Bon Iver and Kanye West: Why one of music’s strangest collaborations makes so much sense

Following the release of Bon Iver’s new album ‘i,i’, Ed Power looks at his sometimes confusing, often fruitful relationship with hip hop, and how artists from Kanye West to Lizzo have returned that love

Wednesday 28 August 2019 10:38 BST
Kanye West and Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver
Kanye West and Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver

There were a few surprises when Kanye West headlined Glastonbury in 2015. The superstar rapper somehow managed to avoid banging his head on the worryingly low lighting rig. Comedian Lee Nelson invaded the stage. Then, as the set pivoted towards its denouement, an unshaven and anonymous individual wearing a black baseball cap materialised just over Kanye’s shoulder. West introduced his guest as “one of the baddest white boys on the planet”.

It was, of course, Justin Vernon – aka avant-garde folk superstar Bon Iver. The hip-hop idol and the backwoods indie icon had first become creatively entangled six years previously, bonding over their shared love of music that disregarded convention and genre. Even more so, it’s been reported, over their passion for James Cameron’s sci-fi film Avatar.

Blue aliens aside, Vernon’s ardour for all things Kanye has presumably long since cooled after West endorsed Donald Trump and rolled into the Oval Office wearing a Make America Great Again hat. Bon Iver regularly tweets his support for progressive causes: on his new record i,i he went so far as compare life in Trump’s America to a lingering illness (“Fever last too long/ Fevers rashing on”).

The Kanye-Vernon bromance is thus by every appearance deader than West’s credibility as a voice of African American disaffection. Yet Bon Iver’s passion for hip hop continues to inform his music. You can hear it in the skipped, murmuring beats rippling through i,i, and in Vernon’s career-spanning enthusiasm for autotune, the vocal-distorting effect initially embraced by urban music.

The love flows both ways. He was a controversial guest on Eminem’s 2018’s album, Kamikaze, where he contributed guest vocals on the song “The Fall”. But Vernon was horrified by the final recording, in which Eminem uses a homophobic slur to “call out” Tyler the Creator, who had only recently hinted to fans that he might be gay.

“I was wrong and we are going to kill this track,” Vernon, apparently unaware of the slur’s existence until the song’s release, tweeted. He explained he had not even been in the same studio as Eminem when the track was created – his contribution emerged from a session with producers BJ Burton and Mike Will, he said

“This is not the time to criticise youth, it’s the time to listen,” Vernon continued. “To act. It is certainly not the time for slurs.”

More fruitful collaborations exist, including one with Detroit rapper Lizzo. In 2012 he performed with The Roots on a grooved-up version of his song “Perth” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and his voice can be heard on Travis Scott’s 2013 mixtape Owl Pharaoh. As “Jason Feathers”, Vernon even put out his own rap album, De Oro, with Minneapolis rhymer Astronautalis in 2014.

None of this seems even remotely boundary-breaking or transgressive by contemporary standards. James Blake, another pasty-faced chap with a fluttering falsetto, was on Beyoncé’s critically adored album Lemonade. His own album Assume Form features a session with Travis Scott and producer Metro Boomin. Billie Eilish has been upfront about the influence of the late, controversial Soundcloud rapper XXXTentancion. “Genre” has a become viscous and amorphous concept. Everybody is borrowing from everyone else. There are no walls, only gateways.

Amazon Music logo

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up
Amazon Music logo

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

But hip hop and folk music have a particularly unique relationship. Both started as an art form of the masses, communicating their world view in the vernacular. It is no coincidence that the original of the modern folkie species, Bob Dylan, is beloved by the rap community – or that the affection runs both ways. “I love rhyming for rhyming sake. I think that’s an incredible art form,” Dylan once said.

The through line between Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the early hip-hop scene (likewise spawned in New York) is clear. A generation later, Def Jam Records was pitching its recent signing, Public Enemy, to the music press as the “new Dylan”. Though superficially existing on different planets, folk and hip hop share a common DNA.

These connections make particular sense in the case of Vernon. He struck it big in 2008 with the heartfelt and relatively straightforward debut For Emma, Forever Ago. Ever since, he has essentially pulled a Radiohead. A perpetual awkward customer, Vernon has travelled as far as possible from the quasi-acoustic sound with which he initially found success. It’s been a fascinating, sometimes exhausting, always engaging journey.

Along the way he’s borrowed from Eighties contemporary rock – “yacht rock” in the parlance – jazz and experimental folk. The jazz nods and winks will have especially endeared him to hip hop, which regards the other genre as both predecessor and distant cousin.

“Indie rock – what is that? “ Vernon once said to me. ”To me, it’s a description. Strictly speaking it refers to an artist on an independent label. The idea that it is a genre strikes me as ludicrous.”

Regardless of all this, Kanye West and indie urchin Justin Vernon in the studio together in 2009 was a bizarre concept. People really did struggle with it. Vernon wore trucker caps and plaid shirts and regarded shaving as optional. Kanye was an esoteric superstar, with his own shoe line and women’s fashion label. When he called Vernon out of the blue, the singer was weirded out, to put it mildly.

“It is strange to talk to a person you have never met but who you have been a fan of and seen on television and stuff,” Vernon told me a few years later. “That wears off pretty quickly when you are having a human conversation about something. The whole [celebrity] thing is a mask.”

West had been introduced to Vernon’s autotune heavy Blood Bank EP by his keyboard player Jeff Bhasker. Bhasker was irritated but also intrigued when his girlfriend had told him she wouldn’t be attending a Kanye show in New York. She was going to catch some guy named Bon Iver at the 1,500-capacity Town Hall instead. One thing led to another. And ultimately to Kanye staying up all night with Blood Bank.

After that it was a whirlwind. West was bunkered down in Hawaii, in a recording studio attached to Hawai’i Kai shopping mall in the eastern suburbs of Honolulu. There he had opened a sort of hip-hop salon, inviting musicians he felt inspired by to drop in and swap ideas. Eager to use a sample of Vernon’s “Woods”, from Blood Bank, he reached out to the indie star.

West told Vernon that he loved his “fearless” singing. Did he want to come to Hawaii and throw down some ideas? Sure, said Vernon. When did Kanye have in mind? What about tomorrow, said the rapper. Like that, Vernon found himself on a non-stop flight to Honolulu.

“Kanye’s obviously is in this hip-hop realm but he’s so much bigger than that,” Vernon told Pitchfork. “He makes records. And this next record is more proof that he’s not afraid to make a really good hip-hop album that has incredible music on it. He knows how to keep growing, and you can’t say that for everybody. Maybe asking me to play on his record was the worst idea he’s ever had and it’ll ruin both of us, but it was cool.”

Their get together would be released as “Lost in the World”. It was a highlight of West’s 2010 fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The track samples the hook from “Woods”, augmented with new vocals by Vernon. The lyrics are from a love letter Kanye wrote to future bride Kim Kardashian. Kanye recognised it as a smash immediately. Vernon was too busy getting his bearings to have an opinion either way.

“We were just eating breakfast and listening to it and Kanye’s like, ‘F***, this is going to be the festival closer.’” he recalled to Pitchfork. “I was like, ‘Yeah, cool.’ It kind of freaked me out.”

“It was f***ing fun, man,” he elaborated. “A-Trak was out there, Nicki Minaj. Just a bunch of über-talented people and everyone was really nice and chill and just working on Kanye’s record. I was literally in the back room rolling a spliff with Rick Ross talking about what to do on the next part of a song. It was astonishing. Kanye came back and was like, ‘Look at you two guys. This is the craziest studio in the western world right now!’”

West may no longer be a fixture in Vernon’s life. But Vernon keeps up with hip hop and recently took time out from preparing for the release of i,i to tweet his love for the new Chance the Rapper LP. On his own album, meanwhile, he continues to tap into the same “anything goes” sense of adventure that informed West’s best music. They may have grown apart. What they still have in common is a determination to follow no rules but their own.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in