For all his creative energy, inconceivable self-confidence and damn near flawless catalog that has continuously timestamped culture, perhaps Kanye West’s strongest suit lies in picking collaborations.
From hunkering down with European producers like Hudson Mohawke, Evian Christ and Gesaffelstein on Yeezus to uniting Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elton John and approximately 11 other artists on “All of the Lights,” Mr. West is a conductor like no other in hip-hop. “Seeing him put things together and pull the right people in to do certain things, it’s really genius,” S1, the producer behind “POWER,” told me earlier this year. “He just knows what to do and how to accomplish it.”
Although he broke our hearts and changed the game alongside Kid Cudi and made us watch the throne that he and his “big brother" Jay Z occupied, to me, Kanye’s most fascinating collaborative relationship is with Justin Vernon, the falsetto-voiced frontman of indie folk band Bon Iver.
Like most people, all it took was one song for Kanye to fall in love with Vernon: “Woods,” a tender, Auto-Tuned ballad off Bon Iver’s 2009 Blood Bank EP which Pedro Winter, boss of Ed Banger Records (home to French electronic acts like Justice and Cassius), played for Kanye. Interested in sampling the song for his then-upcoming fifth album, Ye called up Vernon in early 2010 to invite him out to Hawaii, where he was recording what would become My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
“We ended up talking for a half hour about music and how we were fans of each other and 'Avatar.' It was a really pleasant, easy-going conversation between two people that are pretty psyched about music.
"He was like, 'I like how you sing so fearlessly. You don’t care how your voice sounds. It’d be awesome if you could come out to Hawaii and hear the track, and there’s some other shit I think we could throw down on.'"—Justin Vernon, Pitchfork
The 6'2" folk singer from Eau Claire, Wisconsin may have stuck out like a lumberjack’s thumb in the studio next to Pete Rock, Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj, but it didn’t take long for him to find his feet in Hawaii. After all, Kanye West albums aren’t typical hip-hop albums. “I was literally in the back room rolling a spliff with Rick Ross talking about what to do on the next part of a song. It was astonishing,” Vernon said in the same Pitchfork interview. “Kanye came back and was like, ‘Look at you two guys. This is the craziest studio in the Western world right now!’”
During three week-long stints out in Hawaii, Vernon laid down his soothing, Auto-Tune-soaked vocals on “at least 10 songs,” with three making the album: “Dark Fantasy,” “Monster” and, most notably, “Lost in the World,” which, for the first minute, leans on the sparse beauty of Bon Iver’s “Woods” before bursting into life with Kanye’s trademark animal vocal samples. “I’m up in the woods, I’m down on my mind,” Vernon harmonizes, with Kanye’s slightly altered lyrics (“I’m lost in the world, been down my whole life”) stacked directly on top. What would usually be jarring to the ear instead soothes the heart, especially considering the wider context.
If “Woods”—made during Vernon’s near-mythical escape to his father’s hunting cabin, where Bon Iver’s breakthrough album For Emma, Forever Ago was born—captured Vernon’s sorrow following a breakup with both his girlfriend and band, it’s easy to see why the song resonated so deeply with Kanye, who had been doing his own soul-searching away from the spotlight after breaking up with his fiancée, losing his mother and, of course, the infamous Taylor Swift MTV VMAs incident. “I think he liked that I had a similar emotional approach to music,” Vernon toldRolling Stone.
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Since those magical studio sessions out in Hawaii, Kanye West and Justin Vernon's budding bromance has slowly blossomed. In 2013, Kanye called up Justin once more to work on his sixth solo album, Yeezus. As Kanye changed course from the musical, maximalist brilliance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, so too did Vernon, whose voice ranged from Barry Gibb falsetto ("I'm In It") to sad robot stuck in a swamp of its own drunken sorrow ("Hold My Liquor").
“Justin Vernon is one of the collaborators Kanye will always go to,” Mike Dean toldPitchfork. “He doesn’t fit in with any genres—you never know if he’s gonna sing like the Bee Gees or some crazy distorted thing. And you don’t know what he’s saying half the time. He’s kind of like Michael McDonald, like he’s got marbles in his mouth. It’s about the emotion.”
Two years later, Kanye finally visited Vernon at his April Base studio in Wisconsin (Kanye originally planned to work there in 2010 before a snowstorm cancelled his flight), where he rounded up “a very interesting collective of folks” including Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Common, Mike Dean, Rhymefest, Che Pope and Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler. Months later, Kanye brought out Vernon (aka “the baddest white boy on the planet”) during his headlining slot at Glastonbury festival, because that’s what you do when you’re a Bon Iver stan.
“I go out [at Glastonbury] and I do ‘Hold My Liquor’ with Justin Vernon, who is my favourite living artist — I love Justin the way Kanye loves Kanye. So he’s got this little sampler that he uses, and when he gets up there next to me, I’m doing ‘Hold My Liquor’ and I completely forgot the lyrics [laughs]. We just go off the rails and have a moment of feeling like we’re back in the studio, or feeling like we’re back in high school.” — Kanye West, BBC Radio 1
Although Kanye announced that he and Justin “did some more joints together” during that Glastonbury performance, we’ve only heard one official collaboration between the two since Yeezus: last year’s “Friends” by Francis and the Lights, which only qualifies thanks to Kanye’s one-line contribution (“we could be friends!”) halfway through the song. There was also “Fall Out of Heaven,” a leaked demo from The Life of Pablo. But for whatever reason, we haven’t really had anything new to add to the Kanye West x Justin Vernon playlist lately.
Despite their lack of musical output, Kanye West and Justin Vernon continue to inspire each other—sometimes even save each other.
In 2012, following the release of his GRAMMY-winning album Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon, plagued by anxiety, depression and panic attacks, announced that he was walking away from Bon Iver. “I’d say I was having very bad days for about a year and a half,” he said of the rough patch that followed. It was thanks to his old friend Kanye West—via his 2013 interview with Zane Lowe—that Justin was able to pull himself out of his creative and spiritual rut and return to form with last year’s 22, A Million, which Complexcalled his “most Kanye-sounding album yet.”
“Kanye speaks of how you have to love yourself. And believe in yourself,” says Vernon. “I heard him say something recently: ‘I love myself so other people can love themselves.’ So they get up in the morning and put on a song and be like ‘FUCK YEAH’. And that is what it’s for.”—The Guardian
If Kanye’s words helped Justin rediscover his mojo, the Bon Iver singer relayed that very same message to his fans on 22, A Million—specifically the album’s gorgeous intro “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” which contains the simple yet profound refrain “it might be over soon.” “The bad stuff might be over soon, but maybe the good stuff might be over soon,” Vernon explained. “So you’d better figure out how to enjoy this life and participate in it.” Ask yourself: What would Yeezus do?
Kanye West and Justin Vernon may be unlikely collaborators, and even more unlikely friends—one is a hip-hop icon who is married to a Kardashian and notorious for his ego, the other is a small town folk singer who hates the spotlight and is perhaps guilty of being too modest—but they have more in common than meets the eye. Of course, both men are pioneers who are completely obsessed with Auto-Tune, but the most striking parallel between the pair is their process: find solace in a remote location, pour your heart into an album, and turn that tragedy into beautiful, breathtaking music.
Kanye holing himself up in the mountains of Wyoming to work on his forthcoming album—the only thing that will rid the memory of last year’s tour and Trump controversies—has all the makings of another Kanye West comeback story à la Hawaii 2010, especially if Justin Vernon is involved. After all, who's better at making masterpieces in the middle of nowhere?