Storytelling with Kanye West

creative strategy and culture at rap camp

IN 2009 I got the opportunity to meet Kanye West while I was working with another musician. We ended up spending a lot of time together talking about design, and eventually Kanye asked if I wanted to stay to consult on the album he was about to start making. I said hell yes.

Kanye crafts albums. Sure, he has some great singles, and he can spend a huge amount of time obsessing over small details in a song. But his natural frame of reference is the whole album. So we spent most of our time working together from this perspective. I didn’t try to shape the final product (the album itself), but instead we co-designed a strategy for creating the product—a unified approach that would guide the process for making the album.

WE developed a theme of ensemble storytelling. We were inspired by Les Mis and other musicals, and wanted to leverage Kanye’s diverse network. Kanye worked as the ensemble director, avoiding placing himself in the star role. He even split his appearance into different personas, modifying his voice so heavily that it was often hard to recognize.

Kanye slept at the studio complex we rented out, while his collaborators and I stayed at his house. I worked to incubate the ensemble culture and operations, keeping collaborators in the middle of the action in a sustained community. Musicians would come out for a few days, and then find themselves staying for a month. We eventually dropped the ensemble language in favor of a more fitting term: rap camp (or to some, rap nirvana). But the strategy remained in place, and Kanye continuously embodied and reinforced the approach.

Kanye named the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and released it to widespread acclaim. Today it is hailed by many fans and critics as his best work. For his part, Kanye told me that it was his magnum opus.