Photo: Steve Eichner / Contributor via Getty Images
  /  06.11.2018

When I think of great art in the vein of Banksy’s politically-charged graffiti chef-d’œuvres or the sociopolitical creations of Alfredo Jaar, Takashi Murakami’s name doesn’t come to mind. It takes a laser focus to type his name out without having a reference point to spell it right. Maybe that’s why, up until a few years ago, I’d never heard of him. But I did notice a common thread in certain pieces in pop culture that were appealing to me. There was a thrush of vibrant colors and puerile drawings, like a child etched out its nightmare feverishly on a nearby piece of pen and paper. When I discovered the artist, who created this style of work, all of the threads began to connect together. The picture began to form. Everything began to make sense.

Murakami looks as far from a revolutionary artist as you can think of. He’s slightly rotund with rim-shaped glasses that hide an often-bunned hairstyle in line with contemporary hipster culture. He’s often photographed in large, colorful costumes that accentuate his incessant weirdness. His thick tuft of beard hair is bedecked with grey strands, showcasing his 56 years of age, of which he holds rather well. While he may look like a passerby Asian man that you’d come across in the racially diverse streets of Manhattan, the sui generis way his brain operates is largely responsible for some of the biggest moments in hip-hop culture.

Kanye West’s ‘Dropout’ Bear is one of hip-hop’s most beloved mascots in the culture’s history. For his debut album, The College Dropout, Kanye himself posed in a school mascot uniform of the bear, unknowingly creating a symbol that would come to define the docile nature of people that allow the world to constantly spin around them. It’s fatuous, fetching nature was instantly identifiable with someone like me, young at the time, and feeling as if life was passing me by without much input. For the second album, Late Registration, the mascot version of the ‘Dropout’ Bear was scrapped — in its place, a smaller plush bear that looked equal parts innocent and adorable. On the album’s cover, it appeared to peek into a classroom, its small stature much more realistic and corporeal than the obviously costume version before it.

‘Ye’s third album, Graduation, marked a stark departure in form. No longer was ‘Ye a holy messenger with conscious raps on the verge of superstar status; he was thrusted into the top spot, being in demand at every which turn. The cover for Graduation reflected this newfound eminence—the realistic bear was gone, and in its place, a cartoon depiction surrounded by bursts of vibrant colors and nonsensical action. It was truly mad and absolutely necessary. There was no turning back from this bold new vision ; Kanye wholeheartedly embraced the new bear, utilizing the style for his “Good Morning” music video in which the heavily-stylized bear goes through college’s trials and tribulations. It soon after became the official brand logo for clothes in Kanye West’s online store (at the time) and, to this day, what we associate with him. Hop on Pinterest and you’ll find tons of iterations of Kanye West as the bear throughout different points in his career.

Through manga-style drawing and a proclivity for bold, brash use of color, Murakami became the instrument for Kanye to retool his aesthetic. This was more than a rebrand — this was a tonal shift. ‘Ye became fun, something that his preachy substance before was often at odds with. Being a person that buys books based off of how adventurous the front cover appears to be—(I accidentally stumbled into the Harry Potter franchise after being intrigued by a boy with a lightning-shaped scar in the middle of his head standing in front of a derelict dungeon frantically grasping a gigantic red phoenix)—I immediately rushed to check it out.

It’s not like this was a one-off thing either; Murakami’s brand is built off of his ability to brandish child-like wonder as a weapon. He came up with the term “superflat” to describe Japanese art aesthetics and the style that he’s helped to create — a lively amalgamation of bold colors and risqué elements that have been, amongst other things, decorations for luxury houses for years. He’s the Andy Warhol for the average millennial. You’ve undoubtedly seen his work other places outside of Kanye’s Graduation. His infamous flower print features a crazed (or just happy?) smiling face adorned with various colored petals. His obscene sculpture, “My Lonesome Cowboy,” consists of a man, in the midst of masturbating, holding his semen as a lasso around his head. Even outside of the web, his mark can be found in pop culture. His work has been featured in collections from clothing brands like Supreme and Billionaire Boys Club, as well as prominent placements in MCA Chicago and Complex Con. Add in a Louis Vuitton collaboration and you have an artist that’s touched so much of what matters to the average person 30-and-under.

Murakami revealed in a 2017 interview with Complex News that the collaboration came about from ‘Ye’s interest in some of his art, which ultimately led to his assistant inquiring about working together. Of the final design for Graduation‘s cover, Kanye handled 70% of it. Murakami’s drawings were just an extension of ‘Ye’s thought. So, while ‘Ye handled most of the idea, Murakami ultimately synthesized the parts together for the classic product. What came out of it was Kanye’s new direction and a surplus of new creativity. While his later projects like The Life of Pablo, Yeezus and Ye didn’t feature Murakami’s signature production, the bold new directions that he traveled for each of these projects can be traced back to the fresh breath of life offered by Murakami back in 2008.

It’s 2018; our stars are older and wiser. With age, creativity often wanes. As if to replicate the success of Graduation and search for new avenues to traverse, Kanye enlisted the help of Murakami again for the just released Kids See Ghosts collaborative album featuring longtime collaborator, and rival, Kid Cudi. Murakami’s involvement with the album was teased nearly a year ago with a picture of him, Ye, and Cudi in his Tokyo studio. Now, we see the fruits of their combined creative inputs.

The cover is different than what we’ve come to expect from Murakami. The colors are scintillating, but less acute. Amidst the range of changing colors, a just-visible specter stands on top of a monstrous, ghostly figure. There’s something inherently uncanny about it. For it to be an illustration for a project that delves into mental trauma experienced by two artists that are open with their struggles, it masquerades as an otherworldly cartoon worthy of dissection. It makes me want to check out the album and deep-dive into its pools of murkiness.

Murakami may delve into different areas of pop culture, but in hip-hop, his influence is, perhaps, the greatest. By working with Kanye West and his team on more than one occasion, an entire generation of fans and influencers grew up with his work on their brains. Lil Uzi Vert, one of rap’s hottest new-age rappers, and a fan of Kanye West, purchased a $100,000 Murakami-styled chain to flex his appreciation of eclectic art. Even looking at Kanye’s confederates, Pharrell has collaborated with Murakami on more than one occasion; first for his highly-favored line Billionaire Boys Club, and second for the Murakami-directed visual for “It Girl.” Through Kanye and Pharrell, two of the culture’s most esteemed innovators, he sets his reputation as the most highly-valued instrument in sparking creative juices, as well as mystifying with his uniqueness. By influencing new-age artists like Lil Uzi Vert, he ensures his continued relevancy as the wheels of time turn.

As we pore over Kanye and Cudi’s joint project, keep Murakami’s influence in mind. Through his creative direction, he’s acted as the catalyst for the creative energy expended on Kids See Ghosts. There’s a reason that one of Kanye’s most highly-favored albums featured Murakami’s work on the front. He motivated Kanye through his art to change the way he operated. And then, through Kanye’s work, he motivated and inspired generations to express the tenants of their creativity without any boundaries. It doesn’t get any more hip-hop than that.

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