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Kanye West Is Getting an Honorary Doctorate from the School of the Art Institute. Cool.

The lifelong art, architecture, and design nerd has used his rap career as a “Trojan horse” back into his first love, and SAIC is giving him the recognition.

A nerd at heart—at least in the world of design.   Photo: Undated press photo, 2004

Kanye West says a lot of stuff in interviews, supporting a cottage industry of listicles devoted to chronicling his supposed ridiculousness. They tend to skip stuff like this:

Architecture — you know, this one Corbusier lamp was like, my greatest inspiration. I lived in Paris in this loft space and recorded in my living room, and it just had the worst acoustics possible, but also the songs had to be super simple, because if you turned up some complicated sound and a track with too much bass, it’s not going to work in that space. This is earlier this year. I would go to museums and just like, the Louvre would have a furniture exhibit, and I visited it like, five times, even privately. And I would go see actual Corbusier homes in real life and just talk about, you know, why did they design it? They did like, the biggest glass panes that had ever been done. Like I say, I’m a minimalist in a rapper’s body. It’s cool to bring all those vibes and then eventually come back to Rick [Rubin], because I would always think about Def Jam.

He said that to the New York Times’s Jon Caramanica, talking about his minimalist, sonically difficult album Yeezus, drawing a fascinating, intuitive through-line from Corbusier to Rick Rubin through the Chicago house sound.

He said something similar in conversation with the director Steve McQueen (Hunger, 12 Years a Slave):

Dark Fantasy was the first time you heard that collection of sonic paintings in that way. So I had to completely destroy the landscape and start with a new story. Dark Fantasy was the fifth installment of a collection that included the four albums before it. It’s kind of the “Luke, I am your father” moment. Yeezus, though, was the beginning of me as a new kind of artist. Stepping forward with what I know about architecture, about classicism, about society, about texture, about synesthesia—the ability to see sound—and the way everything is everything and all these things combine, and then starting from scratch with Yeezus…

I was reminded of that when reading Caramanica’s recent essay on the convergence of hip-hop and high fashion, two forms of art that have been warily circling each other for decades. And guess who pops up, like he always does:

And of course, there’s Kanye West, the pinnacle of hip-hop’s high fashion dreams. No one in the genre has acted more boldly, taken more risks, more assiduously pushed the boundaries of what might constitute hip-hop fashion. He was the first to go and knock on high fashion’s door. In 2009, he attended the Paris men’s shows with a full crew, all dressed in outfits that were dapper and fluorescent.

[snip]

Men’s fashion has long operated from a position of fear, not adventure: It was a world of microscopic change. But then a funny thing happened in the post-Kanye age. The worlds of men’s fashion and hip-hop began to rapidly converge.

When news broke that West is to receive an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, it was generally treated like Stuff Kanye Does usually is (“nonsense”; “pissed off”; “a gimmick"). But I couldn’t help but be moved by it. It’s not just that West was briefly an art student at the American Academy of Art (alma mater of comics artists Alex Ross and Jill Thompson). He’s a design nerd at heart; as he told Tomas Koolhaas—son of Kanye collaborator Rem Koolhaas, whom you might know as the architect of IIT’s student center—music has become, for him, a “Trojan horse” into the art world, an umbrella term for him that includes fashion and architecture. It’s unsurprising that one of his favorite people in the world is Jony Ive, Apple’s designer; or that West’s art director, Virgil Abloh, is a trained architect and boutique owner.

And there’s something moving about it too, because at the root of Kanye West is that middle-class, geeky striver he was when he wanted to go to the School of the Art Institute as a teen, the son of an English professor and photojournalist, drawing Jordans his mother couldn’t afford him and browsing architecture magazines on bookstore racks. A couple rungs up towards that elite conversation, yet so far from it. And you can hear it in the ping-ponging acculturation of the autodidact (from a Rookie roundtable):

“When I saw him, he cited the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s influence on the set, alluded to Biblical scripture and Greek drama, and performed lengthy monologues on the nature of fame, individuality, and personal freedom. I spent the whole show feeling like I had been punched in the gut, in the best possible way.”

Or:

One of my favorite moments this year was watching Kanye perform at Madison Square Garden, where he digressed into an angry monologue about the recently appointed creative head of Yves Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane, and how he was still mad that “Hedi” had tried to ban him from seeing the shows of “Phoebe” [Philo, of Céline] and “Raf” [Simons, of Dior] at Paris Fashion Week. Just as I was thinking, Like 350 people in this 20,000-person arena even know what the hell he’s talking about! my friend, who was in a different row, texted me, “What is he talking about?” But Kanye just wants everyone to be on his level, and that level is excellence.

What I can sympathize with, in terms of the people who are perpetually annoyed by Kanye West, is that there’s a bit of him who’s that overbearing kid from your lit/film crit/philosophy class, only with the money and connections to make things of his declamations. The flipside is that it comes from a real place, and he’s not afraid to fail at it—to openly pine for an internship at a high-fashion house, to get battered for his first runway collection and come back again.

And he’s not crazy to think, even though there’s a big gap between assembling and creating (like, say, there is between producing and rapping and singing), that he’s still got the seed he had back in his teens. For a while, it seemed like the whole of the NBA—especially its most notable fashion plate and arguably most interesting player, Russell Westbrook—dressed like Kanye circa Late Registration:

But 21st-century blackness has lost its rigid center, and irony permeates the cultural membrane. More than kids knowing they can be president of the United States, it might be more crucial to the expansion of black identity that — thanks to, say, N.E.R.D or Odd Future — they know they can be skate punks. Kanye West can release an album called The College Dropout, then run around the world dressed like an Oberlin junior. (The backpack craze was popularized by him.) West had done what 15 years of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters could not. He ushered in the chic of the black nerd. He cleared a safe space for narcissism and self-deconstruction; for singing rappers with names like Drake, J. Cole, and Tyler, The Creator; for the Roots to be Jimmy Fallon’s house band; for the threat in the music to move from the street to the psyche.

I don’t expect Jabari Parker to wear a studded Health Goth facemask, but then again it took the NBA almost a decade to pick up the backpack-rap style. As an outsider to the fashion industry, West has been able to push it in various directions. As an outsider on the inside, he’s found it harder going, but his self-assuredness has always masked the dogged persistence of the perpetually unsatisfied.

Whatever the endpoint, it’s not done; maybe whatever vision lies in his head is too big to get done. But what he’s done is perpetually fascinating—not just to draw a line through music production to design and architecture, but then to make that line a real, physical thing, like a bridge. So when a SAIC alum says West doesn’t deserve an honorary doctorate because his achievements are in music, not in fashion, and SAIC doesn’t have a music program, maybe that’s not the point of an honorary doctorate. What Kanye’s done, they don’t have college degrees for.

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