Is Kanye West a Modernist or a Postmodernist?

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In the run up to the release of Yeezus, reporters following Kanye West were eager to listen when he talked about his love of modernism. At W Magazine, Christopher Bagley wrote about a trip the rapper took to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (“I love banquettes and shit,” he informed the group). The mention of West’s Le Corbusier lamps and Pierre Jeanneret chairs were added in without a smirk. At The New York Times, Jon Caramanica also nodded along with West’s references to Le Corbusier, and willingly buttressed Yeezy’s summary of himself as “a minimalist in a rapper’s body” in explaining his new tastes.

What’s remarkable is the extent to which this marginally supported self-description has gone unchallenged. During interviews with Bagley, West appeared in “a plain dark hoodie and black cotton pants” designed by an unnamed clothesmaker he intends to collaborate with in the future. Maybe you could read a note of austerity in this — the kind you might find in a right-angled painting by Piet Mondrian or a building designed by Walter Gropius. Perhaps there’s a Futurist vibe in the harsh, single-channel synths used in “Black Skinhead” and “Guilt Trip.” A few critics have pointed to the bold, single-layer beats West uses in tracks like “On Sight,” which recall the streamlined effect of sculptures by Robert Morris or Donald Judd. But I think that’s a stretch.

Besides the trip to the Villa Savoye, which obviously provided Bagley with a number of quotable moments, it’s puzzling that critics have gotten on board with West’s self-characterization, almost to the point of finishing sentences for him.

It would be much, much more fitting to instead position West as a postmodernist. Whereas modernism often favored the untouched vision of an individual auteur, West has consistently embraced collaboration; Yeezus, which has ten tracks, gives producer credit to no fewer than 25 artists. Standalone modernism seems particularly anathema to the syrupy, baroque style of Daft Punk and Gesaffelstein, who together contributed to “Black Skinhead” and “Send It Up.”

By far the most prominent pomo habit of West’s is his avidity for re-appropriating cultural material for reuse. Because critics are so wrapped up in his allegedly modernist approach, we may never know how West came across “Gyöngyhajú lány,” a 1968 song by the Hungarian rock band Omega, or when he decided to sample it for his song “New Slaves.” That’s too bad. It’s probably an interesting story. For “Blood on the Leaves,” West used sounds from Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” a dirge about the lynching crisis in the South, to rap about alimony and MDMA. The son of a former Black Panther, it would be illuminating to hear West discuss his casual, sexualized references to the Black Power salute. “Black girl sippin’ white wine,” he raps on “I’m in It,” “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.”

Kanye’s affinity for Le Corbusier may be genuine, and there are valid reasons for using words like “modernist” and “minimalist” in his interviews: these descriptions stand in contrast to the flamboyant, neon-hued persona West was identified with in the College Dropout and Late Registration years, which can be refreshing. But in the long run, I suspect it will be more of a temporary phase, or attempt at “self-reinvention” — which is, of course, a postmodernist habit, too.