Kanye West has always been a plucky, passionate and provocative pioneer since his pink Polo days. He was jumping on tables and calling himself the new Michael Jackson long before he broke MJ’s Billboard record. Yet it’s hard not to feel like he hasn’t changed more than The Life of Pablo (RIP Swish, RIP Waves, RIP the original 10-song tracklisting). Even Kanye himself knows it.
Over the last few years, we’ve had to get used to this new Kanye West, the Adidas designer and Kardashian husband who makes music on the side. But nothing felt quite as foreign than seeing Yeezus endorse Donald Trump, call out Jay Z, and tell black people to get over racism — all of which happened over two puzzling shows in an otherwise spectacular tour that has since been cut short (due to exhaustion from juggling his numerous demanding creative ventures, according to TMZ).
They say you’re only as good as the company you keep, so to truly understand Kanye West’s transformation, you have to look at who he’s surrounding himself with these days. Not Common, not No I.D. and clearly not Jay Z; when he isn’t making cameos on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, there’s a good chance you’ll find Kanye over in Europe brainstorming with designers and architects with fancy Nordic surnames. Which isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, but it seems like the most obvious explanation for Kanye’s warped worldview. No one man should have all that Parisian decor.
Kanye recently sat down for an in-depth conversation with Surface magazine. For those who grew up reading Vibe, not Vogue, 80% of what he talked about will probably go over your head like the Saint Pablo Tour stage. Ye gushed over meeting Axel Vervoordt and getting decoration tips from Joseph Dirand like he did when reminiscing about touring with Talib Kweli on “Last Call.” It’s exactly what you’d expect from the “Art Issue” of a design magazine like Surface, and actually kind of fascinating to see, but it’s also a reminder of where Kanye’s creative energy is at right now.
Picking out all the unfamiliar names from his aforementioned Surface interview, allow us to introduce you to some of Kanye West’s new friends.
Most of you probably already know who this guy is, so let’s start off with an easy one. Phil Knight is, of course, the co-founder of Nike, who turned a modest Oregon-based shoe company called Blue Ribbon Sport into one of the biggest brands of all time. After more than five decades in charge, Phil stepped down as Nike chairman earlier this year. According to Forbes, he’s worth approximately $24 billion.
In the interview, Kanye said he wanted to visit Phil on his island and “chill,” which is surprising considering his very public disdain for Knight’s company, which is obviously a fierce competitor of Adidas. Maybe the hatchet was buried when Kanye thanked Nike “for giving a kid out of Chicago a chance to create” — referring to the original Yeezy shoes — during a Saint Pablo show back in August.
Kanye joked in the interview that he doesn’t have to explain who Axel Vervoordt is because we “can get it off of Google.” Which is true, but we’ll do the Googles (word to Fredro Starr) for you anyway. Axel Vervoordt is a renowned interior designer from Belgium whose clients also include Robert De Niro and Calvin Klein. Vervoordt’s signature style includes juxtapositions of ancient sculpture and abstract paintings, so it’s easy to see why Kanye is a fan.
“So I go to Maastricht, and there was some nice furniture, some midcentury stuff, and then there was this booth we bumped into,” Kanye told Surface. “I said, ‘Who did this?’ Axel Vervoordt did it. He was there, standing and talking to somebody, and I came up to him and said, ‘You are the master.’ I might have bowed to him.” Damn, there are not many rappers Kanye would probably bow to.
Justin Saunders is like the poster child for internet-famous tastemakers. A designer from Montreal, Justin started the blog JJJound — a play on the social bookmarking site FFFound — in 2008 and soon became popular by posting caption-less images that ranged from music and fashion to nature and architecture. Basically, every Tumblr kid’s dream.
“I’m into his perspective on art,” Kanye said of Justin. “Jound’s been doing it for 10 years, and I, to this day, say, ‘Is that Jound-approved?’ I remember I once had this girl in my hotel. We were getting into the bath, and she was like, ‘I don’t know if my body is Jound-approved.’ [Laughs] That was so funny.” Justin must be feeling pretty fucking cool right about now.
Part of the Roc Nation family, Willo Perron is a designer and director who provided art direction for Kanye West’s “Paranoid” video and has also worked on Jay Z’s Magna Carter World Tour, Kendrick Lamar’s King Kunta Groove Sessions Tour and Drake’s Would You Like a Tour? He put Kanye on to Axel Vervoordt and Justin Saunders, too.
Joseph Dirand is a French architect and interior designer. Son of the late Jacques Dirand, Joseph is known for his minimalist approach and has outfitted stores for Balmain, Balenciaga, Rick Owens and Givenchy. But perhaps the most unique place he’s helped to arrange is Kanye’s hotel room.
“I was staying at this apartment in Paris and I was like, ‘this apartment is wack. What can I do?’” Kanye said in the interview. “So I reached out to Joseph Dirand, and Joseph Dirand comes by and he gives some ideas, and he says, ‘you gotta cover up this nasty bookshelf over here and you gotta cover up this glass banister.’ It was a hotel I was staying at. I went and plastered over the bookshelf and the banister in the hotel!”
Now there’s an idea next time I'm staying at a Trump Hotel.
Romanian architect Oana Stanescu first met Kanye West when he hired the Office of Metropolitan Architecture to design a viewing pavilion for his 2012 short film, Cruel Summer (which, in case you’ve forgotten Kanye, we’ve yet to actually see). Since then, she’s designed the 50-foot-high volcano for his Yeezus tour and worked on the Hong Kong flagship store of Off-White, Virgil Abloh’s streetwear brand. Oh, and she also wants to install a floating swimming pool in the East River.
72-year-old Rem Koolhaas is the founding partner of Office of Metropolitan Architecture, and a decorated architect in his own right. Kanye West appeared in a 2013 documentary about Rem and spoke to his son, Tomas, about working with the famed Dutch designer on Cruel Summer.
“I love Rem’s work,” he said in the film. “I just like that fact that I was able to take my position as a musician, as a rapper and as a celebrity, and be able to invest in a project with a company of that level.” Hey Kanye, we still haven’t seen Cruel Summer.
Sterling Ruby is kinda like the Kanye West of the art world. Also a college dropout, Ruby is a truly multifaceted artist whose provocative work encompasses everything from paintings and ceramics to textiles and sculptures. He’s been called “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century.” So, it’s no surprise there’s a twinkle in Kanye’s eye when he talks about Ruby’s work.
“When I go to Sterling Ruby’s studio, I go, ‘I want my daughter to come back here!’ I’m just so taken aback and inspired,” Kanye told Surface. “That inspiration needs to be taken out of the box of luxury and given to all people. If people are working from a place of inspiration and opportunity, the world would be better. People would be happier.” Doesn't mean people still won't vote for Trump, though.
Herzog & de Meuron
It’s safe to say Herzog & de Meuron is a pretty big name in the world of architecture. Founded by partners Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the Swiss firm is responsible for London’s Tate Modern, Munich’s Allianz Arena (the home of FC Bayern München) and the Beijing National Stadium, aka the Bird’s Nest. Kanye West held an hour-long panel on design with Jacques Herzog at Art Basel Miami in 2013. Every time he goes to visit Herzog, Ye says it feels “like I’m in Scarface, going to talk with the connect.” Dude looks like he has killers on speed dial.
Hopefully, now you're more familiar with Kanye West’s famous friends who don't rap (just the ones he mentioned in this particular interview, at least, because he’s name-dropped at least a hundred others elsewhere but I’d much rather write about Anderson .Paak than architecture). I bet you’re feeling super cultured right now and you’re going to start wearing black turtlenecks and round frame glasses and pronounce words in a terrible French accent (it's Marvin and Char-don-nay. Get it right).
Or, you can just do what Kanye does and make statements about our society that sound profound in your head but leave your mouth sounding perplexing and pretentious. Like this little gem: “You can’t even make famous people anymore. There hasn’t been a new famous person in seven years. The very thing that has propelled these gargantuan influencers, is the same thing that will block it from ever being as famous a single person as there has been up to this point.”
Wh-what? Sigh. I dunno. I miss the old Kanye.
By Andy James. Follow him on Twitter.