All the elements were in place for a by-the-numbers hip-hop album launch party. Flowing Champagne? Check. Well-heeled crowd of music industry grandees and boldfaced names? Check. Exclusive venue? Check. Gaggle of impossibly curvaceous naked women on display for all to ogle? Double check.
Except this by-invitation-only "listening event" -- really, the first time multi-platinum-selling, Grammy-winning rapper-producer Kanye West's album "808s & Heartbreak" had ever been played in public -- deconstructed the very idea of what an album unveiling is supposed to be. With collaborator Vanessa Beecroft, he reassembled it all into something closer to the Renaissance artistic ideal of the sublime than any hip-hop-rooted pop offering has any right to be. Call it a listening party as social experiment.
The Champagne was Veuve Clicquot. The boldfaced names: Miami rapper Rick Ross, pop auteur will.i.am, Audrina Patridge of "The Hills" fame, fashion designer Jeremy Scott and actor-rapper Mos Def.
And the women -- some three dozen white and African American Valkyries naked but for the stiletto heels atop which they teetered; some in kinky African face masks and others completely unadorned, all more or less anonymous in the cathode glow of a kaleidoscopic color-shifting projection scrim and arrived courtesy of bona fide art superstar Beecroft. She's a controversial performance art provocateuse. But more on that later.
"When Kanye contacted me a week ago, I was caught off guard," said Beecroft, who has staged similar live-naked-ladies performances in front of art cognoscenti in Vienna, New York, Sydney and London (although none boasting the evening's blaring pop-rap soundtrack that literally shook the building's rafters). "But there were a few things about his album that touched my personal life. And we made it."
West, whose default persona in his songs is nothing if not sexually liberated, chimed in: "As you can see, there's a few things about Vanessa's work that touched my personal life too." He laughed and so did the crowd.
Music-wise, West's latest compositions shook up his old songbook in several ways. He sings -- not just raps -- on every song on his new wave-electro-influenced album through a digital processing device called "auto tune." The machine corrects vocal pitch (think the ubiquitous "rappa turnt sanga" T-Pain whose collaborations with R&B singers and rappers have come to define Top 40 radio) en route to a robotic yet yearning sound.
And just about every song on "808s" seems tinged with regret. West calls himself "a problem that will never be solved" when not wondering, "Will I ever love again?"
The rapper-producer also revealed he just finished recording the album (due in stores next month) over the course of three weeks in Hawaii, and upon its completion he demanded that his Island Def Jam overseers Jay-Z and Antonio "L.A." Reid allow him to release this deeply personal set of songs in November as opposed to "the week of the Grammys."
West also made it clear that the death of his mother, Donda West -- a former college administrator who died of complications after a tummy tuck and breast augmentation this year -- had weighed heavily on "808s" narrative content as well as its tenor of reckoning.
"I've always been a fan of Vanessa's work. I like the idea of nudity," West said, after the last song had played. "There's irony in that. I've talked so much about labels, calling myself 'the Louis Vuitton don' and saying Mercedes this and that. The irony is for me to lose the person most important in the world to me to Hollywood. You don't hear me talking about labels now. It's time to be naked."
In an era when tailored suits have replaced baggy jeans as hip-hop's look du jour and when Jay-Z has taken to collecting work by bad boy British artist Damien Hirst, few rappers demonstrate West's wherewithal to bridge the high-low cultural divide. He is recognized as an aesthete whose refined sensibilities somehow add to his street appeal. The rapper-producer was, after all, decked out in a $15,000 Louis Vuitton backpack of his own design when he was arrested on suspicion of smashing a paparazzo's camera at LAX last month.
As evidenced by his freewheeling blog, West's passions include industrial design and Modernist architecture, futuristic fashion and Conceptual artwork. Moreover, he established his contemporary art bona fides last year through an association with Takashi Murakami -- one of the top-selling artists in the world and Japan's answer to Andy Warhol -- who designed the manga-like album cover for West's third album, "Graduation," and directed an animated video for his song "Good Morning."