Why Do Rappers Love James Turrell So Much?

“We all will live in Turrell spaces,” Kanye West tweeted in December after visiting light-magic artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater Project in Flagstaff, Arizona. Roden is the artist’s magnum opus, transforming a 400,000-year-old volcano crater into an observatory. He’s been working on it since the ‘70s and, just yesterday, West announced he was donating $10 million to the Turrell Art Foundation to help fund the project.



“Organized as a distinct set of changing experiences of light, Turrell’s intervention in the natural form of Roden Crater consists of a series of chambers, pathways, tunnels, and openings onto the sky from within and around the crater’s surface,” the organization’s site explains. Roden has been closed to the public for a few years now, but Turrell let his new pal West get a sneak peek, inspiring the rapper to tweet “This is life changing.”


Ye isn’t the first hip-hop artist to be inspired by the artist’s vast experiments with light and space. In 2015, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video, with its illuminated warm-neon sets, paid homage to Turrell. The hot-pink stairs, for instance, looked a lot like Turrell’s installation “The Light Inside” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. At the time, the artist gave the following statement to Noisey: “While I am truly flattered to learn that Drake f*cks with me, I nevertheless wish to make clear that neither I nor any of my woes was involved in any way in the making of the Hotline Bling video.”


Drake and Kanye West Really Love Artist James Turrell

Still from “Hotline Bling”


Drake told Rolling Stone in 2014, “I f*ck with Turrell. He was a big influence on the visuals for my last tour.” This was, reportedly, after he had visited the artist’s retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The minimalist neon glow of Turrell’s work feels like the precursor to the current neon age we live in, with artists like Kate Hush and Signe Pierce.


There’s something both stark and romantic about a Turrell installation—and something deeply American. After all, you can visit one of his 80 worldwide light-spaces both at a Louis Vuitton store in Las Vegas and in the middle of a desert. While this wasn’t directly Turrell-influenced, the neon-noir effect radiated from Gaspar Noé’s demented, candy-colored Enter the Void. It went on to inspire people like Frank Ocean, and the film’s cinematographer later directed the video for Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.”


An article exploring neon’s current popularity described it as something representing “this fusion of decadence and decay.” One of the aforementioned neon artists, Pierce, told i-D’s Dane Scott that, after watching Spring Breakers, she “genuinely gravitated towards the aesthetic and lighting in that film. I thought it was a really interesting portrait of weird late-capitalism America.”


Drake and Kanye West Really Love Artist James Turrell 1

Image via Getty


And I do think, even if it lives outside Turrell’s artistic intentions, that it is, in fact, that “weird late-capitalism” vibe that attracts pop culture provocateurs like West to the artist. There are very few physical sensations that allow us to truly escape ourselves and our digital lives, to have the space and quiet to not just escape but imagine, and Turrell’s light illusions give us that room. It’s an almost emotional thing to think about.


The artist certainly seems to appreciate the new fans Drake and presumably Kanye West have given him. In an interview with art critic Philip Kennicott, Turrell said he was flattered by “Hotline Bling.”


“This is very interesting because you can think that you have some importance by involvement in the art world, but you know popular culture is so much more,” he said. “He honored my work and I was flattered by that.”


For Turrell, a man described as “uncommonly eloquent on a host of subjects, from Riemannian geometry to vortex dynamics,” to acknowledge and appreciate the pop culture appreciation is pretty cool—and like his installations, very future-thinking. 


No more articles