Though he has no limit of artistic self-regard, Kanye West is quick to credit his collaborators. This week, the rapper named some of the personnel who helped shape his anticipated album “Yeezus” (due Tuesday), revealing that Daft Punk had produced a handful of songs and that Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon appeared with Chicago rapper Chief Keef on a track that almost didn’t make the album.
Perhaps the most crucial (and last-minute) contributions came from producer Rick Rubin, who has midwifed albums for everyone from Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash. With just weeks to go before “Yeezus” was due, West recruited him to finish tracks and help give the album a cohesive sound.
At a semi-public “Yeezus” listening session in New York last Monday the rapper told the assembled crowd, “It was good for me to go to the god, Rick Rubin, and play him my sh–, ask him questions, and allow him to take this project to an entirely new level.”
Rubin is credited on “Yeezus” as an executive producer. We asked the producer to describe his role, and here’s what he had to say via email, less than a week after West submitted the completed album to Def Jam.
When and why did you join the “Yeezus” project?
Kanye came over to play me what I assumed was going to be the finished album at three weeks before the last possible delivery date. We ended up listening to three hours of partially finished pieces. The raw material was very strong but hadn’t yet come into focus. Many of the vocals hadn’t been recorded yet, and many of those still didn’t have lyrics. From what he played me, it sounded like several months more work had to be done. I joined the project because after discussing what he had played for me, he asked if I would be open to taking all of the raw material on and help him finish it.
How would you describe the new sound he was driving for, and how you did you help him arrive there?
He wanted the music to take a stripped-down minimal direction. He was always examining what we could take out instead of put in. A good example would be the song that became “Bound.” When he first played it for me, it was a more middle of the road R&B song, done in an adult contemporary style. Kanye had the idea of combining that track with a cool sample he had found and liked – I removed all of the R&B elements leaving only a single note baseline in the hook which we processed to have a punk edge in the Suicide tradition.
Can you recall a scene from the sessions that might help people understand his method in the studio?
We were working on a Sunday [the same day West attended a baby shower for girlfriend Kim Kardashian] and the album was to be turned in two days later. Kanye was planning to go to Milan that night. Five songs still needed vocals and two or three of them still needed lyrics. He said, “Don’t worry, I will score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter.” In the two hours before had to run out to catch the plane, he did exactly that: finished all lyrics and performed them with gusto. A remarkable feat. He had total confidence in his ability to get the job done when push came to shove.
Where does “Yeezus” put him in relation to hip-hop and the broader music culture?
He is a true artist who happens to make music under the wide umbrella of hip hop. He is in no way beholden to hip hop’s typical messaging musical cliches. Hip hop is a grander, more personal form because of his contributions, and hopefully his work will inspire others to push the boundaries of what’s possible in hip hop.
To what extent have you been involved in the rollout of the album? I’d like to hear your thoughts on his “no strategy” method of promotion, for example declining to release an official video or a single.
He is pure in his art and in a form where so many choices artists make are often the result of business consideration. Kanye chooses to let his art lead. He didn’t want a premeditated commercial (single) for his album as he looks at it as a body of work. I like it anytime an artist follows his own vision of a project and doesn’t use the cookie cutter template expected of most artists. Kanye proceeds on the road less traveled and I applaud him for it.