The Savage Metaphysician: Kanye West, Le Corbusier, and the Historical Transcendence of Style

“Architecture,” Kanye answered when asked about the inspiration for the Yeezus album in 2013. Specifically, a lamp by Franco-Swiss architectural visionary Le Corbusier that he bought for one hundred thousand dollars. As the Marxist mystic Walter Benjamin wrote, months before killing himself in Spain while fleeing from the Nazis, “Fashion has a nose for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past.” Fashion stalks through the dripping, creeping vines and archaic groves. And then it pounces on its prey; it drags the moment back to its mossy lair, littered with the bloody bones of clichéd styles, and devours it.

In 1929 Le Corbusier met the world’s first black superstar, Josephine Baker, on a ship traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Europe. He cried when he heard her sing “Baby.” He begged and pleaded his way into her chamber, where he sketched her in the nude. Her breasts pressed together, her ass pointed up to the sky. “The rear end exists,” Baker said, “I see no reason to be ashamed of it.” She told Le Corbusier he would have made a great lover, if he hadn’t been an architect.

By this time Baker was already very much a la mode in Paris. Performing half naked, with a dress made of bananas covering her crotch. She was the quintessential, defining representation of American blackness for European audiences. While she appeared to be conforming to the racial stereotype of the exotic, sexualized, animalistic black body, it is clear that in reality Baker was consciously playing with and ironizing markers of blackness. From the symbolic penises orbiting her vagina to the creation of a public persona that evoked the primitive jungle even though she herself was from St. Louis.

Kanye is no stranger to what culture expects from blackness. He struggles openly with the question of what it means to be black. To all the critics who tell him he can’t make a song called “I am a god,” Kanye responds: “would it have been better if had a song that said ‘I am a nigger’, or if I had a song that said ‘I am a gangster’, or if I had a song that said ‘I am a pimp’? All those colors and patinas fit better on a person like me, right?”

The aristocrat and art critic Count Harry Kessler, who was rumored to be the bastard child of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Emperor of Germany, once described Josephine Baker’s show as “a mixture of jungle and skyscraper…ultramodern and ultraprimitive.” A radical unity of disparate, even violently opposed, modes.

For Le Corbusier it was precisely this mix of forms that defined the horizon, the sunrise of style: “architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see form in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage; the image of these is distinct and tangible within us without ambiguity. It is for this reason that these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful forms. Everyone is agreed to that, the child, the savage and the metaphysician.” This is what Kanye means when he shrieks “I am a god.” Fashion and style are inseparable from the idea of the divine.

Speaking at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Kanye said “I really do believe the world can be saved by design…I believe that utopia is actually possible.” Le Corbusier also dedicated his life to the messianic fulfillment of utopia. His Radiant City was to be the apotheosis of syndicalist design. It would obliterate all chaotic, meandering sprawl and replace it with titanic blocks surrounded by green spaces and endless freeway vertices. The arcane obelisks and uncanny shapes of the old cities would be replaced by a brutal new geometry. He suggested that all the skyscrapers of Manhattan should be replaced by a single, colossal tower in the shape of a crucifix. He tried to sell his plans for the Radiant City to the Soviets, and then when they turned him down, to Mussolini.

When Kanye went to see Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, the Villa Savoye, outside of Paris, he gazed up at it and wondered, “why did they design it?” It was about the ceilings. “Le Corbusier gave the people higher ceilings,” Kanye explains, “literally and metaphorically.” For someone who must constantly struggle against being suffocated creatively, Kanye knows how important it is to have high ceilings. “I have driven my Truman Show boat into the painting,” he stated. “I have hit a glass ceiling.” Le Corbusier replaces that glass ceiling with the walls of glass surrounding the Villa Savoye. Horizontal rather than vertical, they stretch as far as the eye can see and the creative mind can float upwards, unencumbered and unfettered like leather jogging pants and Kanye’s Louis Vuitton sneakers.

This is not about the minimalism of Yeezus as opposed to the maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yes, Kanye is “a minimalist in a rapper’s body.” And of course it takes him much less time to get dressed these days. But that’s not really what fashion means. Fashion means history, it means divinity, it means god. Just like Le Corbusier “imposed the geometry of the temple onto the entire space of the city, and onto everyday life in its totality,” Kanye wants to bring the celebration of the holy into every day life and that is fashion. He wants every day to be Christmas. In his own words, “If you don’t make Christmas presents, don’t talk to me.”

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