About a month before he unveiled his eighth album Ye in June, Kanye West re-entered architectural conversation with the unexpected and mostly unexplained announcement that he intends to hire architects and industrial designers to staff an architecture practice connected to his Yeezy brand. An outspoken fan and admirer of contemporary architecture, Kanye’s fashion and design projects have been a major focus for him since shortly after the prodigious producer started making his own rap albums. Kanye’s architectural ambitions have been an interesting factor in the relationship between architecture and rap culture, which seems to be just coming into focus through programs like the Hip Hop Architecture Camps organized by Michael Ford’s Urban Arts Collective, and the research of Sekou Cooke. Architecture and rap music have influenced each other in ways we’re just starting to notice—with the connection between the two even revealed as consciously and conspicuously as rappers including references to notable architects in their lyrics.
Hip-hop heads may not recognize their names as easily as Gucci or Prada, but the fact that rappers are name-dropping architects reflects an interesting development in the relationship between architecture and pop culture. Within the rapid-fire context of rap lyrics, individual references and name drops are often simplified and abstracted to represent a single idea; when rappers mention an architect, the reference is usually intended to symbolize either the status of a famous and well-respected creative genius or a specific designer’s work as an exclusive, virtually-unobtainable luxury item on par with uber-costly fashion and car brands.
It must be stated that the established conventions and performative aspects of rap culture create a context where lyrics are generally not intended to be interpreted literally, and some references to architecture in hip-hop demonstrate only a minimal understanding of the figures being mentioned. Even so, it might be tough for some architects to hear that popular culture could view the profession as defined by hero worship, immodest extravagance, and consumerism.
Often intended as praise but possibly symptomatic of sensitive perception issues, the following collection of rap lyrics offer insight into contemporary architecture’s cultural reputation, inherited from last century’s modernists and continued by the standard bearers of today.
Kids See Ghosts; Kanye West and Kid Cudi, featuring Yasiin Bey
I won’t relish on the fact I’m vibin’ on the future
Ultralight buildin’ in the buildin’ by Miuccia
Herzog and de Meuron in an office out in Basel
No not Miami, Switzerland
In these lines from the title track of his joint album with Kid Cudi, Kanye boasts about his connection to the design world by offering a coded reminder of the time he held an impromptu listening party for his then-unreleased album Yeezus at the 2013 Design Miami/Basel show, sharing a stage with furniture by Rick Owens to perform the songs “New Slaves” and “On Sight.” While it does have sister shows in Miami, Kanye makes it clear that he’s talking about the event held in the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Messe Basel exhibition hall in Basel, Switzerland. Unpacking this lyric shows that the reference ultimately has little to do with the Swiss firm’s architecture though, functioning instead to announce Kanye’s status as a participant in the exclusive world of high art.
Ghetto Rave; Ebow
Gehst auf und ab wie’n jo jo
Bin Zaha Hadid im rap game
Yallah habibi gogo
Go up and down like a yo-yo
I’m Zaha Hadid of the rap game
Let’s go my dear go go
In this multilingual banger, German-Turkish rapper Ebow calls herself “Zaha Hadid of the rap game.” In hip-hop parlance, this is one of the highest possible compliments a rapper can bestow, as name-dropping Hadid shows utmost respect for her reputation, to the point that the comparison functions as braggadocio.
Flex Off; People Under The Stairs
The Crockett and Tubs, doin’ their thing, jump on the plane
Promoters proud, sobbing like the end of Purple Rain
Trained, civic-minded Frank Lloyd Wright rhyme
Designed to let your bright mind protect the life line of predecessors
We the west coast professors, study lessons of the yesteryear
Connecting the architect’s legacy to Prince and the main characters from Miami Vice for probably the first and only time, Underground LA rap legends People Under The Stairs drop Frank Lloyd Wright’s name as a demonstration of their sophisticated knowledge of culture in these tight rhythmic bars. As probably America’s most famous architect, Wright is mentioned here basically as a symbol of the architectural design process in general.
Picasso Baby; Jay-Z
Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel
I just wanna live life colossal
Leonardo da Vinci flows
Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes
Jay-Z uses the reputation of Leonardo (who produced architectural designs as well as many other forms of creative work in his lifetime) to boast about his own status in hip-hop. This comparison appears in the context of a song consciously peppered with a range of art references, and it’s worth noting that he shows admiration for da Vinci’s career, rather than a desire to show off his work as a status symbol in the way he does with Givenchy in the next line.
Houses In The Hills; Sturla Atlas Featuring Joey Christ & Logi Pedro
Corbusier money, architecture swerve
Never eating honey, G-town is the turf
This song by rising Icelandic artist Sturla Atlas was written for and about an architect he knows personally, and the lyrics are full of architecture references. While it’s unclear if “Corbusier money” refers to the modernist’s personal fortune or the wealth perceived as necessary to afford one of his buildings, these lines from Joey Christ’s verse present architecture as a symbol of upper-crust lifestyle in the same way as Sturla Atlas does in the chorus when he says “Diamonds in your hair, cruising Malibu / Houses in the hills that I drew for you.”
Jus Chillin; Curtismith
Look me in the eye
Tell me who lie, do die
I am like a Rem Koolhaas
In some ways, this line appeals to Rem Koolhaas’ reputation and functions as a boast by comparison in the same way as other rappers on this list have compared themselves to architects in a flattering way. The overall lack of context and information here makes it just as likely that this rapper is just calling himself Koolhaus because of his interesting name, and appropriate or not, it’s hard to deny that Rem Koolhaas has a very interesting name.
Oscar Niemeyer; Lord Esperanza
J’innove comme Oscar Niemeyer
T’es ni l’moins bon, ni l’meilleur
I innovate like Oscar Niemeyer
You’re not the worst nor the best
Coming from the end of a fiery French-language freestyle, Lord Esperanza dropping Niemeyer’s name here positions the architect as an aspirational figure both in describing him as an innovator and by using this reference to him as the final punctuation mark on a passionate and impressive series of verses.