For someone who says he is “50 percent more influential than any other human being,” Kanye West spends a lot of time defending his own cultural reach by comparing it to other people’s (Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson, Shakespeare, Walt Disney, and, oh yeah, God). While sermonizing at a 2012 concert in Atlantic City, West likened himself to yet another widely recognized genius: Beethoven. “I am flawed as a human being; I am flawed as a person. As a man, I am flawed,” he orated. “But my music is perfect. This is the best that you gon’ get, ladies and gentleman, in this lifetime. I’m sorry. You could go back to Beethoven or some shit, you know, but as far as this lifetime, though, this is all you got.”
As it turns out, Beethoven was the Ye of his era—arrogant, controversial, cocksure, and, undoubtedly, prolific. The composer once said, “What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” Add some 21st century vernacular and swap “princes” for “Obamas,” and the quote could easily be West’s. Narcissism aside, it cannot be denied that both artists have impacted popular culture in tangible and lasting ways. Their mutual peerlessness is what inspired Yuga Cohler and Stephen Feigenbaum (who now goes by the name Johan) to create last year’s Yeethoven, an evening of orchestrations analogizing West’s Yeezus and a number of Beethoven’s works. On December 14, they’ll take over the Historic Belasco Theater for Yeethoven II, which will juxtapose seven works by West (from both Yeezus and, new for this installment, The Life of Pablo) with six of Beethoven’s works; early on, the distinction between the two will be clear, but as the show progresses, the boundaries separating them will crumble, and the compositions will commingle. The show is even headed to New York’s Lincoln Center on January 18.
The concert is part of the Great Music Series, a program associated with the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra that seeks out correlations between classical and contemporary music. The original Yeethoven came about when 27-year-old Cohler, conductor of the YMF Debut Orchestra, approached 28-year-old composer Johan about exploring the ways in which great music of today is connected to great music of the past.
“What’s been really incredible about this project is how organically and musically based the conception has been,” Cohler says. “It wasn’t like, ‘OK, let’s just put Beethoven and Kanye together because that seems cool and it will get a lot of attention.’ It was more like, ‘Let’s look at the notes, let’s look at the evidence and make a convincing argument for the case.”
For Johan, who studied under Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and who both produces and sings pop music, the link between Beethoven’s compositions and Yeezus in particular was striking. “Yeezus is the album that, in my opinion, most resembles classical music in terms of structure,” he says of the original Yeethoven. “It doesn’t really have songs and verses and choruses—it’s a continuously evolving trajectory in the way that symphonic music is.” He sites “New Slaves,” a song that feels “tumultuous” until reaching a comically sanguine conclusion. “It almost doesn’t feel genuine, but I think that’s intentional,” he explains. “Beethoven has this piece called Egmont Overture, which pretty much has the exact same formal structure. It even has gestures that call attention to the last section in the same way.”
As with any concept of Yeethoven’s nature, there will be naysayers. In this instance, some consider it blasphemous to put an artist who has been around for ten years on the same artistic plane as a composer who has endured for ten times as long. But as Johan points out, it’s hard to say what the world will think of Kanye in 100 years. “The impact they both had in their time is comparable, but from my perspective, the work that goes into making someone like Beethoven a legend is kind of unrelated to the music,” he says. “It’s about the way culture has decided to put classical music on a pedestal. A lot of those things are accidents of history. Beethoven is a great composer—maybe one of the greatest of all time—but the point of this is to show that culture has decided to put something on this pedestal, and that actually doesn’t have a lot to do with what’s going on in music.”
Cohler agrees. “It’s simply impossible to predict what music history will say about musicians of our time,” he says. “What we do know is that Kanye is currently one of the most influential musicians of our time, and that one of the main benefits of a concert like this is that it allows musicians and other people involved in culture to think of the relationship between these disparately viewed spaces. And maybe new art can come of that.”
And this, perhaps, is the most interesting upshot of Yeethoven: classical compositions will suddenly become relevant to a new and (mostly) ignorant generation. West has a reputation for making legendary old musicians cool again—let’s never forget this tweet in response to the song “Only One,” the rapper’s collab with Sir Paul McCartney:
I don’t know who Paul McCartney is, but Kanye is going to give this man a career w/ this new song!!
— Jo$h (@OVOJosh) January 2, 2015
Or this one from @CurvedDaily, which has since been deleted: “This is why i love Kanye for shining light on unknown artists.” Both are an indication that something like Yeethoven will inevitably bring a different kind of musical artistry to West’s fan base. “When Steven and I started this project, we had the idea that it would reach across the aisle to people who were into all sorts of music,” Cohler says. “We tend to put artists of the past on this irreproachable pedestal. Will we ever have a painter as great as Picasso? A playwright as good as Shakespeare? A composer as great as Beethoven? But when you get down to brass tacks, great works of art transcend barriers of culture, genre, and medium. We really believe these sorts of projects have the potential to reach a lot people.”