In November, Charlamagne tha God sat across from Kanye West at New York's Power 105.1 FM and told West exactly what he thought of the rap superstar's recent work. "I didn't like the album at all," the gravel-voiced morning show co-host, 33, declared on the air. "Yeezus was wack to me."
It took some serious chutzpah, but that's never really been a problem for Charlamagne. "I think everybody deserves some honest criticism," he says with a big grin a couple of months later. "I was looking at this guy, like, 'Yo, where did our Kanye West go? Who is this new Kanye Kardashian guy, and what the eff is his problem?' I couldn't wait to tell him that."
Charlamagne is sitting in the greenroom at MTV2, where he just taped an episode of his new late-night TV talk show, Charlamagne and Friends. It's the logical next step for the outspoken commentator, a self-styled hip-hop Howard Stern who prides himself on speaking his mind, no matter the fallout (like the time he said of Justin Bieber, "Don't be a waste of good white skin"). His other media heroes include Joan Rivers, Wendy Williams and Bill O'Reilly – "honest, opinionated people, even if I don't agree with them," he says. "I used to watch interviews and be like, 'Why is he not asking the most obvious question?' That actress is sitting there with a face full of plastic surgery. Why not ask her, 'Why did you do that to your face?'"
Raised in the small town of Monck's Corner, South Carolina, where his mom was an English teacher, Charlamagne was a gifted student who chose his stage name after studying the Carolingian Empire. But he was in and out of jail through his late teens and twenties, even as he held down a series of increasingly prominent radio jobs. "I was hustling, selling dope, carrying guns – stupid shit," he says. "I was Chief Keef, you know? Ignorant."
His stories from those days aren't exactly self-glorifying. Last year, in a video blog post about Chris Brown and Rihanna, he admitted to beating up a girlfriend who cheated on him in the mid-Nineties. "I'm fif-fucking-teen, what do you expect?" he says now. "I literally blacked out – elbowing her till she was bouncing off the bed. I haven't put a hand on a woman ever since."
The guests on tonight's episode of Charlamagne and Friends include Ice Cube and Kevin Hart. "Don't let 'em change you," Cube advises in between jokey segments where Charlamagne rips on celebrities like Anne Hathaway. But the host says he isn't worried about toning down his raw style for a basic-cable audience. "Of course, I've got to adjust the clothes," he says in the greenroom, indicating his dapper vest and neatly knotted tie. "And I've got to sit upright – like a show dog. Once I get comfortable with that? Sky's the limit."