Hunched over his laptop, Willo Perron is scrolling through a digital mock-up of an unreleased project for Jay-Z’s 4:44 album. Over several peach-colored pages, in simple black Larish Neue font, there are release dates for 4:44 in different countries, photos of the 4:44 ads plastered on billboards, buses, taxis, and subway stations that teased the rapper’s thirteenth studio album, and more. “It’s really a manual for the 4:44 brand,” he says, sitting in his West Hollywood studio on an October afternoon.
Perron, a multi-disciplinary designer and director, collaborated with Jay-Z to concept the packaging and creative direction for 4:44. He designed the album artwork and played a seminal role in the brilliant rollout that included the mysterious “4:44” ads and the black and white teaser starring Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, which premiered during the 2017 NBA Finals. “We went through a few other iterations of what the record was going to be called,” Perron says in his first extensive interview. “When we landed on 4:44, I was like, ‘It’s just this color and these digits.’ We wanted to do a really didactic campaign.”
While he won’t say much about it, he also designed the set and stage visuals for the official 4:44 Tour, which kicked off late last month. During the show, Jay-Z performed on an octagonal stage, placed in the middle of the stadium, with eight vertically-suspended screens hovering above him that showed various camera angles from the stage and footage of peers and family, some of which he erased himself from.
Perron first worked with Jay-Z on the rapper’s 2012 American Express UNSTAGED performance at South by Southwest. But he’s been behind the scenes of other memorable album covers, live shows, retail spaces, and videos for years. In 2008, he worked on Kanye West’s critically acclaimed Glow in The Dark Tour. Rihanna has enlisted him to creative direct many of her performances, including her Diamonds Tour, ANTI Tour, and her 2016 MTV Video Vanguard Award production. “I guess after years of successful Kanye and Rihanna stuff, you eventually get that call [from Jay-Z],” he says. He also designed the set and stage visuals for Drake’s 2013 Would You Like A Tour? and built several of Stüssy’s retail locations. Most recently, he was responsible for the blockbuster Nike x NBA global launch, where the league’s new jerseys were revealed behind three moving big screen monoliths.
The titles creative director and art director have become commonplace today. Nearly all of the top acts in music have at least one consigliere in their team. The Weeknd has La Mar Taylor. Mike Carson oversees Big Sean’s project. West, over the years, has built an entire team of collaborators under Donda, his well-regarded creative company. But when Perron first worked with West, the profession didn’t exist. He didn’t set out to become one either. “Back in the day, I think that was more management in the artists’ ears,” he says. “I don’t think anyone really cared about titles, but I was like, ‘If I’m going to do this everyday, with this guy, it can’t just be ‘Kanye’s entourage has a couple creative guys in there.’ It felt like a lack of respect for the craft. But it definitely wasn’t intentional.”
“Willo is the original,” adds Matt George, the man behind streetwear emporiums Nomad and Stüssy in Toronto and Vancouver. George has known Perron for almost 15 years and has worked with him on various projects, including Stüssy’s brick and mortar locations. “Willo’s one of the guys that made that term synonymous with these kids. You hear people all the time now say they’re creative directors, but he is the truest sense of that word.”
For the last two decades or so, Perron has masterminded some of the biggest projects, for some of the biggest artists and brands in the world. But after all the success, where does he want to go from here?
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