The annual Art Basel fair in Basel, Switzerland, is many things: a place where the über-wealthy come to schmooze, a place to see and be seen, and—of course—a place where collectors flock to buy major pieces of art.
The last thing you’d imagine during Art Basel? A sweaty, body-to-body crowd around a stage, screaming at each other in anticipation of a “secret listening party” by Kanye West.
But just days before the release of his new album titled—yes—Yeezus, West descended on Basel to—as he put it—“have dinner with the Kravliks” (no idea who they are or how to spell their names), and to see some art.
Onstage, West recalled his experience walking between the booths at the fair: “I asked if they had any Rick Owens furniture in the show,” he said. “Then I went to the gallery that had the Rick Owens furniture. And as I sat there, I thought, maybe it would be cool to play my album tonight, as it comes out on the 18th of June ... I feel almost like Steve Jobs giving one of those addresses right now.”
Just before dinnertime, West had put out word, via Instagram and a few cryptic emails, that he would be hosting an impromptu listening party—an earlier one had been held two days before in New York—for Yeezus that night at Design Miami, the big design fair in the Messeplatz.
And, like clockwork, they came: throngs of well-dressed art collectors and dealers, socialites, and fashion folk. And they pushed. At the entrance, they jostled each other harder than, I suspect, neon-clad teenagers at the Barclays Center might. (For the record, getting 200 pushing and screaming people through three turnstiles in a matter of two minutes is, well, absolutely insane and probably illegal here in Switzerland.) The auctioneer Simon de Pury and his wife, along with collector Jean Pigozzi, came from a dinner hosted by The Daily Beast and Credit Suisse—and, after being nearly trampled at the entrance, stood in the front row.
West played songs from his new album off his laptop, engaging only once in an a capella version of the song “New Slaves.” He danced rhythmically—at times, as if he were alone in his own studio—and circumambulated the blocklike Rick Owens furniture. The first track was a collaboration with Daft Punk. He also played “Black Skinheads,” which he performed on SNL, and several other tracks that had the crowd practically trampling each other.
And, in true Kanye fashion, he talked. West gave a lengthy introduction to the session—a meandering but thoughtful speech clearly intended to connect him to the art world and this art-loving audience. Below, a selection of the speech:
“[I hate YouTube because] the player is so ugly, and it’s presented in such a terrible manner. I want everything I do to be presented in an art context, as this is a form of sonic art. I was an artist originally, I have been in art school since I was 5 years old. I got scholarships to three art schools, Art Institute of Chicago, Saint Xavier, and the American Academy of Art, where I ended up going—and I dropped out because I had an assignment where I was supposed to do an ink painting or something, and I would take two weeks to do it, and when I looked at my work, I just felt that I would never be one of the great visual artists of the world. I just felt like I would end up like—and this is no knock to anybody that does this—but I felt like I would end up working at an ad agency or something like that. I wanted to make something of impact. I found that when I would drop samples, my friends would react to it more. I felt that I had a real talent in chopping and appropriating music.
“What I want people to understand about sampling and producing is that it’s really similar to—and I know this is obvious what I’m going to say, because I’m a black guy so I’m gonna name the ‘most obvious artist in the world’—Warhol, but it’s very similar to the way Warhol would appropriate a Campbell’s Soup can is the way I would sonically appropriate a Ray Charles sample or a Michael Jackson sample.
“Right now it’s a fight against the separation and constant dumbing down of culture, and I’m standing in the middle of it. So if you know what people say are my lowest moments, those moments where I sat and saw them try to dumb down culture, and I would not allow it to happen on my clock. [Applause]
“So when I used to go to fashion shows with my boys and we’d be eight deep, it was almost like a civil rights, like a sit-in. They wouldn’t even let us in. They had no idea what rap would mean to this world, what rap would mean to the art world. Before the Kendrick Lamars and the A$AP Rockys, it was Kanye West in a hotel room at the Le Maurice getting a ‘no, no, no, no’ to every single fashion show.
“But I thought it was so important to get close to the artists who worked so hard on making a usable form of art—like this furniture right here, like everything that is in all these rooms that inspire us so much—and I fight in my position of being a very commercial celebrity boyfriend, I fight to push culture forward every chance I get. And I only frown because paparazzi ask me dumbass shit all the time, and I think about changing the world, and I think about what I can do to make things better. And, without further ado, I want to play you guys my new album. It’s called Yeezus.”