Interview Magazine has just published a conversation between Kanye West and 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen. (McQueen also created the backing visuals for Kanye's "Blood on the Leaves" performance at the VMAs.) The two covered a wide range of topics, including Yeezus, the Grammys, the video for "Bound 2", Kanye's 2002 car wreck, and much more. Check out excerpts below and read the full thing
STEVE MCQUEEN: It's hard to make beauty. People often try, and more often than not, everything starts to feel sort of cheap or kitsch. But you express yourself in a way that's beautiful. You can sing from the heart and have it connect and translate, which is a huge thing for an artist to be able to do. So my first question is: How do you do that? How do you communicate in that way?
KANYE WEST: I just close my eyes and act like I'm a 3-year-old. [laughs] I try to get as close to a childlike level as possible because we were all artists back then. So you just close your eyes and think back to when you were as young as you can remember and had the least barriers to your creativity.
MCQUEEN: Let's go deep very quickly then: Talk to me about who you were and who you've become—both before and after your accident, the car crash. Who are those two people, Kanye before and Kanye after? Are they different people? Was there a seismic change in who you were after you nearly lost your life?
WEST: I think I started to approach time in a different way after the accident. Before I was more willing to give my time to people and things that I wasn't as interested in because somehow I allowed myself to be brainwashed into being forced to work with other people or on other projects that I had no interest in. So simply, the accident gave me the opportunity to do what I really wanted to do. I was a music producer, and everyone was telling me that I had no business becoming a rapper, so it gave me the opportunity to tell everyone, "Hey, I need some time to recover." But during that recovery period, I just spent all my time honing my craft and making The College Dropout. Without that period, there would have been so many phone calls and so many people putting pressure on me from every direction—so many people I somehow owed something to—and I would have never had the time to do what I wanted to.
MCQUEEN: So basically, it allowed you to focus, and you realized at a certain point that it was now or never—and that you had to do it now.
WEST: Yes. It gave me perspective on life—that it was really now or 100 percent never. I think that people don't make the most of their lives. So, you know, for me, right now it seems like it's the beginning of me rattling the cage, of making some people nervous. And people are strategically trying to do things to mute my voice in some way or make me look like I'm a lunatic or pinpoint the inaccuracies in my grammar to somehow take away from the overall message of what I'm saying ...
MCQUEEN: Well, unfortunately, that is indicative of what a lot of black performers and leaders have had to go through. People will often try to undermine them in a way to take away their power. You know, when I saw you perform, I was like, "This guy is gonna die on stage." When I saw you play, it felt like that—like it could be the last performance that you give. There's an incredible intensity to your performances.
WEST: As my grandfather would say, "Life is a performance." I'm giving all that I have in this life. I'm opening up my notebook and I'm saying everything in there out loud. A lot of people are very sacred with their ideas, and there is something to protecting yourself in that way, but there's also something to idea sharing, or being the person who makes the mistake in public so people can study that.
MCQUEEN: It can be hard to take those kinds of risks as an artist if you're thinking about tomorrow.
WEST: Well, all we have is today. You know, the past is gone, and tomorrow is not promised.
MCQUEEN: Talk to me a little bit about Yeezus. The album before that one, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was a phenomenal success. Did that wear on your mind when you went in to make Yeezus?
WEST: Yeah! So I just had to throw it all in the trash. I had to not follow any of the rules because there was no way to match up to the previous album. 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 ... That's one of the reasons why I didn't want to use the same formula of starting the album with a track like "Blood on the Leaves," and having that Nina Simone sample up front that would bring everyone in, using postmodern creativity where you kind of lean on something that people are familiar with and comfortable with to get their attention. I actually think the most uncomfortable sound on Yeezus is the sound that the album starts with, which is the new version of what would have been called radio static. It's the sonic version of what internet static would be—that's how I would describe that opening. It's Daft Punk sound. It was just like that moment of being in a restaurant and ripping the tablecloth out from under all the glasses. That's what "On Sight" does sonically.
MCQUEEN: So Yeezus was about throwing away what people want you to do—the so-called "success"—so you could move on to something else.
WEST: It's the only way that I can survive. The risk for me would be in not taking one—that's the only thing that's really risky for me. I live inside, and I've learned how to swim through backlash, or maintain through the current of a negative public opinion and create from that and come through it and spring forth to completely surprise everyone—to satisfy all believers and annihilate all doubters. And at this point, it's just fun.
MCQUEEN: But there must have been moments of doubt or depression or sadness. I mean, with what happened after the Taylor Swift incident [at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards] and all the negativity that came your way as the result of that. How did you deal with it all mentally, physically, and spiritually?
WEST: It's funny that you would say "mentally, physically, spiritually" because my answer before you even said that was going to be "god, sex, and alcohol."
MCQUEEN: People can get lost in all of those things. So how did you arrive where you are now after coming through that period?
WEST: Well, I don't have an addictive personality, so that means that I can lean on what might be someone else's vice just enough to make it through to the next day. You know, just enough religion, a half-cup of alcohol with some ice in it and a nice chaser, and then ...
MCQUEEN: A lot of sex. [both laugh]
WEST: Yeah—a lot of sex. And then I'd make it to the next week.
MCQUEEN: So was there a moment when Yeezus all kind of came together as a work?
WEST: I've heard people say stuff about how a work is just taken out of your hands, and there were times ... I remember that we were shooting the "New Slaves" video before I'd even finished the second verse. We were on our third shoot day, and I was in the studio still finishing it because my lyrics aren't written beforehand. It's very important to me that they're completely in sync with what's happening in society at that time—that they're very timeless, but very up to date ...
MCQUEEN: How important is that for you, to be current?
WEST: I don't use a lot of current-affairs names—I've used them seldomly—but I feel like it's just a current itself, a wave that I'm surfing. There is no sport without the wave, so I have to wait for it. If the waves are high, then we're gonna have a fun day. If the waves are low, then you just stay on the beach.