How average art becomes extraordinary

The secret to great art: Iteration

Great art doesn’t always start off looking promising. When Kanye West’s “The College Dropout” debuted in 2004, it earned him ten Grammy nominations and sold millions of copies. West’s mixtape, “Freshmen Adjustment 1,” consists of tracks recorded before “Dropout.”

There’s a song on “Adjustment” entitled, “Self Conscious,” which contains two verses that would appear on his single, “All Falls Down.” I imagine that West thought these two verses were good, but the song as a whole wasn’t. He spent some time creating a new beat to match the caliber of the two verses.

Kanye West delivering a version of “Self Conscious” to Def Jam Poetry

It’s difficult to imagine that the listeners would receive “Self Conscious” as well as they did “All Falls Down.” “All Falls Down” would hit #7 on Billboard’s Hot 100 on May 22, 2004 and get nominated for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 47th Grammy Awards.

The myth of great art is that it’s created through spurts of inspiration, genius, and epiphanies. This isn’t always the case. Rather, great art can evolve from what seems like very ordinary, average, rough drafts. Not unlike an agile sprint or a lean startup, artists will then get feedback, iterate on their drafts, and produce something better.

West says he wrote the verses to “All Falls Down” in 15 minutes in an interview with the New York Times. But that would mean nothing without West being dissatisfied with the original “Self Conscious,” finding and creating a new beat, and enlisting the help of Syleena Johnson to create the final “All Falls Down.”

Not all of West’s verses get written so quickly. His wife, Kim Kardashian West, has said he wrote 90 bars to wrap up “No More Parties in L.A.”

Kanye West’s Glastonbury stage (2015). One grid of lights and a standard stage.
Kanye West’s Saint Pablo Tour stage (2016). Multiple grids of lights and a levitating stage.

The myth of the epiphany

Great art is appealing in part because it’s extraordinary. It seems so far beyond the creative ability of mere mortals. Mystique shrouds the creative process.

That’s because artists deliberately conceal their efforts. There’s a word for this, sprezzatura, which author Seth Godin describes as, “being able to do your craft without a lot of visible effort.”

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner says in “Getting There: A Book of Mentors,” “People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.”

In “Beats Down, Money Up!”, Kanye West says, “Jay Z might take ten minutes (to write and lay down a lead vocal, and)…who’s to say that, in the ten minutes, it isn’t perfect? But when I hear the word perfectionist, I think of someone who burns the midnight oil.”

So what happens to the artists that don’t — or aren’t able to — create genius work on demand? What happens to the ones that choose to — or have to — burn the midnight oil, the ones that have to tinker endlessly? What do they even do during that time?

Create a lot of drafts

Author Anne Lamott writes in her book “Bird By Bird,” “[Perfection] will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

Musician John Legend writes 50–80 songs per album. Writer Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different versions of the ending to his book, “A Farewell to Arms.” Writer Ray Bradbury advocates aspiring writers create a short story every week, in the hopes that not all of them can be bad. That’s a lot of drafts.

Lately, the most obvious public example would be Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo.” By no means is the initial draft of “Pablo” shitty (I loved it on first listen and still listen to that version), but West’s updates to “Pablo” are undoubtedly for the better.

Then there’s also the numerous demo tracks, like the original pre-”Pablo” version of “F.M.L,” which features West rapping unworded syllables over the scratch track to fill in the audio space, and both The Weeknd and Travi$ Scott on the hook.

West isn’t the only person to do this. Compare The Weeknd’s “House of Balloons” with his EP, “Inside The Dangerously Empty Lives of Teenage Girls.” (Perhaps named after this Maclean’s article.)

The processes of the Weeknd and Kanye West are different from the processes that Jay Z uses. Author Malcolm Gladwell would label Jay Z’s rapid breakthrough method as one more similar to Picasso. Artists express themselves in a burst, after long periods spent consciously or unconsciously assembling a coherent vision.

The Weeknd’s and Kanye West’s methods more closely resemble those of Cézanne, in which they execute over and over again, refining a final product from rough first drafts. Gladwell explores the Cézanne method in depth in this podcast. He brings up Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah,” which is the one most people are familiar with. Yet as Gladwell explains, it’s not a cover of the original “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen, but a cover of John Cale covering Cohen’s version.

All in all, it took 15 years for “Hallelujah” to catch on. The evolution of “Hallelujah,” shows that great art can also be made iterating on other people’s art.

Barbara Kruger’s, “Untitled.” Published in 1989. Image source: Artsy
Supreme logo, est. 1994

Use other people’s work as first drafts

Consider how Supreme’s logo is relatively recent adoption of artist Barbara Kruger’s work from a few decades ago. Or, Appleton Monthly copying Madison magazine’s covers. Or Kanye West hiring Marco Brambilla to create the “Power” music video after seeing Brambilla’s “Civilization” tableau. Or West using Vincent Desiderio’s painting, “Sleep,” to create his “Famous” sculpture and music video.

Author Robert Greene writes, “Learn to use the knowledge of the past and you will look like a genius, even when you are really just a clever borrower.”

Also consider West’s favorite song, Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” “I don’t know if anyone has done my songs better,” Dylan said of Hendrix’s cover. “He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day,” Dylan tells the Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1995.

Save all your drafts. Be tireless in iteration. Consider both your own drafts and other people’s work as starting points. What a shame it would have been if West released “Self Conscious” impulsively and prematurely, before the world had an opportunity to hear “All Falls Down.”

Herbert Lui is the creative director at Wonder Shuttle and a former staff writer for Lifehacker. His writing has appeared at TIME, Fast Company, and The Globe and Mail. He writes a monthly newsletter where he shares books and quotes to make you happier, more creative, and more productive.

An extended version of this was published at HerbertLui.net.