What’s There Left to Say About Kanye West?
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. KANYE WEST
What’s there left to say about Kanye West? Certainly, West himself would have plenty to say. After all, he’s the guy who, during an NBC telethon to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina, proclaimed, off script, that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He’s the guy who stormed the stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and announced that his good friend Jay-Z’s significant other, Beyoncé, should have won the prize just bestowed upon the perpetually in faux-awe Taylor Swift. He’s the guy who, in front of the large fabricated-mountain set on his recent “Yeezus” tour, has alternately taken aim at Hedi Slimane, Bernard Arnault, François-Henri Pinault, and Nike; likened himself to Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Michelangelo; embarked on a long and winding monologue about Lenny Kravitz (at which Kravitz was present); and asked Google head Eric Schmidt to invest in his design firm Donda (named after West’s late mother)—all while still retaining the level-eyed insight to hold Le Corbusier and Q-Tip as inhabitors of similarly lofty creative planes.
A lot of it, of course, is just old-fashioned “I’m the Alpha with no Omega” hip-hop theater. But some of it seems to emanate from some deeper, less performative place for West. Lest we forget that before he was a pop-star polymath, he was an in-demand producer whose aspirations to become a rapper in his own right were thoroughly and consistently dismissed by the very people who were profiting from his skills as a songwriter and beat-maker. He’s also the guy who, after a near-fatal car crash in 2002, turned the experience into a song called “Through the Wire,” which he rapped while still recovering from the accident, audibly struggling to spit out rhymes with his jaw wired shut. And he’s the guy who, over the last decade, has turned out six creatively diverse, distinctively classic solo albums filled with almost as many left turns as hits, from the earnest grit of 2004’s The College Dropout (“Through the Wire,” “Jesus Walks”) to the lush musicality of 2005’s Late Registration (“Touch the Sky,” “Gold Digger”), from the anthemic grandeur of 2007’s Graduation (“Stronger,” “Good Life,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”) to the auto-tuned poetry of 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak (“Love Lockdown,” “Heartless”), the brilliantly realized rushes of bombast and vulnerability on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (“Runaway,” “Power,” “All of the Lights”), and the lean, industrial future-soul of his latest album, Yeezus (“Black Skinhead,” “Blood on the Leaves,” “Bound 2”). Over the course of that sustained creative run—an almost unprecedented one in the world of urban music, which thrives off constant novelty—West has perhaps done more than any other hip-hop artist to bring the bold experimentation and cathartic emotional energy of rock ‘n’ roll to rap. Along the way, there have also been, amongst myriad other endeavors, forays into film (such as the 34-minute extended video for “Runaway” that he directed) and high-end fashion (he showed two seasons in Paris), a record label (G.O.O.D. Music), collaborations with the likes of Riccardo Tisci, Takashi Murakami, and George Condo, and a joint album with Jay-Z (2011’s Watch the Throne).
You don’t have to search far in West’s bio for formative moments. The car accident, his mother’s sudden death in 2007 following a cosmetic procedure, and the birth this past summer of his daughter, North, with girlfriend (and now fiancée) Kim Kardashian have powerfully punctuated both his life and career over the last 11 years. The influence of his parents, who split when West was a toddler, also looms large. His father, Ray West, was involved with the Black Panthers, and went on to become a photojournalist in Atlanta, where Kanye was born, and his mother was an English professor. (Kanye’s decision to leave school before graduating, initially a disappointment to Donda, in part supplied the overarching motif of The College Dropout.) After his parents divorced, Donda took an academic appointment in Chicago, where Kanye spent most of his childhood and young adulthood. It’s also where he first started writing and producing before moving to New York to join Jay-Z and Damon Dash’s Roc-A-Fella crew.
Yeezus, West says, marks the beginning of a new period in his life as an artist, though the events of the last year—North’s birth, his engagement to Kardashian—would seem to indicate that it marks the beginning of a new period in his life in general. 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, in the midst of a life-changing year of his own, recently caught up by phone with the 36-year-old West in Los Angeles, where he was camped out briefly between “Yeezus” tour stops. They spoke not long after the unveiling of the oft-discussed video for “Bound 2,” which was directed by Nick Knight and features West and a topless Kardashian writhing on the back of a motorcycle against a backdrop of orange-y purple-hued karaoke-video-style landscapes.
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.
I started to approach time in a different way after the accident . . . It gave me perspective on life—that it was really now or 100 percent never. KANYE WEST
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.
A lot of people are very sacred with their ideas … but there’s also something to idea sharing, or being the person who makes the mistake in public. Kanye West
MCQUEEN: How do you approach the visuals?
WEST: Well, I’m a trained fine artist. I went to art school from the time I was 5 years old. I was, like, a prodigy out of Chicago. I’d been in national competitions from the age of 14. I got three scholarships to art schools—to St. Xavier, to the American Academy of Art, and to the Art Institute of Chicago—and I went to the American Academy of Art. So the joke that I’ve actually played on everyone is that the entire time, I’ve actually just been a fine artist. I just make sonic paintings, and these sonic paintings have led me to become whatever people think of when you say “Kanye West.” Madonna, I think, is the greatest visual musical artist that we’ve ever had. If you look at her photo log, the photographers that she was able to work with throughout her career framed her in the proper way. It was the proper context. It was that visual that made sure that everything was gonna cut through in a certain way. I mean, you know as much as anyone how important the visuals are. So I like to collaborate with different masters—whether it’s George Condo or Nick Knight or Takashi Murakami—on the visuals that are connected to the pieces, and just have a simple high school conversation with whoever I’m working with and bring our thoughts together, but ultimately what we do is through the lens of that collaborator, and it ends up being their final hand. You know, you can go to a bunch of people who say, “Hey, I want to make a video based off of these white-trash T-shirts.” But “Bound 2” is Nick Knight’s take on those white-trash T-shirts, and if I went to five other artists, they would all do it in other ways. So I think that’s part of the beauty of life. It’s more about the art of conversation, the companionship, the friendships, and the quality of life that you get out of working—it’s about the creative process even more than the final product. I think there’s something kind of depressing about a product being final, because the only time a product is really final is when you’re in a casket.
MCQUEEN: I wanted to talk to you about the video for “Bound 2.” As you know, my daughter is a huge fan of both yours and Kim’s, and I saw that video and thought, “This is great. Okay, interesting, fantastic.” And then I heard about all of this controversy that came to surround it, which I had to sort of scratch my head about. I mean, call me silly, but when I saw that video for “Bound 2,” I just thought to myself, “It’s just a video. It’s obviously a sort of romantic video of him and his partner, and it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek.”
WEST: Yeah. I think all that stuff around it is just that: controversy. I think people are afraid of dreams, and that video is one of the closest things to the way that dreams look and feel, or the way joy looks and feels, with the colors. You know, I think there are rules to fashion, with the all-black everything, and rules to art, with white galleries. There are rules to how a lot of things are: the concrete jungle, stone pavement, brick walls. There are even rules to what a Brooklyn apartment looks like. But this video completely didn’t respect any of those rules whatsoever. [laughs] It’s a dream, and I think the controversy comes from the fact that I don’t think most people are comfortable with their own dreams, so it’s hard for them to be comfortable with other people’s dreams. I mean, look, it took some time for us to be comfortable with a walking, talking mouse, but that became an icon. So this stuff, what I’m doing now, is the beginning of me throwing out what it means to be a rapper—you know, with the gold chain …
MCQUEEN: To me, “Bound 2” looked like a Prince video. Aesthetically, it had that kind of feel. It wouldn’t have looked out of place if it were part of Purple Rain .
WEST: Well, I’d be biased to think that the community of Geminis is the most consistently in tune with what their spirit is telling them to do or why they have breath in their lungs. But I do think that creative Geminis—Tupac, Biggie, Prince, Miles Davis, all being Geminis—have, throughout history, been really in tune with those things. You know, some different friends of mine have been showing me these interviews that Tupac did and how they’re very simple and to the point. I watched them, and one of the things that Tupac kept saying is that he wanted thugs to be recognized. Now Jay-Z is a multi-hundred-millionaire who came from the streets, so Tupac’s mission, in a way, has been realized. But my mission is very different from Tupac’s—and I’m not Tupac. But I think that when I compare myself to Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, or whoever, it’s because I’m trying to give people a little bit of context to the possibilities that are in front of me, as opposed to putting me in the rap category that the Grammys has put me in. In no way do I want to be the next any one of them. But I am the first me. So I only mention those other names to try to give people a little bit of context.
what I’m doing now is the beginning of me throwing out what it means to be a rapper.Kanye West
MCQUEEN: All of those names evoke a sense of power and money to some extent. Is that what it means to you to be recognized: to have a position of power and money?
WEST: I want the power to create what is in my mind. That’s my dream. I want to be able to have a thought or an idea and bring it into reality. I want to be able to walk into a gym and say, “I think this gym could be better if Axel Vervoordt [the Belgian interior designer] worked on it.” I want to be able to say, “I think school could be better if a director did all of the programming, and there were screens the size of the walls, and instead of kids being asked to get off their iPhones, they were encouraged to use them so they can move forward faster as human beings instead of being held back from the future with dated curriculums.” If I want to design a product, or if I think of a new way for us to view films, then I want to be able to do it. And what happened was that when we made Watch the Throne, it was such an accomplishment, and I had a bit of money in my account, so I just started chasing other dreams. I did two fashion shows in one year—at one of them, I had go-karts that people could ride. I also shot a film in “surround vision,” where I had seven screens—three in front of the audience, one above, one below, one to the left, one to the right. This is after designing Watch the Throne—and I was putting my money towards it. I put the amount of free income that I could put into it, which went into the millions. I went around and showed people what I’d done and said, “Hey, I made Watch the Throne, I made this amount of music for the past 10 years, I have this level of visuals, this level of communication, I can sell this many albums, and I also have these new inventions. Will anybody help me out?” I met with 30 billionaires, 30 companies, and basically everyone said, “Fuck you.” I said, “How could this happen? How could not one person want to invest in these different ideas?” I mean, if I grouped up with three guys in a basement and started a new tech company that was very similar to another tech company down the street, but it just so happened that I had a few more followers than the other guy, then I could get all the investment in the world and value my company at a certain amount. But then I have another idea and the entire world will say fuck you? Now, that is about money and power …
MCQUEEN: How do you think your parents influenced you and your thinking? Your mom was a college professor, and your dad was involved in the black power movement, right?
WEST: Yeah. Both of my parents were educated, and both of them were always telling me about the manipulation of the media. My mom had books she would read to me. My bedtime stories dealt with things like the nose being knocked off the Sphinx—this is the type of bedtime story I would hear when I was in fifth grade. Of course, my father is also educated, Christian, once a Black Panther, a militant black—he understood what it meant to be discriminated against because he was black. He also understood what it meant to be discriminated against by black people because he talked white. He was very keen and sensitive to this at all times. So if we take it back to the days of what the media calls “meltdowns”—which I don’t call meltdowns at all, I call them “turn-ups”—at things like the MTV Video Music Awards … I don’t even think Justin [Timberlake] had an album out at that time, and I had Graduation out. It had just come out, with the songs “Stronger” and “Good Life.” And somehow they talked me into performing in a suite at the Palms, and they promised me that no one else in direct competition was performing on the main stage. Then the next thing I know, they closed the show with Justin.
MCQUEEN: Of course, your mother passed away all too soon. How did her passing affect you?
WEST: It’s funny, because I think about … You know, the sketchbook, the train of my ideas, is named after her. It’s called Donda. And it’s amazing because my grandfather, who just passed away this year, was named Portwood, and he had the sensibility, as a Southern black man out of Oklahoma, to name his daughter Donda. And then Donda had the sensibility to name her son Kanye. How futuristic and worldly are both of those names? And then the teachings and the confidence that was instilled by my grandfather into my mother, and from my mother into me—which will now, of course, be instilled by me into North—will create the best winter coat against doubters and dream-killers ever made.
MCQUEEN: What does love mean to you right now at this moment in time?
WEST: Love … Well, if someone has got all the money in the world, they’d still want love.
MCQUEEN: But now you’ve got a situation in your life where you’ve got a daughter, which is a different kind of love—an unconditional love that maybe you only get to have in another way with your parents. What has that experience been like so far?
WEST: I think I have to experience it for another few years to be able to give you an opinion. It’s all brand new, how it feels to be a father. There are some things that I understand, certain things that I don’t understand, certain things that I like to get off my chest in interviews, certain things that I want to talk about. But when we talk about love, I don’t have an answer. All I can say is that I’m happy I have it.
MCQUEEN: I hate to put a stereotype on any profession, but there seems to be a certain loneliness associated with being a musician. Do you ever feel lonely?
WEST: Well, I’ve got my astronaut family. You know, becoming famous is like being catapulted into space—sometimes without a space suit. We’ve seen so many people combust, suffocate, get lost in all these different things. But to have an anchor of other astronauts and to make a little space family … I mean, it’s not like I’m the guy in The Hunger Games  begging for people to like me. I’m almost the guy with the least amount of “likes.” I wanted a family. So god gives you opportunities, and you make sacrifices for something that’s greater.
MCQUEEN: You know, when you talk about these people and these companies not wanting to partner with you to do what you want to do, it sounds very similar to what was happening when you were starting off as an artist, where people didn’t think that you could do it. But you eventually did.
WEST: It’s been exactly the same. Whatever I put my focus on … I don’t want to put out a promissory note of having ultimate success at anything I’m thinking of doing, but my success will be in getting things out there. You put new ideas into the world, whether that first idea is extremely successful or an early adopter goes on to make it successful, or it’s that third rendition that finally works. As a celebrity, I have an opportunity to make a living at being the spokesperson for the third or fourth rendition of a thought-promoting something that has already been proven. The problem is that I like to be the inventor—I’m the person who works on the concept, who invents new thoughts, who brings new ideas into the universe. I’m not the guy who works on selling the idea—I’m not Vanna White for the new Hyundai. I am the guy who works on the concept for the car. So success, for me, is in having the ability to get my ideas out there.
Becoming famous is like being catapulted into space—sometimes without a space suit . . . But to have an anchor of other astronauts and to make a little space family . . . I wanted a family.Kanye West
MCQUEEN: You’ve been on the scene as an artist now for 10 years, which is impressive, given the level of interest and artistry that you’ve managed to sustain in your work. In the process, you’ve become incredibly influential. So you talk about doing all of these other things, which is great, but there’s really no amount of money that could make you more influential than you are now. So my question is: What are you going to do with all of the influence that you have right now?
WEST: Well, influence isn’t my definition of success—it’s a by-product of my creativity. I just want to create more. I would be fine with making less money. I actually spend the majority of my money attempting to create more things. Not buying things or solidifying myself or trying to make my house bigger, or trying to show people how many Louis Vuitton bags I can get, or buying my way to a good seat at the table. My definition of success, again, is getting my ideas out there. The first company that has really given me a shot is Adidas. They did the deal … I mean, Damon Dash did the deal, at the end of the day. He signed Kanye West 12 years ago. What does that mean now? What does that mean to music? You know, people say things about creativity and jobs and every 10 years, blah, blah, blah. But I don’t have a desire to not continue making music. When I left Chicago and moved to New York, it wasn’t because I didn’t love Chicago; it was because I needed to go to New York. So right now, I’ve got other innovations and other thoughts that I want to pursue. As I was saying earlier, I create like a 3-year-old. When you’re 3, you wake up one morning and say, “I wanna ride a bike.” And then the next day, you wake up and say, “I wanna draw.” I don’t want to be in a situation where, because I was good enough at riding a bike one day, then that’s all I can do for the rest of my life. I mean, you know firsthand, being a fine artist and then moving into the Hollywood space … You know, I say to Renzo Rosso, Bernard Arnault, and François-Henri Pinault, the heads of Diesel, LVMH, and Kering, “Come to my show and look at the mountain I made. Look at these 20,000 people screaming, and then tell me I don’t deserve to design a T-shirt.” If I want to design a T-shirt in my lifetime, then please help me do it! People say, “Well, why don’t you just do it on your own?” Are you telling me to sew every single T-shirt? People say, “Why do you antagonize the high-end companies and your fan base?” and this and that. But what I’m saying is that in working with partners like Louis Vuitton and Zanotti and Balmain and Fendi like I have—and please forgive me for using film as a metaphor because I hate when people do that with music—I feel like it’s a better form of film that I’m working with when I work with them. I’m working with better cameras. I’m working with better editors … Steve, please forgive me because I feel like it’s super-patronizing whenever someone does an analogy or a metaphor that relates to the field that you currently work in.
MCQUEEN: No, not at all.
WEST: I’m sorry. I find it super-insulting whenever people give me a music analogy. It’s like, “You know, I would have understood it if you just said it in English. You didn’t have to put it in music terms, like you somehow know more about music or I would understand it better if it were in music terms.” So please forgive me for putting that in film terms. I mean, talking about film to Steve McQueen …
MCQUEEN: [laughs] I grew up in Europe, in London, and you grew up in the States. When was the first time you came to Europe? Do you remember?
WEST: I think it was when Damon Dash had me and some other Roc-A-Fella artists come over. He stressed the importance of connecting with London, especially. Then we went to France, and I hated France when we first went there. Now, of course, I love it. But at the time, there was a rapper out of Chicago who wanted me to show up at some event of his, and he was trying to threaten me in some way physically if I didn’t show up because we had done a record together. And Dame Dash had to man-up on the situation and apply a bit of gangster to have them fall back, just for me to be able to get on that first flight to London.
MCQUEEN: It’s interesting how when Malcolm X ventured out of the United States for the first time, he went to Europe, he went to Africa, he went to Mecca, and then, when he came back to America, he realized that, to some extent, for him, it wasn’t about black or white, it was about people. In talking to you now, it seems like you feel the same way—that it’s never really been about race for you, but at the same time, it has very much been about that, if you know what I mean.
WEST: My mission is about what I want to create. It’s for people, for humanity. It’s about things that can make the world better. I’m not saying that I’m going to make a better world; I’m just saying that I will provide some things that will help, and my glass ceiling that I’m facing is based on my color. You know, I was looking at some cheesy-ass MTV videos a while ago, and it was so funny because it was like, “Wow, these videos are pre-Michael Jackson”—and people forget that Michael Jackson had to fight to get on MTV because he was considered to be an urban artist. This was, like, the greatest pop star of all time, and they told him, “We’re not gonna play your video because it doesn’t fit our format.”
MCQUEEN: It actually stunned me to find out that you’ve never won Best Album at the Grammys. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s kind of odd, considering what you’ve done in music over the last decade.
WEST: I wasn’t even nominated for Best Album this year. This year, I only got two nominations by the Grammys: for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song.
MCQUEEN: Well, that’s my problem with all this stuff. It’s ghettoization—and I’m talking about country as much as rap. It’s all just music. And I’ve got a problem with people kind of trying to categorize it, where it’s either good or it’s bad. I find it all odd, to be honest. Have you ever been nominated for Best Album?
WEST: I’ve been nominated for Best Album maybe three times. I made Dark Fantasy and Watch the Throne less than a year apart and neither of them got nominated. “Ni**as in Paris” [off Watch the Throne] wasn’t nominated for Best Song either. But let’s go into the fact that I have the most Grammys of any 36-year-old or 40-year-old or whatever, and I’ve never won a Grammy outside of the Rap or R&B categories. “Jesus Walks” lost Best Song to some other song; “Ni**as in Paris” wasn’t nominated in that category. But those are the labels that people want to put on you. People see you in a certain way, so if I was doing a clothing line that had rock tees in it or whatever we just did for the “Yeezus” tour, which sells $400,000 of stuff in two days … You know, I like Shame  as much as 12 Years a Slave, but Hollywood likes the idea of a black director directing 12 Years a Slave more than it likes the idea of a black director directing Shame.
MCQUEEN: I actually remember when I first came to have meetings in L.A. after I did Hunger  and people thought I was white. I think often people try to ghettoize others because they have an idea about who they think you are rather than who you are.
I went and met with Deepak Chopra. I was supposed to go back the next day, but I told my girlfriend that I wasn’t going to go. Because you know what gets me calm, baby? Success.Kanye West
WEST: Which I can’t stand. But the thing is that people know not what they do. There are certain people where you just have to call them on the fact that they’re behaving in a racist manner for them to understand it. Of course, they do this to me, too: “The best rap tour …” Again, it’s marginalizing.
MCQUEEN: It’s interesting that we’re speaking about this on the day of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, since he is such an icon of the best that we can be as human beings—not black people or white people or Asian or Indian or Spanish or whatever race or background you are, but human beings.
WEST: Yeah. I mean, there have definitely been moments where I’ve forgotten that I was black—and I don’t want people to take that as, “Oh, he sold out.” I mean, like, when I decided to wear tight jeans. At that moment, I forgot that I was supposed to wear baggy jeans because I’m black. Or when I’ve said certain things on TV and I’ve forgotten that I wasn’t supposed to say them because I’m black—that I was supposed to stay in line and be neutral.
MCQUEEN: I would say that most black people don’t walk around thinking about being black. People tend to think of themselves as individuals, and it’s only when they’re confronted in certain situations that they become “black.”
WEST: And that’s not just a black thing—it’s a world thing where the biggest slavery that we have is our opinion of ourselves. That’s why my attitude is so shunned. It’s not a matter of me believing in myself that’s so scary to everyone, it’s the idea of everyone else starting to believe in themselves just as much as I do that’s scary.
MCQUEEN: What’s the best piece of advice that anyone has ever given you?
WEST: If someone ever said, “Follow exactly what you want to do, Kanye,” then I would say that that would probably have been the best piece of advice. But at this point, I don’t even need any advice. I just need backing. I need belief more than I need advice. People can give you advice … I met with Deepak Chopra, right? I was supposed to go back the next day, but I told my girlfriend that I wasn’t going to go. Because you know what gets me calm, baby? Success. And I went in and finished my Adidas deal instead. I felt so Zen-ed out by that.
MCQUEEN: Do you think you have another 10 years like this in you? Can you extend that interest and success that you’ve enjoyed in music into whatever other fields that you want to venture? Is that possible?
WEST: One-hundred percent. Easy as cake, easy as pie. Too many people are scared. But it is my job to go up every night and talk about this kind of shit. It is actually my job. I’m like a broadcaster for futurism, for dreamers, for people who believe in themselves. We’ve been taught since day one to stop believing in our own dreams. We’ve had the confidence beaten out of us since day one, and then sold back to us through branding and diamond rings and songs and melodies—through these lines that we have to walk inside of so as to not break the uniform or look silly or be laughed at. So I hope that there are people out there laughing. Laugh loud, please. Laugh until your lungs give out because I will have the last laugh.
MCQUEEN: Do you think that some people feel threatened by you because you make sense?
WEST: They try to make it seem like I’m making the least sense possible. They’ll take any shot possible to try to take away the power of my influence and my words. But the proof is in the work. The proof will be when we look back on this in 10 more years, because one thing that I will guarantee to everyone reading this is success. I’m guaranteeing success. I’m guaranteeing that we’re gonna win. Or let me put it another way, only one of two things can happen: either I’m gonna be right or I’m gonna be wrong. But if you look at the past 10 years, I’ve been right.
STEVE McQUEEN IS A BRITISH ARTIST AND FILMMAKER WHO HAS DIRECTED THE FILMS HUNGER (2008), SHAME (2011), AND 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013). HE WON THE TURNER PRIZE IN 1999.