For all his presumptions of being misunderstood, Kanye West has received more critical adoration over the course of a decade than most artists will find in a lifetime. In the lead-up to the deafeningly overhyped debut of Yeezus (2013), his sixth studio album, the New York Times featured him on the cover of its Sunday Arts section ("Behind Kanye's Mask") for an interview. The accompanying image of West, snapped by fashion photographer Nick Knight, speaks volumes. Wearing a red balaclava, thick gold chain, and high-end black T-shirt, his arms crossed and his eyes closed in the deliberate manner of someone affecting impatience, he looks more like a petulant character from Wes Anderson's cutting room floor than a self-styled agit-pop provocateur – maybe a stowaway fashion student on Steve Zissou's ship with dreams of becoming a mercenary. Yet the mere fact of his presence on the front page of the Sunday Times Arts section signaled a crucial shift in his relationship to the public, an improbable point at which his untethered narcissistic sensibility had found a wider audience eager to call it art.
Writer Jon Caramanica spent three days interviewing Kanye about his nebulous extra-musical ambitions, the arc of his career, and the new direction indicated by Yeezus, a bleak drive down an electro-nihilist autobahn that West describes as "aspirational minimalism." As Caramanica notes in his excellent introduction to the interview,
No rapper has embodied hip- hop's oft en contradictory impulses of narcissism and social good quite as he has, and no producer has celebrated the lush and ornate quite as he has. He has spent most of his career in additive mode, figuring out how to make music that's majestic and thought-provoking and grand-scaled. And he's also widened the genre's gates, whether for middle-class values or high-fashion and high-art dreams.