Kanye West is full of contradictions: He's arrogant but self-deprecating, materialistic but religious, remarkably rude but also sensitive. Rather than sublimate those conflicts, his music shows them off. By melding the gangsta ethos with his own nerdy persona and making hip-hop that was at once deeply introspective, utterly distinct, and lots of fun, West became the most important new pop star of the 2000s — a character who made the mainstream come to him, rather than the other way around.
West was born in Atlanta to Ray West, a photojournalist, ex-Black Panther and counselor, and Donda West, an academic. The couple divorced when Kanye was three, and Donda raised him during school years in Chicago's South Shore suburb. Kanye spent a year in college but dropped out to pursue a musical career. He began making hip-hop beats for local acts before moving on to placing tracks on Top Ten albums by Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown, and Lil' Kim.
West's big break came when he put together the beat for Jay-Z's "This Can't Be Life," from the Roc-a-Fella co-founder's 2000 The Dynasty: Roc la Familia album. The following year, he handled production on a third of the 15 tracks on Jay-Z's The Blueprint (2001, Number One), including the smash "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" (2001, Number Eight) and the Nas dis track, "Takeover."
West's hot streak as a producer continued apace with his "chipmunk soul" style—sped-up vocal snippets of old R&B records—inspired, according to West, by the RZA's production for the Wu-Tang Clan and their associates. His signature sound helped make him one of the most in-demand producers. In the two-and-a-half years between The Blueprint and his own debut, West contributed tracks to two-dozen albums, among them: Cam'ron's Come Home with Me (2002), Talib Kweli's Quality (2002), Nas's The Lost Tapes (2002), T.I.'s Trap Muzik (2003), Beyonce's Dangerously in Love (2003), Ludacris's Chicken-N-Beer (2003), The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003), and Jay-Z's The Blueprint 2.0: The Gift and the Curse (Number One, 2002) and The Black Album (Number One, 2003).
In October, 2002, amid this whirlwind of activity, West survived a near-fatal car crash. With his jaw wired shut, West wrote the song "Through the Wire" (2004, Number 15) about the accident, rapping his lyrics (yes) "through the wire." The funny, profoundly personal track helped build the buzz for West's first album. After several delays, The College Dropout was issued on February 10, 2004 and yielded two more hits in gospel-choir-backed "Jesus Walks" (2004, Number 11) and "All Falls Down" (2004, Number Seven). That year West won three Grammy Awards, including Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song ("Jesus Walks").
West continued making hits for others, including post-College Dropout cuts like Brandy's Talk About Our Love" (Number 36, 2004), Slum Village's "Selfish" (with John Legend; Number 55, 2004), and Common's "The Corner" (Number 42 R&B, 2005). Additionally, he produced all but two of the songs on Common's 2005 album Be (Number Two), and signed R&B singer John Legend to his Getting Out Our Dreams (GOOD) label.
West's second album, Late Registration, was issued August 30, 2005, and debuted at Number One, producing several more hits: "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" (Number 43, 2005), "Gold Digger," featuring Jamie Foxx (Number One, 2005), "Touch the Sky," featuring Lupe Fiasco (Number 42, 2005), and "Heard 'Em Say," featuring Adam Levine (Number 26, 2005). Controversy ensued three days after the album's release when, during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief on NBC, West went off script: "I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says they're looting. If you see a white family, it says they're looking for food... George Bush doesn't care about black people." His statement caused an uproar and the television network issued an apology. (West's utterance was later sampled into a scorching anti-Bush song by rappers the Legendary K.O., "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People," which utilized West's rhythm track from "Gold Digger.") Late Registration went on to win West another Best Rap Album Grammy Award.
West garnered headlines in early 2006, when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns in a shot inspired by the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ. After concentrating on producing albums by John Legend (Once Again) and Common (Finding Forever), live performance (with a DJ, live drummer, backing singers, and string section accompanying him), West announced his third album, Graduation, would be issued September 11, 2007—the same date as 50 Cent's Curtis, prompting a rivalry between the MCs, and landing West another Rolling Stone cover, this one opposite 50.
50 Cent swore he would stop making music if he didn't outsell Kanye, which he didn't: Graduation debuted at Number One and sold nearly a million copies its first week (an increasingly rare event in the mid-2000s). Initially buoyed by omnipresent Daft Punk-sampling single "Stronger" (Number One, 2007), the album went on to go triple platinum thanks to single "Good Life," featuring T-Pain (Number Seven), "Can't Tell Me Nothing" (Number 41), and "Flashing Lights," featuing Dwele (Number 29). At the Grammy Awards in February, he won four trophies, including Best Rap Album and performed "Stronger" and "Hey Mama," the latter in dedication to his mother, who died of complications from cosmetic surgery in November, 2007.
In the Spring of 2008, West launched the Glow in the Dark Tour, an ambitious spectacle with a futuristic space set and light show and rotating opening acts including Gnarls Barkley and Rihanna. A bit of controversy erupted when the tour made one of its last North American stops at Bonnaroo in July: West's show started more than two hours late, at around 4 a.m., and was cut short as the sun began to rise, rendering his light show less-than-dazzling. Many fans angrily blamed West who, in a rant on his blog, blamed Bonnaroo organizers and Pearl Jam, whose longer-than-scheduled show preceded him.
In September, 2008, West debuted "Love Lockdown" (Number Three), the first single from his fourth album, 808s and Heartbreak, at the MTV Video Music Awards. The MC doesn't rap on the single, but sings with a heavily auto-tuned effect, and it signaled the sound on much on the album. Released in November, 808s debuted at Number One, but sold less than half in its first week than Graduation did, and included subsequent singles "Heartless," (Number Two) and "Amazing," (featuring Young Jeezy" (Number 81).
In September, 2009, West proved that there would be no stop to the controversies when he bound onstage while Taylor Swift was accepting the award for Best Female Video, snatched the mic from her hand, and declared that Beyonce she should have won. He later called Swift to apologize and she accepted, but the incident seemed to fit right into the fascinating persona that will likely continue to draw our collective attention for years to come.
Evan Serpick contributed to this article.