By Ian Bourland

In this summer of Kanye West, Jay Z and Daft Punk, it’s starting to feel like 2007 again. But while the helmeted Frenchmen have abandoned West in favor of a more retro feel, both Hova and ‘Ye have loudly embraced European high culture. The former’s “Picasso Baby” compares his abode to the Tate and the Louvre, while the latter has declared his allegiance to modernist architecture, albeit by way of calling himself a minimalist. If you read my previous post, you know that the term “minimalism” is at risk of  becoming unmoored from its avant-garde origins in the ‘60s. On the other hand, almost from the outset, minimalist as a descriptor started to seep into to other realms, from spare interior design (perhaps influenced by the “zen-like” simplicity of like Robert Rauschenberg’s open expanses of white) to deconstructed haute couture to entire genres of music.

Electronic music may have the most legitimate claim to the mantle of minimalism, borne as it was of the industrial/digital confluence of the ‘60s and heir to the cool, repetitive and relatively anonymous contours of late modernist sculpture. Early ambient work by Brian Eno, Steve Reich’s calibrated hand claps or the pulsing, chirping krautrock of Kraftwerk and others attempted to erase the hand of the artist (like Donald Judd’s untitled cubes), while also calling attention to the work or the sound at hand with no reference to tradition, narrative or conventional pathos. It relied on the intermediary of the machine and invited immersion over time or movement of the body. Its basic components were layered but remained identifiable.

Early electronic music tended to pioneer it own aesthetic, and its production (especially the machines used to make it) were foregrounded rather than used as a means to a larger end, such as a pop narrative/allegory or orchestral accompaniment. Most importantly, such music was unadorned, a sonic equivalent to Le Corbusier’s streamlined machines for living or the de Stijl group’s return to elementary parts. Here, the music is reinvented, minus that bloat of progrock or the more expressive, emotion-laden tropes of folk and nascent hip hop. Hence “minimal techno,” a sub-genre, emerged in the ‘90s (again, primarily in Germany) in the form of stripped-down records by producers such as Richie Hawtin.

By now, one can find minimal jazz, minimal house and minimal classical, and electronic production techniques and conventions are dominant in mainstream music. A quick listen to Hot 97 and countless other big pop and hip hop stations yields hooky, ornate tracks that borrow promiscuously from many genres, all harmonized by computerized studio finesse. The robotic longing of the vocoder is ubiquitous, autotuning is a PBS-ready meme, and Daft Punk has gone full circle, back to analog, on their recent Random Access Memories — all of which is to say that the status of minimalism is unclear. But should it be up for grabs?

Still from Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” music video


The danger of a drift in the meaning and the history of words is the total devaluation of their meaning. The most glaring and visible example of late is the fanfare around the release Kanye West’s Yeezus. In a widely circulated interview for The New York Times, West proclaims that “I’m a minimalist in a rapper’s body,” suggesting both an opposition between hip hop and modernist history, and the possibility that Yeezus can bridge that divide. For West, the record and its elaborately precise production at the hand of Def Jam founder and Red Hot Chili Peppers alchemist Rick Rubin is an antidote to his more ... maximalist earlier catalog.

But can West be minimalist? In the interview, he claims that, for Yeezus, “this one Corbusier lamp was like, my greatest inspiration.” West seems to dash right past the ‘60s and New York on his way to pre-war Paris, the city where he conceived the album and had his meeting of the minds with a piece of modernist design. Ironically, West’s 808s and Heartbreak from 2008 skillfully adapted the affectless drone of robotic lovesickness (perhaps cribbed from the anonymous, deadpan and often minimalist playbook of Daft Punk, with whom he performed in 2007) and a signal minimal techno device (the Roland TR-808). That record was diaristic and indulgent, a far cry from the coolness and inhumanity of much of techno, which could be the soundtrack of a world depopulated by a neutron bomb. And neither Donald Judd nor Robert Morris were celebrities in an age of rising art stars; they receded and let the audience encounter the work, much as early house culture kept the DJ hidden in a booth, with the energy of the room steadily becoming the event rather than an individual performance.


It’s telling that we rarely see Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo without their helmets, but the high point of their collaboration with West was also a turning point in which ‘Ye became known as much for being a producer as for acting, in Barack Obama’s terms, “like a jackass.” Celebrity and braggadocio seem to be West’s lingua franca, and while Yeezus’s streamlined packaging recalls a DIY mix cassette tape (more punk than minimal, incidentally), West’s maximalism is on full display here. Gone are the incandescent tones of his wardrobe, but the product shoutouts and unsubtle, diaristic machismo remains. (Look out for such gems as “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” and “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink.”)

What of this Corbusier lamp, then? Where is the minimalism? At best, West seems to be referencing a stripped-down production aesthetic, an album with “moments that I haven’t done before, like just my voice and drums.” There are a few such moments, but by and large, Yeezus owes a debt that ranges from bassy Texan hip hop to ‘90s-era Depeche Mode to Brooklyn instrumentalists Ratatat. If it takes living in a loft and seeing the clean, metallic lines of a modernist lamp to get here, who’s to complain?

And yet, there is something deeper lurking in West’s account of Yeezus. It’s more of the same, simply repackaged under an avant-garde-sounding moniker. Gone are overt product shoutouts — his peers get a dressing down in “New Slaves” for pursuing Bentleys and diamonds — but in their place are other signs of distinction. The argument here is not that he has transcended materialism, pathos and excess, but that he engages in more cultivated and historically valorized versions of it. He tells you here about his reverence for Def Jam while distancing himself from his hip hop competitors by name dropping obscure designers, embracing Europe and gothing up his image. He still wants to use women, he still wants to be the best. Minimalism is just another index of his wealth and distinction: good market segmenting to underscore his prowess.  

This might easily be dismissed as West coming late to the ongoing party of post-art-school hipsterism or a commentary on the capacity for hip hop to absorb earlier avant-gardes — but, more likely, he is simply that latest iteration of a guy with an eye for the superficial signifiers of genre and a gift for using a mashup of styles to extend a brand into an empire. At the end of the day, West seems less concerned with the utopian ideals of his architectural forebears or the phenomenological absorption of actual minimalism (sculptural or sonic). The real upshot of working with “minimalist guru” Rick Rubin is that West is now hunting bigger game: “I want to say that after working with Rick, it humbled me to realize why I hadn’t — even though I produced Watch the Throne; even though I produced Dark Fantasy — why I hadn’t won Album of the Year yet.“ Minimalism, how far ye have come!

Ian Bourland is an art historian and cultural critic. He is an assistant professor at MICA in Baltimore, where he works on modernism and globalization, and writes for a range of institutions and publications.