Who Is Kanye West?
As Kanye West would doubtless tell you himself, he is a 21st-century phenomenon — a producer turned rap superstar who has reinvented hip hop several times over in the course of a stellar career; but whose creative genius is sometimes eclipsed by his talent for putting his entire foot in his own mouth. He has made headlines for his bizarre tweets and his grand pronouncements, his award-show stage invasions, his outré fashion sense and his flashbulb-popping marriage to Kim Kardashian. But when West channels his hubristic impulses into his music, the results have rarely been less than thrilling: hence six out of seven solo albums debuting at No. 1 and a total of 34 million albums sold; 21 Grammy awards — no rapper has won more; two inclusions in Time magazine's 100 most influential people list; and plaudits from Lou Reed, Prince, Elon Musk — and, most frequently of all, from West himself. "I am a god," he rapped in 2013, following up with a line that perhaps only he could deliver with a straight face: "Hurry up with my damn croissants."
Growing Up in South Shore, Chicago
Kanye Omari West was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 8, 1977. His father, Ray, was a photojournalist for the Atlanta Journal newspaper and was also politically active in the Black Panthers; he later became a Christian counselor. West's mother, Donda, was a teacher who became a professor of English at Chicago State University, and eventually, her son's manager before she died at the age of 58 from heart disease after cosmetic surgery in 2007. Her passing would profoundly affect West musically as well as personally.
Ray and Donda divorced amicably when West was three. After that he was raised on Chicago's middle-class South Shore neighborhood by his mother, and spent summers with his father. At the age of 10, West moved for a year with Donda to China, where she taught as part of a university-exchange program; he was the only foreigner in his class. After returning to Chicago, West was drawn to the South Side's hip-hop scene, and he befriended the DJ and producer No I.D., who became his mentor. West graduated from Polaris High School and won a scholarship to study at Chicago's American Academy of Art — but dropped out of college altogether to pursue music, an act that would inform the title of his first solo album years later.
Talented Music Producer
After spending time producing for local artists, West developed a signature style, dubbed "chipmunk soul," characterised by sped-up soul samples. He then moved to New York in 2001. Here he got his big break handling the production for the Jay Z track "This Can't Be Life," which appeared on the 2000 album Dynasty: Roc La Familia. The following year he cemented his burgeoning reputation by producing four songs on Jay Z's The Blueprint, widely regarded as one of the greatest rap albums of all time. From there, West went on to produce for other stellar talents, including the rappers Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Ludacris, and the singers Alicia Keys and Beyoncé.
But West was not content to be a backroom player. He wanted to be the headline act. But he initially struggled to be taken seriously as a rapper — he lacked the "gangsta" credentials that were prerequisite at the time: he was an arty middle-class kid who wore pink polo shirts and Gucci loafers. He pleaded with Roc-A-Fella records to let him rap, but as co-founder Jay Z later told Time magazine: "We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there's Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn't see how it could work." West got a similar response from other labels. "I'd leave meetings crying all the time," he recalled.
With reluctance Damon Dash signed West to Roc-A-Fella in 2002, but he did so mostly to retain him as a producer. That October, as West was driving home from a recording session in a California studio, he was involved in a head-on car collision that left him with a shattered jaw. He wrote and recorded a song about the experience, "Through the Wire," with his jaw still wired shut following reconstructive surgery. He then wrote much of the rest of his debut album while recuperating in LA. But once the album was complete, it was leaked online. In response, West decided to make it better: he revised and rewrote songs and refined the production, adding stronger drums, gospel choirs and strings (he paid for orchestras out of his own pocket).
'The College Dropout'
The album was finally released in February 2004 — it sold 2.6 million copies and made West a star. Titled The College Dropout, it broke the gangsta-rap mold, with themes including consumerism (he was critical of it back then), racism, higher education and his religious beliefs. On the single "Jesus Walks" he rapped: "They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotapes/But if I talk about God, my record won't get played." The College Dropout peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart, and West received 10 Grammy nominations, winning three awards including Best Rap Song for "Jesus Walks" and Best Rap Album. Shortly after the album was released, West founded his record label, GOOD music — an acronym for Getting Out Our Dreams — in conjunction with Sony BMG. He would put out music by John Legend, Big Sean, Common, Pusha-T and more.
West spent a year and $2 million on his sophomore album, hiring an orchestra and working with the composer Jon Brion, who had never worked with a rapper before. West, the restless bourgeois-creative, wanted to "see how far he could expand" hip hop, he told the New York Times. The results were spectacular, yielding another three Grammy wins — Best Rap Album again, plus Best Rap Song for "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," and Best Rap Solo Performance for "Gold Digger." Late Registration debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 — a feat West would repeat with every subsequent solo album release.
"On Late Registration, the Louis Vuitton Don doesn't just set out to create pop music — he wants to be pop music," wrote Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone's five-star review of the album. "So he steps up his lyrical game, shows off his epic production skills, reaches higher, pushes harder, and claims the whole world of music as hip hop turf."
In September 2005, a month after Late Registration's release, West appeared on an NBC broadcast to raise funds for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He caused a national media storm — his first, but by no means his last — when he opined live on air that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," articulating widespread criticism of the president for not visiting the devastated city of New Orleans right away. Bush was deeply stung by West's comment, later calling it a "disgusting moment." Of the two men, West probably lost less sleep: he would later say that dissing Taylor Swift in 2009 was "bigger than the Bush moment."
After touring with U2 in 2005-06, West was inspired to make hip hop more anthemic, to be performed in stadiums and arenas. He began to draw influence from both rock 'n' roll (the Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Killers) and house music (which originated in his hometown of Chicago). This led to his third album, Graduation, on September 11, 2007. It dropped the same day as 50 Cent's album Curtis, in what was hyped as a battle for hip-hop's soul — the erudite showman versus the bullet-scarred street thug. But with Graduation's groundbreaking (for hip-hop) palette of layered electronic synthesizers, and sloganeering wordplay — "I'm like the fly Malcolm X/Buy any jeans necessary," he smirked on 'Good Morning' — there could only be one winner. West's album sold 957,000 copies in its first six days, going straight to No. 1.
With the music industry beginning to wring its hands about the effect of the internet on its profit margins, West simply embraced the change with his video for the single "Can't Tell Me Nothing," for which he hired the comedian Zach Galifianakis to lip-sync along to the lyrics on an alternate version, creating a viral sensation on YouTube.
Heartbreak & Controversy with MTV-Taylor Swift Debacle
West was on top of the world, hailed as the artist who had killed gangsta rap. And then, in November 2007, tragedy struck. His beloved mother, Donda, died from a heart attack following cosmetic surgery. During his first concert following the funeral, he dedicated a performance of "Hey Mama" to her. Months later, West broke up with his fiancée, Alexis Phifer. His next album, 808s & Heartbreak, released 12 months after his mom died, was shot through with grief, pain and alienation. West even abandoned rapping altogether, preferring to sing through an Auto-Tune vocal processor, which lent his voice a robotic tone — a technique now ubiquitous in hip hop. He classified the new album as "pop art" (not to be confused with the visual art movement) and announced: "Hip hop is over for me." (It wasn't — he won two Grammys for guest raps he made that year, on Estelle's "American Boy" and TI's "Swagga Like Us.")
The fragility of West's state of mind was called into question at the MTV Video Music Awards the following year. At the ceremony in Radio City Music Hall in New York, he invaded the stage during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for the Best Female Video award (for "You Belong to Me") to protest that Beyoncé should have won instead. (The reverberations from that moment are still being felt. West apologized, then retracted his apology in a New York Times interview in 2013. By 2015 they had become friends and were even spotted at dinner together. Then in 2016 Kanye rapped on his song "Famous": "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that b**** famous." Swift hit back from the stage at the 2016 Grammy Awards — this time uninterrupted — with the words: "I want to say to all the young women out there: There will be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments... Don't let those people sidetrack you."
Yeezy Takes on Fashion
After the Swift debacle, West took a break from music to focus on fashion. He had already been collaborating with labels including A Bathing Ape and Nike on limited-edition sneakers since 2006. He even reportedly interned at Gap in 2009, and later Fendi, to gain experience. He launched his first collection in Paris in 2011 — but it was widely panned. "You can't just dump some fox fur on a runway and call it luxury," sniffed Long Nguyen, style director of Flaunt magazine. West gave a wounded-sounding speech at the show's after-party. "Please be easy," he said. "Please give me a chance to grow." After his second collection a year later received a lukewarm reception, West announced he would no longer be showing in Paris.
He collaborated with the French label APC on a capsule collection in 2013 and signed a $10 million deal with Adidas, launching his first apparel collection Yeezy Season 1, with the brand in October 2015. The line has had a mixed reception — although his recent Season 5 collection in February 2017 won praise from Anna Wintour. "I liked it a lot," she told the New York Post. "A little bit more focus than sometimes we've seen from him."
'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'
West returned to music in November 2010 with his fifth album — with paranoid celebrity and rampant consumption the dominant themes: it was a bombastic and towering monument to self-aggrandizement that sounded "like an instant greatest hits" according to Pitchfork. It was the best and worst of Kanye West rolled into one: a magnum opus that bordered on the delusional. It yielded four singles, including "Monster," on which West, Jay Z and Rick Ross were memorably battered into runners-up spots by a blistering guest verse from Nicki Minaj. West and his old sparring partner Jay Z then released a collaborative album, Watch the Throne in 2011 — it yielded seven singles including "Otis" and "Niggas in Paris"; and added three more Grammy wins to West's and Jay Z's respective hauls (they both have 21 each).
Marriage to Kim Kardashian
In 2012 West released a compilation album, Cruel Summer, showcasing artists on his GOOD Music label. But that year the headlines were more concerned over his relationship with the reality-TV star Kim Kardashian, which began in April. They got engaged in October 21, 2013, after West proposed at the AT&T baseball stadium in San Francisco, and they married on May 24, 2014, in the historic Fort di Belvedere in Italy. Andrea Bocelli sang as Kardashian walked down the aisle, in front of guests that included the designer Rachel Roy, the tennis champion Serena Williams, the film director Steve McQueen and music stars John Legend, Q-Tip, Rick Rubin, Tyga and Lana Del Ray. The couple have three children: daughter North (born June 15, 2013) son Saint (born December 5, 2015) and another daughter (born via surrogate January 15, 2018). They seemed to have it all.
But anyone listening to West's sixth album, Yeezus, which came out in June 2013, would hear little evidence that the rapper was living an idyllic existence. Sonically the album was abrasive, raw and almost entirely melody-free — West had enlisted the producer Rick Rubin to make wholesale changes just days before the release. Lyrically, West sounded paranoid and narcissistic to the point of bathos, especially on "I Am a God," which contained the immortal line "Hurry up with my damn croissants." West claimed the album was an "attack on the commercial," and certainly it contained little that was radio-friendly — barring the magnificent glam-rock-inspired single, "Black Skinhead" (the first of only two singles from the album). Yeezus remains the only West album to have sold fewer than 1 million copies in the US. Yet it was critically well received — not least by the rock legend Lou Reed, who told Rolling Stone that "Each track is like making a movie... The guy really, really, really is talented."
The Jimmy Kimmel Beef
A Twitter spat erupted that September with West and Jimmy Kimmel, after the talk-show host mocked an interview West had given to the BBC in the UK. Kimmel hired child actors to recite some of West's more bombastic quotes on his show. But West was far from amused. "Jimmy Kimmel is out of line to try and spoof in any way the first piece of honest media in years," read one of a series of angry tweets. Kimmel gleefully read out West's tweets during his next show — sparking more opprobrium from the rapper, who shared a link to a Slate article titled: "Kanye was right."
The following month West appeared in person on Jimmy Kimmel Live — the interview lasted most of the episode, and featured several free-flowing Kanye monologues, covering everything from his career to his thoughts on the paparazzi, Steve Jobs and Jesus. "I don't know if you know this, but a lot of people think you're a jerk," joked Kimmel, although he went on to praise West's character. It turned out the two had known each other prior to the spat, which was why West had been hurt by Kimmel's portrayal of him. Kimmel admitted that considering a celebrity's feelings was "not something that comes to mind when I'm cooking up a comedy sketch." By the end of the show they had cleared the air.
Collaboration with Paul McCartney, Rihanna & More Public Outbursts
At the start of 2015 West became the only rapper in history to record with Paul McCartney, releasing a single, "Four Five Seconds," with the Beatles legend and Rihanna. But a month later came another award-show disruption, this time at the Grammys, where West objected to Beck winning the Best Album award. "Beck needs to respect artistry, and he should have given his award to Beyoncé," West said after the ceremony. Months later he retracted his statement in an interview with The Sunday Times newspaper in England. "I was inaccurate with the concept of a gentleman who plays 14 instruments not respecting artistry," he said. In March, West was announced as a co-owner of the music-streaming service Tidal, along with various other artists including Beyoncé, Jay Z, Rihanna, Madonna, Chris Martin and Nicki Minaj. In June he headlined the Glastonbury festival in the UK, despite a petition of 135,000 signatures asking for him to be removed from the bill.
'The Life of Pablo'
There was more controversy in the run-up to his seventh album, The Life of Pablo. Before its release on February 14, 2016, West hit the headlines for a series of controversial tweets - including one that proclaimed Bill Cosby, on trial for drugging and raping women, to be innocent. He started a beef with the rapper Wiz Khalifa, whom he mistakenly believed to have criticized his wife, Kim Kardashian ("I am your OG and I will be respected as such," West tweeted.). He also apologized to Michael Jordan for appearing to diss the basketball legend in his lyrics. And then the day after his album came out, West bizarrely urged his followers to lobby Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to invest $1 billion into West's "ideas." He also claimed to be $53 million in debt.
The album itself was another change of direction, and another triumph. It covered a much broader sonic sweep than Yeezus, incorporating a vast array of sounds, styles and influences, from trap to gospel to Auto-Tune crooning, to avant-pop, classic soul and dancehall. Guest vocalists included Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Rihanna, Desiigner and Kid Cudi. It became West's sixth solo album in succession to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Canceling Tour Dates to New Album
On November 20, 2016, while on his Saint Pablo Tour, West stopped a concert in Sacramento to embark on a garbled rant about radio playlists, MTV, Obama, Trump, Beyoncé and Jay Z ("Jay Z, call me, bruh... I know you got killers. Please don't send them at my head..."). It was the second time within a week that he had ranted onstage and voiced support for Trump, and this time it sounded like a public breakdown — he did not complete the show. The following day he canceled the remaining 21 dates of his tour citing exhaustion, subsequently spending eight days hospitalized at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
In February 2017, the GOOD music president, Pusha T, said in an interview that West was working on a new album. Rumors surrounding the album's development continued to surface, with some reports saying the award-winning artist had retreated to the mountains of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for creative inspiration.
Following a break from the spotlight, West began working his way back into the news cycle in April 2018 with the announcement that he was writing a philosophy-themed book, Break the Simulation. Days later, he confirmed the rumors about new material in a rapid-fire series of tweets, declaring he would drop two albums within a week of one another in June, the second one involving longtime collaborator Kid Cudi.
Whatever may be happening right now in the colorful, carnival world of Kanye West, it's a likely bet that he will be reinventing hip hop again in the near future, and doing so in new digs: In November 2017, it was announced that he and his wife had sold their Bel-Air mansion for $17.8 million, clearing the path to move into a posh $20 million estate in Hidden Hills, California.
(Profile photo of Kanye West by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
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