Kanye’s Desiign, or The Author Function in the Age of Yeezus

Michael Maizels and Thomas Ray Willis

With special thanks to Clio Rom

(This article has been prepared based on publicly available information.  If anyone who had direct access to the creative process in question here is interested to reach out to the authors, we would welcome such conversation – Authors.)

“He did not want to compose another Quixote —which is easy— but the Quixote itself.”

–Jorges Luis Borges, 1939.

As it did for many of us, 2016 did not end well for Kanye West. What began with an apparently bizarre though self-contained rant on the election spiraled into a series of increasingly serious events, including a cancelled tour, a hospitalization, and a rumored divorce. But this sour ending belies a Kanye triumph from the part of 2016 before the Time of Trump: the release of his seventh studio album The Life of Pablo. Indeed, Pablo is an enormously complex album—juxtaposing samples from a Pulitzer winning classical composer and a jailhouse recording from an imprisoned hip hop pioneer—but what made Pablo so unique was an achievement that flew under the radar. Nobody noticed that Kanye brought a fictional character to life.[1]

Questions about the dizzying cast of figures who populated Pablo first began to emerge in the weeks after the album’s release date, when the single “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” began to receive wide radio play. The track featured an extended sample from what seemed to be as-yet-unheard song from the Atlanta-based rapper Future, who was also enjoying a meteoric ascent in his own recording career. The key word, however, was “seemed.” The sound was so similar—and the confusion so thick—that several members of Future’s inner circle, including a producer who has worked with Future on numerous tracks, were convinced that Kanye’s “Father Stretch My Hands” appropriated as-yet unreleased Future track.[2]

The sampled artist, it turned out, was not Future at all but an unheralded artist from Brooklyn going by the odd-sounding stage name Desiigner. The striking similarity in their sonic styles briefly lit up the hip hop blogosphere, with some denouncing what they saw as a patent rip-off and others maintaining that such acoustic thefts were an inevitable part of a genre built on equal parts swagger and sample. This piece, however, takes a slightly different approach. Our argument is simple: Desiigner is not in fact a rapper but rather, as his stage name subtly suggests, a character created and then cast by Kanye West.  There is, indeed, some precedent for doing just this. When Jay Z split from his business partner Damon Dash in 2004, Dash attempted to create a sound-alike for recently departed talent.  And Sean “Diddy” Combs has ostensibly attempted a similar stunt twice: promoting knock-off versions of Biggie Smalls (“Guerilla Black”) and Mase (“Loon”) without much commercial success.[3]

But Kanye’s ambition here seems to be different.  While Dash and Combs promulgated what many have seen as artistic copycats as a matter of expedience, the larger trajectory of Pablo suggests that West employed a similar tactic as a means of advancing a conceptual goal. He can be seen, to a certain extent, using Desiigner as a kind of pseudonym along the lines of those employed by the great artists and writers of the twentieth century. Situating Desiigner in the tradition of fictional meta-authorship—of Marcel Duchamp’s R. Mutt and Jorge Borges’s Pierre Menard—allows us to see the scope of what the extraordinarily ambitious West hoped to achieve in Pablo, an album he has referred to as “the greatest of all time.”[4] While West braids together the recondite world of the chamber orchestra with the sounds of the soaring Gospel choir and the gritty hip hop underground, the coup of Pablo is conceptual rather than acoustic. Not content to merely create raps, the inimitable Kanye evidently created a rapper.

Desiigning A Future (From Scratch)

Separating fact from fiction about Sidney Royel Selby III, the actual human being who currently goes by the stage name Desiigner, has become increasingly difficult in the wake of “Father Stretch My Hands.” Selby’s sampled track, the ultra-catchy though difficult to parse “Panda,” catapulted a unknown teenager to the top of the hip hop charts over the course of a dizzying twelve weeks.  As of late 2015, Selby’s music was just beginning to gain traction in the underground hip hop scene in his native Brooklyn.  He uploaded a pair of songs at the end of the year: first “Zombie Walk” to a new Soundcloud account on 24 October then “Panda” on 20 December.[5]

Somehow—and Selby claims that the precise route remains a mystery—his music made its way to Kanye’s A&R team and then on to the man himself.[6]  Soon thereafter, the publicly available story goes, Selby was en route to Los Angeles for a curbside introduction at LAX, where Kanye played the finished “Father Stretch My Hands” for Selby in a limo parked outside of the terminal.  Although Kanye waited to publicly release the name of his album the day before its live premier in February 2016, Selby was out in front of the curve, having his social media handles to @LifeOfDesiigner before the album was announced. Seemingly The Life of Pablo gave rise to an entirely new Life of its own.[7]

This narrow time frame looks markedly unusual, and given Selby’s status as a virtual unknown, downright suspicious. Indeed, the beat’s original producer, the UK-based Menace, revealed in an interview that Kanye’s camp reached out to him only days before the album’s release and, in his words, “made it [Panda] his own vision.” [8] This is an unprecedented order of events for incorporating a sample by an obscure artist, especially one comprising almost half of the runtime of the larger track. Part of what might be at issue here is the unusual sampling strategy employed through the arc of the whole album. While Kanye made his name, as he put it, “chop[ping] up soul,” he increasingly found himself in hot legal water over copyright issues.[9] On Pablo, West largely elected to forgo recorded samples in favor of live covers: the singer Rihanna covers snippets of the 1968 Nina Simone song “Do What You Gotta Do” on the now-infamous “Famous.”

Although one might argue that Kanye perhaps sought to “cover” Future much as Rihanna had covered Simone, this explanation fails to account for the most easily apparent oddness of Desiigner—the staggering similarity of his sound to that of the Atlanta-based rapper. Desiigner’s lyrics actively foreground this near duplicate similarity, which seems to verge on forgery rather than homage. “Panda’s” now iconic brag “I got broads in Atlanta” seems directly targeted at the rapper down south, especially given that the imitative teenager had never, at the time of the song’s writing, been to Atlanta. Desiigner then followed up his Pablo-catalyzed success with additional, targeted provocations. His next released track, “Pluto,” borrows its name straight from Future’s first album, Pluto, released three years prior. As of this writing, Selby continues to troll the more established rapper. In April 2016, he superimposed himself in front of an image of Prince’s Purple Rain to announce his new mixtape (Future’s most recent mixtape, Purple Reign, had come out only months before), and in July, he covered Future’s recently released single at an Atlantic City nightclub. This ongoing, career-defining imitation clearly transcends the strategy of pastiche by recorded cover rather than appropriated sample. But to parse what Kanye might be up to, we need to take a brief detour through the intellectual history of “authorship” in the art and literature of the last ninety-nine years.

Panda & Dada

Over the course of the preceding century, the question of what it means to author a work of art has come under increasingly focused critique. While the cult of the genius—the celebration of the artist as brilliant, reclusive, and the sole voice behind the work—served as a lynchpin of the nineteenth-century Romantics, this construction still drives the way Kanye encourages his listeners to think about his music. “Name one genius,” West rhetorically asks, “who ain’t crazy?” Kanye often seems to play the part of a postmodern, postcelebrity strum and drang icon, but to understand the coup of Desiigner, it is necessary to sketch out the ways in which prior artists and theorists have attempted to destabilize the Romantic transparency between author and work.

Indeed, one of the most popular strategies for prising apart the assumed immediacy between an artist and his or her creations has been for the artist to adopt a fictional name, or even an entire character. Almost exactly ninety-nine years to the month before the release of Pablo, the newly modern art world was wrestling with its first pseudonym-based succès de scandale after Duchamp submitted a “sculpture” to a prestigious juried exhibition under the pseudonym R. Mutt. That sculpture, Fountain, was simply a urinal Duchamp had purchased from a nearby hardware store. As a recognized European avant-gardist residing in the cultural backwater of New York City, Duchamp was actually serving on the jury to which Mutt had submitted his plumbing fixture reconsidered as art.[10]

When his fellow jurors rejected the work—arguing that an unmodified urinal was beyond the pale—he resigned in protest, an act that catalyzed a furious back-and-forth in the pages of newspapers and art periodicals. Duchamp and his contemporary apologists argued that Fountain revealed the way in which art was a constructed category, built on the shifting sands of cultural definition. What made the toilet art was not some intrinsic quality of the object, but rather its social designation: chosen by an artist and exhibited as such, the urinal underwent a kind of elevation. But while Duchamp may have been attempting to draw attention to the arbitrariness of the art object, the intervening century has seen many draw the counterpoint lesson from the Fountain overflow. Namely, the status and meaning of an artwork is not determined by the thing in itself, but rather by the name of the artist who undersigns it.

This question of how we assign value based on who rather than what was taken up repeatedly by experimental artists and writers of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most poetic take on the question belongs to Borges, whose oft-cited “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” poses a fantastical scenario about indistinguishable works produced by different authors. The story imagines its eponymous literary historian attempting to immerse himself so deeply in the language of Cervantes that he will be able to organically rewrite Don Quixote, line by line identical with the seventeenth-century original, but as an authentic product of his own modern mind. The narrator of this story, the source of the epigraph of the present article, insists the latter Quixote to be “almost infinitely richer” than the original. The literary achievement of Cervantes pales in comparison to that of Menard because of the much more tortuous journey necessary to arrive at a storied, but completely predetermined, destination.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the role of the author’s name also became a site for serious investigation by literary theorists and intellectual historians. Most notably, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault each wrote an influential essay examining this issue. While Barthes’s “Death of the Author” and Foucault’s “What is an Author” were framed differently—the former was more concerned with literary reception, the latter with historical and scientific claims to truth—their central claims were consonant with one another.[11] For both Barthes and Foucault, the name of a highly regarded author served to stabilize what would otherwise be a body of disconnected texts. Crystallizing the notion of SHAKESPEARE around a group of plays (many of which maintain contested origins) delimits the textual artifacts in a way that allows critics and historians to impute motive, significance, and even genius into them.

In the 1980s, these ideas became the driving force behind an important group of American artists, most notably Sherrie Levine, who sought to explore and expose the ways in which the names of (famous, white, dead) men are the guarantors of value in the art world. Levine’s most notorious strategy involved appropriating the photographs of the ostensible “modern masters” of photography, photographing prints by Edward Weston and Walker Evans and presenting the resulting work (visually indistinguishable from the original) as her own.[12] Levine drew her precedents from the above-described nexus of ideas—borrowing Barthes’s “Death of Author” almost whole cloth—but it is worth observing the way in which the appropriative strategy of Levine and the larger Pictures generation evolved synchronously with origins of sampling culture in early hip hop. The widespread availability of copying media coincided with the intellectual currents of postmodernism in a way that it became newly possible to create an oeuvre out of other people’s work.

So Who is this “Pablo” Anyway?

While Barthes and Borges were probably closer to the front of Levine’s mind than West’s, the question of what it means to fill the role of the “creator” is written all over Pablo. Notably, Kanye has repeatedly characterized the project as a Gospel album, and beyond the lofty sounds of the choir near the opening, the model of losing and then finding one’s way on the Path structures the arc of Pablo. The album opens with a childlike call to cast out Satan, descends through a series of slippages from spiritual excitation to a manic, dark vision of overwrought sexuality, finds itself with Kanye encountering a vision of Kim as the Virgin Mary in a nightclub, briefly resurfaces with a note of optimism, and then dissolves on a note of existential despair with the final track “St. Pablo.”

It is this nexus of Christian spirituality, rap-world braggadocio and art-world erudition that gave Kanye his new alter ego Pablo. Paul the Apostle, West explains, “was the strongest influencer of Christianity, Pablo Escobar was the biggest mover of product, and Pablo Picasso was the biggest mover of art.”[13] An enormous number of pages could be written about this intersection, but the essential point for the purposes of this article is the way in which this this three-fold “Pablo” model entails a kind of return. Pablo envisions Kanye back into the role of what Barthes dismissed as the obsolete model of the “Author God” or what West talks about when he refers to himself as a “Rap God”—the artist creating the miniuniverse of the work of art de novo.

This model of divine creation—in which every facet reflects the will and intention of its making—is mostly clearly delineated in “I Love Kanye,” the album’s ninth track. In the demarcated middle of an album that, for the most part, is a Kanye meditation on Kanye, West inserted a song that muses hypothetically about writing a song about himself. “What if Kanye wrote a song about Kanye?” he wonders. “Man, that would be SO Kanye,” he decides. This track is a tour de force of meta-authorship, a culmination of a career in which he was alternatively celebrated and denounced for keeping himself as his most important muse. But the Borgesian tinge to “I Love Kanye,” in which the solidity of the author god involutes into a series of cascading shells, demonstrates the precarity of authorship in the mode of Yeezey. While lyrically he aspires to divine status—the title of Pablo’s predecessor, Yeezus, demonstrates this quite clearly—the price for these aspirations is the gnawing sense of unease palpable throughout Pablo. It is a burden enough to make it nearly impossible, per West, to “name one genius that ain’t crazy.”

Indeed, the eccentric creative is a mode that has become increasingly important to West’s public self-presentation over the course of his career. One of West’s protégés, the rapper Rick Ross, even went so far as to suggest that Kanye’s highly publicized recent troubles were all a part of an elaborate plan to instantiate his one-of a kind creativity.[14] And while the line between a personal crisis and a persona crisis may be impossible to determine, West has clearly worked to pattern himself partly off of the paradigm of the Romantic—misunderstood and troubled in his lifetime, only to be recognized as a visionary with the benefit of hindsight. In this way, the Pablo of Picasso bleeds into larger cultural stereotypes derived indirectly from older figures such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and El Greco. The Picasso allusion in fact serves to deflect this Romantic suffering into the realm of commercial success: the Spaniard was the first modern artist to be feted (and commercially valued) as an historical genius in his own lifetime.

And what better way to insist on the singularity of your creative possibilities than to “design” an entire artist from scratch. On one level, the alter-ego serves a similarly destabilizing function as it served for Duchamp and Borges. As an R. Mutt, Desiigner becomes a technique of trolling of the rap world by violating the implicit norms governing creativity and originality, while his nearly indistinguishable sound also positions him as a kind of Pierre Menard to Future’s Cervantes. But here, this status as quasi counterfeit becomes a means through which Kanye tips his hand back to himself. The unknown artist sampled on Pablo could never have organically derived this sound. He must have been desi(i)gned.

Coda, Disowning Desiigner

But, like much of the rest of the album, the relationship between author and artwork closes on a note of complexity and confusion, with West seeming to disown Selby. No one, it seems, can reject a creation quite like its creator. The claim in question emerges in the middle of “Facts,” a discordantly aggressive track situated in the midst of the album’s mostly introspective final chapter. “Facts” addresses Kanye’s shoe endorsement deal with Adidas, and the song is framed as a rejoinder to Drake (and Future’s) track “Jumpman,” which touts Drake’s parallel deal with Nike shoes produced under the imprimatur of the Jordan Jumpman logo. In the chorus of “Facts,” West rails against Nike, repeatedly proclaiming, “Yeezey just jumped over Jumpman.”

The most significant line is buried deep in the verse. In a track largely about his commercial prowess and the brands that come and go under his affiliation, West subtly cuts his ties with Selby. “I done wore designers I won’t wear again,” West raps. “Make them n***as famous, they get arrogant.” While the internet reception of this line has tended to focus on its surface meaning—Kanye the fickle tastemaker—this literal interpretation is only reinforced when one considers its fairly blatant double entendre. Now that he is famous in his own right—and bearing out the concomitant arrogance—Desiigner will not continue as a Kanye character.

This disavowal is redoubled in the music video for “Panda.” The video is composed of otherwise interchangeable (though artfully shot) footage of stock gangsta rap scenes—tough looking guys in street wear hanging outside of dingy looking apartments, police buzzing by on patrol—intercut with second person, body-mounted footage of Selby rapping and spinning around in nervous excitation. This manic presentation is an extension (or perhaps a self-parody) of his hyper-energized, over-the-top performance style, for which he was frequently mocked on Internet comment threads. His mania reached a famous apotheosis on 22 April 2016, when, on stage during a concert, he vomited from a combination of nerves, excitement and too much spinning. During the “Panda” video, a selfie-esque body mounted camera on Selby partially stabilizes his turbulent movements. The ecstatic Desiigner we see on camera is caught in isolated stillness, with his world around him spinning far too fast to perceive. Selby’s exuberance to the point of nausea eloquently attests to the emotional state of a teenager actually caught in this situation: catapulted to success beyond your wildest dreams by accepting a bit part in someone else’s drama.

In the video itself, the question of the authorial voice rears its head at the end. In the final chorus, West makes a surprise appearance, silently taking the wheel of a white BMW X6 (the car that “look like a panda,” per the song’s chorus), while Selby chatters away his rap in the passenger seat. The action briefly cuts to Selby rapping in the parking lot, with Kanye lingering menacingly behind him (a creator watching his creation?), and then, back to the car, with West laughing viciously as he squeals donut turns. Kanye, we are left with no doubt, is firmly in the driver’s seat.

When considered through this lens, West’s designed provocation functions as a counterpoint to the interventions of Duchamp or Sherry Levine, all of which cut against the unwritten rules of their genre forms. Both of these latter, visual artists pushed against seemingly inviolable credo of artistic originality—and thereby asked questions about the meaning of the philosophical and political structure behind the artistic gesture—by essentially presenting the work of others as their own. By contrast, West’s challenge to decorum hammers at his own creative prowess: conjuring a character out of thin Instagram air and making him into an (almost) freestanding performer. Indeed, some have seen a darker tinge to West’s artistic ontology, with Slate magazine’s Katy Waldman going so far as to argue for a fascist thread connecting West’s music with Trump’s politics.[15] And while West does intimate in a Pablo lyric that “2020, I’m ‘ma run the whole election,” the emphasis of electoral politics misses the stakes of the Desiigner in(ter)vention. West elevates the stuff of a quotidian rap beef—one performer “stealing” another’s sound—into a discursive strategy that reimagines the modernist traditions of meta-authorship. In so doing, West might even be said to bring the Duchampian gesture full circle. Instead of a readymade commercial object repurposed as art, West repurposes an artist into a new kind of commercial, made-for-radio readymade.

Michael Maizels is an art historian and curator based at the University of Arkansas.  His first book on the artist Barry Le Va was published by the University of Minnesota press in 2015.  His second book, on the history of avant-garde art and music, is  currently under review. He has also published widely on topics including including media and performance art, hip hop, and conceptual art and mathematics. In 2016, he curated The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer, the first museum exhibition ever given to a single videogame designer.

Thomas Ray Willis is an artist working across media and in installation, with a particular interest in the rituals of the experience economy. His outlook is informed by the parallel worlds of his hometown––Las Vegas––as both a local community and Vegas as spectacle. Willis’s art has been featured in publications such as Big Red & Shiny, The Las Vegas Weekly, and The Huffington Post. His work has been exhibited across the United States with works in both public and private institutions such as the Luo Ruvo Center for Brain Health (NV), Socrates Sculpture Park (NY), Wellesley College (MA), and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (NV). Willis received his BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 2009, and is currently living in Queens (NY) where he is pursuing his Master of Fine Arts at New York University.

NOTES

[1] Well almost nobody. Montreality’s animated short “Kanye’s Laboratory,” which casts West in the role of Dr. Frankenstein to his monster Desiigner, pretty much captures the gist of the present argument.

[2] Discussing the reaction of producer Mike Will Made It. Brian Hiatt, “Future: Syrup, Strippers and Heavy Angst With the Superstar MC,” Rolling Stone, 29  June 2016, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/future-syrup-strippers-and-heavy-angst-with-the-superstar-mc-20160629 . DJ Akedemiks makes a similar claim in a 31 August 2017 interview.

[3] For Jay Z and Mase, author correspondence with Terrance Lomax, independent hip hop expert.  For Diddy/Biggie, see Staff, “The Rise of and Fall of Guerrilla Black,” XXL Magazine, 11 July 2013, http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2013/07/the-rise-and-fall-of-guerilla-black/

[4] https://twitter.com/kanyewest/status/691489910293991424. The Tweet is no longer available on Twitter.

[5] See upload dates on  https://soundcloud.com/lifeofdesiigner/desiigner-king-savage-zombie-walk  and https://soundcloud.com/lifeofdesiigner/desiigner-panda

[6] Joyce, “Desiigner Performs “Zombie Walk,” Shares Story of How Song Got Its Name,” Pigeons And Planes, 5 Oct. 2016, http://pigeonsandplanes.com/music/2016/10/desiigner-zombie-walk-88rising-interview

[7] Danny Scwartz, “Desiigner Reveals Title Of His Debut Album,” Hot New Hip Hop, 24 May 2016, https://www.hotnewhiphop.com/desiigner-reveals-title-of-debut-album-news.21811.html

[8]Eric Diep, “How Desiigner’s ‘Panda” Ended up on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo,”Genius, 16 Feb. 2016, genius.com/a/how-desiigners-panda-ended-up-on-kanye-wests-the-life-of-pablo

[9] See for example the multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed against West for one of the samples used in the 2005 track “Gold Digger.”

[10] For the best treatment of Fountain and its attendant controversies, see Thieery de Duve, “Echoes of the Readymade: Critique of Pure Modernism,” The Duchamp Effect, ed. Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), pp. 93-131.

[11] Roland Barthes, “The Death Of The Author,” Image – Music – Text,  trans. and ed. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), pp. 142-148. Technically, Foucault’s contribution was first written as a lecture and only later disseminated in written form; see Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion (New York, 1998), pp. 205-22. See also Sean Burke, The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida (Edinburgh, 2008).

[12] For the most comprehensive treatment of Levine’s work, see Howard Singerman, Art History After Sherry Levine (Berkeley, 2011).

[13] Yohance Kyles, “Kanye West Explains The Meaning Of The Life Of Pablo Title,” All Hip Hop, 22 Apr. 2016, http://allhiphop.com/2016/04/22/kanye-west-explains-the-meaning-of-the-life-of-pablo-title/

[14] Jay Knight, “Rick Ross: Kanye Played Y’all with Mental ‘Breakdown,’” TMZ, 12 Dec. 2016, http://www.tmz.com/2016/12/12/rick-ross-kanye-west-meltdown-fake/

[15] Katy Waldman, “Donald’s Beautiful Dark Fascist Fantasy,” Slate, 14 Dec. 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/12/when_donald_trump_met_kanye_west_one_ego_vanquished_another.html

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