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These Artists Are Mastering the Art of World-Building

The mind is a canvas and we are all painters with 26 letters at our disposal.

“O brave new world / That has such people in't!” –William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Drum roll. Anticipation builds as the tempo increases. Dancers step into formation, the creator of this universe struts to center stage. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, First of Her Name, Homecoming Queen. Welcome to her world.

The art of world-building is the art of making dreams reality. It starts with an idea and blossoms into something we experience with our senses. Every character has a role; every detail has a purpose. Previously confined to the realms of fantasy and science fiction, world-building has increasingly become a key feature in the work of our favorite artists.

In 2018, Beyoncé transported us to a world where Black women reigned supreme, a modern-day mix between Themyscira and Wakanda. Flanked by over 200 dancers and musicians, Beyoncé translated her life and discography into 2 hours of unimpeachable Black excellence.

With the release of her Netflix documentary Homecoming, Beyoncé showed us how she created this world and revealed the work behind the magic—eight months of rehearsals, a strict diet and the stamina of an Olympian.

The songs, the dances, the costumes, all of this was required to follow Beyoncé into an alternate timeline where she led the best HBCU marching band in the world. The result was the definitive live performance of the decade and a lasting testament to the power of imagination:

“I feel we made something that made my daughter proud. Made my mother proud, my father proud…and all of the people that are my brothers and sisters around the world [proud], and that’s why I live. I’m so lucky and grateful that I’m able to take all these crazy ideas and actually make it into something that heals people and that may spark vision in people. That shows them to dream big, that shows them that they are limitless.” –Beyoncé, Homecoming

“A creator’s creator,” that’s how Pulitzer Prize winner Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah described Missy Elliott in her 2017 profile of the Virginian icon. Go back 20-plus years, and it’s not hard to see why.

The year is 1997. Biggie is dead, Pac is gone, and hip-hop is reeling from the fallout of a bicoastal war.

Enter Missy Elliott. With Timbaland behind the boards and Hype Williams behind the camera, Missy catapults hip-hop into a brighter future.

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In Missy’s version of the future, there are inflatable leather suits and metallic horses that breathe fire. In Missy’s version of the future, there is only one rule: dance. Dance in the rain, dance while running for your survival, dance even if your body limits your movements.

Missy brought joy back to hip-hop. She showed us anything is possible when you embrace who you are and surround yourself with like-minded individuals. Missy Elliott created a safe space for her audience and laid a foundation for future generations to build upon.

“Supa Dupa Fly is more than just a rap album; it is a celebration of the black female experience and the intricacies that are embedded in it. It’s a record that is steeped in Elliott’s demand to be noticed, heard and, ultimately, respected…her imagination helped propel the genre into a stratosphere where the visual and sonic possibilities were endless.” –Candace McDuffie, "20 Years Of ‘Supa Dupa Fly’: How Missy Elliott Singlehandedly Changed The Rap Game For Women," VIBE

According to Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin, there are two types of world-builders: architects and gardeners. The architect has her whole world mapped out, she plans, and nothing in her domain happens by accident. The gardener, however, goes wherever the story takes her; she plants a seed and watches it bear fruit.

When you watch the “emotion picture” for Janelle Monáe’s 2018 album Dirty Computer, you are viewing the work of an architect. Since 2007, Monáe has expanded the boundaries of her universe with each project. Taking cues from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Monáe envisions a dystopia where being unique is a crime and falling in love is a death sentence. Fortunately, with Dirty Computer, Monáe illustrates the possibility of both surviving and thriving in this world.

Tierra Whack’s world, on the other hand, lives and dies by the whims of its creator. One moment the poignancy of “Pet Cemetery” is blindsiding you, the next moment you are singing along to the playful chorus of “Cable Guy.” Unlike Dirty Computer, Whack World is an act of spontaneity; a personal undertaking that saves Tierra from the perils of boredom and monotony.

“I have a really short attention span, but I have so much to offer. I wanted to put all of these ideas into one universe, one world. I’m giving you a trip through my mind.” –Tierra Whack, "15 Songs in 15 Minutes: Inside Tierra Whack’s Whimsical, Twisted World," The New York Times

The art of world-building does not always lead to the construction of a new place. Sometimes, it’s merely a way to make sense of our current circumstances. Kendrick Lamar’s discography, for instance, is a world where everything is connected. Governed by the divine law of karma, coincidence is just fate by another name. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The violence committed by one person will reverberate throughout the community until, eventually, it is returned to its sender.

In good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick is robbed, enacts his vengeance and pays the price for it with his friend’s life. In To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick loses his way and finds it again after an encounter with a homeless man in South Africa. In DAMN., Kendrick is given a second chance after almost being killed for his wickedness and weakness. No matter how strange things get in Kendrick’s world, his story is always rooted in reality. Kendrick is documenting what is happening outside his window.

“That was our world. I remember when good kid came out, the people I grew up with couldn’t understand how we made that translate through music. They literally cried tears of joy when they listened to it—because these are people who have been shunned out of society. But I know the kinds of hearts they have; they’re great individuals. And for me to tell my story, which is their story as well, they feel that someone has compassion for us, someone does see us further than just killers or drug dealers. We were just kids.” ­­–Kendrick Lamar, "The Gospel According to Kendrick Lamar," Vanity Fair

The mind is a canvas, and we are all painters with 26 letters at our disposal. Infinite combinations of these letters can create worlds we’ve never been to or translate the oddities of real life into something relatable. It is a superpower within all of us; we just need to start using it.



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