CANNES, France—Kanye West was roundly ridiculed last year when he likened himself to Steve Jobs in a New York Times interview. But the rapper is very much like the late Apple founder in at least one respect: He is obsessed with good taste, and frames his pursuit of it in deeply moral terms.
For Jobs, that meant battling the evil mediocrity of Microsoft and producing beautiful tech products that, in his view, raised humanity to a higher level.
West wants to do much the same thing in music and fashion. And for him, it's about joining with a few likeminded friends and battling mediocrity across the entire culture, online and off, he said Tuesday during a surprise appearance at Cannes Lions festival here.
A year after an ailing Lou Reed praised West's genius on the very same stage, West flew in as a late addition to Translation's seminar, titled "Technology, Culture, and Consumer Adoption: Learning to Read the Cultural Landscape." Welcomed with rapturous applause by the crowd at the Palais, West was in rare form—laughing, interrupting, ruminating and charmingly holding forth on everything from brands to web design to the Apple/Beats deal.
He even threw a few barbs at Annie Leibovitz and Samsung.
"I don't want to say these really big over-the-top statements that end up getting quoted," West said early on in the chat with Translation CEO Steve Stoute and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. But he did so anyway, of course—beginning with that Jobs comparison again.
"Steve Jobs, as everyone knows, was my biggest influence. Just seeing the way he fought to make things easier for people. After he passed, I made it my life's mission to do what he did inside of that company," West said. "I dream to help raise the palate and raise the taste level of a generation and also be involved with the production and distribution and advertising of that thing everyone's begging for."
The thing they're begging for, he said—particularly younger people—is a more beautiful world where brands help people achieve things rather than simply barking at them. West has been spending time with Spike Jonze here in Cannes this week—and he pointed to Jonze's movie Her as an appealing vision of the future, where branding is minimized and utility optimized. (West himself has designed water bottles with no branding on them—because, after all, you already know it's water.)
"People are less about the brand and more about self-confidence and how the brands can assist them, similar to what Steve was doing with tech," West said. "This is my goal in lifestyle, in everyday life—to change the idea of what luxury is. Because time is the only luxury. It's not all these brands that we just drove by that are somehow selling our esteem back to us through association."
West illustrated his obsession with design with an amusing story about the wedding photo in which he is kissing Kim Kardashian against a backdrop of flowers—an image he worked on "for like four days" to get the colors right.
"This is pissing my girl off during the honeymoon," he said. "Annie Leibovitz pulled out right before the wedding—maybe she was scared about the idea of celebrity. … But I still wanted my wedding photos to look like Annie Leibovitz. Now, can you imagine telling someone who just wants to Instagram a photo, the No. 1 person on Instagram, that we need to work on the color of the flowered wall? But the fact that the No. 1 most liked photo has this certain aesthetic on it was a win for what the mission is—of raising the palate."
West's moral views on design came most sharply into focus when he acknowledged that celebrities are so often thought of as trashy—another thing he wants to change.
"When people think celebrity, which is the highest form of communication—we're like walking networks or TV shows or brands in ourselves—you don't think good taste," he said. "And I believe that bad taste is vulgar. It's like cursing. I think the world can be saved through design. Because what is the most distasteful thing someone can do? Kill someone. So, good taste is the opposite of that."
West's allegiance to Apple runs deep—thus, he said, he's not a fan of Samsung, almost by default. But he did say he respected Samsung's decision to work with Jay Z, which brought the company priceless cultural credibility. The deal with Beats by Dre is Apple's attempt at connecting with culture after losing its touch somewhat since Jobs's death, he added.
"There would have been no Beats deal without the Samsung deal. It showed the No. 1 company the importance of connecting with culture," said West. "The reason I said I didn't like Samsung particularly is because throughout my entire life, because of how my parents raised me, I have to work with the No. 1. I can't work with anyone but Jay Z, because he's No. 1. I can't be with any girl but Kim, because that's the girl whose pictures I look at the most and get turned on by. I'm not going to represent any company but Louis Vuitton, because that's No. 1. … Samsung is not quite Apple, but it showed that Jimmy [Iovine] and Dre would be able to connect with the No. 1 influencers."
Stoute also applauded the Beats deal.
"Apple was so profound at making great products in great design language," he said. "And yet they found themselves culturally susceptible to another brand whose products weren't necessarily as great at that time. Samsung used culture as a way to get into the conversation. And that's why the Apple/Beats deal makes sense. Whatever Samsung is doing culturally, Apple has the 800-pound gorilla in Beats and Jimmy and Dre."
What is West's next project? Well, it might just involve cleaning up the design of the entire Internet—or at least supervising the cleanup project.
"The world as a whole is fucking ugly. The Internet as a whole is fucking ugly, too. But I'm not in the construction business," he said. "I said to Kevin [Systrom], why don't you let us redo Instagram? Now, you know, Instagram is nice. It's nice looking. I'm not knocking it. But just in general, everyone spends all of their time looking at their screens or their phones. And just as a simple task, we could clean that up.
"Right here, in Cannes, right now, we have enough people with the sensibilities and connections to completely make that a more beautiful place," he added. "That is our future. People ask, Where's our future? Where's our flying cars? That is the world that's floating above us right now. And we can make that beautiful with the people in Cannes right now."