more head to Kanyewest.com.