'Yeezus' and the Bauhaus
When you think of Architecture, with a capital A, you might consider European cathedrals, gothic college campuses and maybe some all-glass building with an all-white interior. So many Tumblr-esque corners of the internet are cluttered with images of supremely tasteful homes and buildings, but almost none are of educational value. They just seem like nice spaces to be in, but it’s hard to understand why. Like music, you just know when you feel it.
I took an Architecture class last winter to try and understand how a space can impose itself on us, and perhaps vice-versa. Why do we make monuments? How do cities construct an identity? Can somewhere really be an empirically proven depressant, and how do you “fix” such a place?
I had most of my questions answered on a field trip to Lafayette Park: a legendary neighborhood in downtown Detroit, designed entirely German architect Mies Van der Rohe. Those who know me best know about my lifelong Kanye West fandom, so of course, an undertone of my field trip experience was in effort to understand West’s Yeezus-era obsession with mid-century modern architecture.
This is well-documented in many of West’s interviews and hidden easter eggs, and if you look in the right places, a strong argument could be made for considering Yeezus to be a legitimate “Bauhaus Album.” Specifically, while touring, I couldn’t help but think of an interview he did with Jon Caramanica of the New York Times, where he went as far as to cite a Le Corbusier lamp as a crucial “inspiration” for Yeezus.
For all of his efforts at building one of the greatest decade-spanning runs in music history, there’s no doubt that the Kanye West Experience has always been about more than the music. There is neither focal point nor distraction: Everything ranging from the brash interviews to the designer album covers contributes to a career-spanning performance art piece.
Even before the barrel of the media followed his every move, Kanye’s relentless personal development has always had architectural undertones. Before he was a Kardashian, he was a clumsy college dropout, packaging chipmunk-soul in Beaux-Arts frames. Late Registration shows his now-iconic bear mascot peeking out from the doors of a stone cathedral; it should have been no surprise when he performed select tracks from the album with a full orchestra at Abbey Road Studios.
The Glow In The Dark Tour seemed to hyperextend Takashi Murakami’s vision of “Superflat” into a synesthetic cannon. A film he directed for Cruel Summer was projected on seven screens, superimposed on a pyramid-shaped pavilion designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Every Kanye West album is an extension of a school of thought that transcends the realm of music.
Where Kanye travels to and creates his music is, in my opinion, the greatest indication of the space he intends for his music to occupy. He took a sabbatical in Rome before creating My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, dabbled in Japan during the Graduation era and made The Life of Pablo in Calabasas. It shows.
Yeezus, on the other hand, was recorded in-between a notoriously stark Manhattan loft, and an apartment in Paris’ 16th Arrondissement. Now imagine Rick Rubin, and his beard, in either of those settings. Nice.
Like all Kanye albums, Yeezus is no exception in being a product of its environment. The relationship is sometimes hilariously direct; in the same interview with Caramanica, West revealed that he recorded in the living room of his Paris loft — which had “the worst acoustics possible” — and thus the songs “had to be super simple, because if you turned up some complicated sound and a track with too much bass, it’s not going to work in that space.” This is, by definition, engineering music for the space you intend for it to occupy.
The Le Corbusier citation for Yeezus is most interesting because it’s his most explicit architectural reference yet, and I find it to be worth considerable investigation in linking Yeezus to one of the most influential architectural movements and schools of all time: The Bauhaus.
I remember back when Yeezus first dropped, and the “no-album-cover” album cover felt like a bit of a like a lazy cop-out. The fact that “On Sight” kicked the door in with a digital buzzsaw didn’t help; visual and sonic first impressions felt intentionally rugged.
Yet, the laziest criticism of post-MBDTF ‘Ye capitalizes on these sorts of low-hanging fruit, spraying nonsense about his alleged “sloppiness” and “decline” since creating one of the most universally likeable albums of the century. While popular opinion remains that Kanye West is first and foremost an “asshole,” and musician second, holding and listening to Yeezus today in light of his architectural footprint seems to communicate a vision clear enough to remove all doubt regarding his multimedia genius. Where The Life of Pablo is more a product of 1950s Los Angeles “Googie" architecture, Yeezus is as cold and balanced as a Bauhaus product in every sense.
The core tenet of Bauhaus industrial design is structural transparency; clarity is the ultimate sophistication.
As we all know, the now-infamous physical copies of Yeezus are designed as functionalist CD cases. No bells and whistles; the function is simply to house the disc. While touring a specific unit in Lafayette Park, I remember taking note a of a sink that was particularly helpful in making this connection.
Where most sinks contain features like cabinets and cupboards to abstract the underlying plumbing, this sink hid nothing. The frame of the sink was only inches deep (as little as necessary to funnel the water), with two iron pegs as support. The infrastructure set in place for plumbing was also completely visible — no ornamentation. One could easily identify weight-bearing components of the sink, and follow the path of the water from start to finish. While a CD case isn’t nearly as dynamic as a sink with moving parts, the design philosophy remains the same.
Aside from Kanye himself, the first names that come to mind when I think of the Yeezus era are Rick Rubin and Virgil Abloh — Kanye’s creative director. Virgil has a masters degree in Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where Mies himself has actually designed the curriculum (it should be noted that West has also been documented Googling Mies in Paris around the same time).
While I had the privilege of visiting Virgil’s “Off-White” store in Hong Kong two summers ago, an employee spoke to me about how Virgil himself participated in the design process for the tropical storefront. There is no doubt that he, as a seasoned architect educated to Mies’ liking, had a hand in the creative direction of Yeezus.
Sonically, the album draws from Rick Rubin’s minimalist zen in addition to the sparse spaces that birthed it. Billing himself as more of a “reducer” than “producer," Rubin was largely responsible for fleshing out the entire album over the course of a week. I still remember running through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy all day in anticipation of my first listen through Yeezus, and in hindsight, this was terrible preparation to hear an album made by a guy who reinvents himself twice a year. Where Twisted Fantasy is architecturally equivalent to something like the classically ornate Pantheon, Rubin stripped Yeezus down to a carbon-fiber skeleton.
The end of “I’m In It,” for example, has a certain space and volume about it that lurches and collapses in on itself; the high-hats don’t layer so much as they wait for one another, spacing themselves out and alternating between left and right channels. Somewhere in the middle, Kanye remains in focus, but rapping as if his words intermittently pass through a strobe light. The bass kicks up dust with every iteration. The song sounds like a hollowed-out sex factory.
“I Am A God” kicks off with an echo that bounces around some freezing abyss. Kanye’s voice is warped and permuted into variations of itself, flying in from all directions. Even on the 100th listen you struggle to predict where he comes from.
The most venomous track on the album, “New Slaves,” is driven by a single synth melody; it feels as hollow as the loft it was written in, and as cold as the stone it originally vibrated on. Again, Kanye’s voice is an industrial hammer-blow between keystrokes. His panting on “Black Skinhead” seems to drip sweat on the barking synths that open the track. Each and every song is arranged with enough elements for you to count on one hand, but together they form soundscapes built on the Bauhaus design language.
In the same way that an architect places walls and columns to create a structure that you can navigate experientially, Yeezus sees Kanye narrow in on specific sonic elements like a synth or 808, and guide them through various crevices of a single track. The sparse layers create spaces in songs that don’t exist elsewhere in Kanye’s discography; for the first time, Kanye ditches church and orchestra rehearsal to play with fire in an industrial complex. If his traditionally lush instrumentation suffocates you through raw enumeration (think: how many people must have been in that “Ultralight Beam” choir?), Yeezus throws you through a meatgrinder in an empty warehouse.
The whole album reminds me of one of Mies’ most famous sketches — a piece titled “Concert Hall” — where he draws 2D planes on an image of an empty airplane factory. The tessellation of beams and columns creates a certain elegance possible only through Bauhaus structural transparency; yet, the space between the columns creates a cold, airless vacuum. This is the space that Yeezus — the Bauhaus album — occupies.
It was assembled with the sophistication of mid-century modern industrialism and architecture, yet executed with the cold ruthlessness of a Black man denied entry to the bourgeoisie world of fashion. In one motion, he creates a project to show that he can “do it too”, but won’t let you in unless you cut the red tape first.