West will be the first to admit that he's never been the type to conform. Raised in the middle-class South Shore suburb of Chicago, he says, "I was always on my own island." His parents divorced when he was three, so West spent the school year with his mother, Donda, the former chair of the English department at Chicago State University, and summers with his father, Ray, a former Black Panther who — among other things — has been a photographer, a counselor and is now a sociology professor at the College of Southern Maryland. Ray, whose loving but no-nonsense style is reminiscent of Laurence Fishburne's character in Boyz N the Hood, recalls a time when a band of local kids tried to make off with his son's bicycle. When he wouldn't hand over his wheels, "they pulled a knife out on him and slashed his tires. He was about eight or nine." In high school, West, according to people who knew him back then, was teased for having braces and teeth the size of Chiclets. Even West's year in the Far East with his mother, who was a visiting professor at Nanjing University, was joke fodder. "When he came back from China, he was teased frequently," his father says. "He was called China Boy. Kids can be very cruel."
Through it all, West maintained a mask of self-assuredness. "In the past, people have mistaken my aloofness for arrogance, so he probably gets that from me," explains Ray, an affable man with a smile in his sturdy Kanye West voice. "The braggadociousness comes from his mother's father, Buddy. Buddy is a true Muhammad Ali fan. He will tell you in a minute that he's the best thing to ever come along." Ray is clearly his son's biggest fan, but he does have some reservations about Kanye's use of the n-word: "I've stated to him very clearly that he needs to move beyond the negative language and the 'nigger' statements. It's all right to say 'bitch' and 'Motherfucker' on the corner, but when you start operating on a different level you can't talk like that. Fine, you're trying to get some street acceptance. Now that you got that, get back to your roots. You know that's not where you came from. You know that's not how you were raised."
At age nineteen, after a year of college, West decided that he would prefer a life in the music industry as a rapper-producer to hours spent in musty libraries researching term papers, and dropped out, much to the chagrin of his parents. He pestered local beatmakers into teaching him the tricks of the trade. A mixture of sheer will and serendipity led to West producing songs for Jay-Z's critically and commercially adored Blueprint album. But when West asked to make his own records, Hova and his then-partner Damon Dash weren't convinced that their charge was necessarily ready to rock a crowd. This had as much to do with his penchant for pink polo shirts as it did his background, which was far more Cosby Show than Good Times. Fearing that West would flee to a rival label, they eventually signed the fledgling rapper to Roc-A-Fella. "We figured if we kept him close, at the very least we'd still have some hot beats," Jay-Z says. Things changed, however, once The College Dropout, a seventy-two-minute catalog of West's various neuroses, debuted near the top of the Billboard charts. "It went from skepticism to excitement," says Jay.
Another gloriously sunny day has arrived in the City of Angels, and West is at his home away from home, the Mondrian Hotel, devouring a brunch of scrambled eggs, bacon and ham. Neighboring diners try their best not to stare at him. Our overly attentive waitress quickly becomes a nuisance. "Just let me know if you need anything else," she chirps every five minutes. Despite his posh surroundings, he can't forget his humble beginnings, the nights when he was booed off stage, the doors that were constantly slammed in his face. "It's always right there," he says, "so even amidst all the cheers, I can never quite enter into la-la land. And the fact that these issues are always looming is why I get paid the big bucks. Because I'm so conscious of all these things, I put it in my music and everyone relates to it."
Keyshia Cole calls, and the two discuss West's previous evening in the studio. He asks her to lend her vocals to the MI3 track. It will be worth her while, he promises. "This joint right here is so good, it's disrespectful to Motherfuckers," he says. "Niggas are gonna hear this and be like, 'Come on, nigga, fall back.'"
He finishes with Cole, and I ask him if he remembers being nearly jacked for his bike when he was a kid. He does. "But I don't want to talk about that in Rolling Stone, because I know they'll make that the highlight of the story," he says. Instead, West, for some inexplicable reason, feels more comfortable discussing his addiction to porn, something, he points out, he has in common with the gospel singer Kirk Franklin. Partial to the popular Booty Talk-series, West traces his "addiction" back to age five, when he happened upon one of his father's Playboy magazines. "Right then," he says, laughing deeply, "it was like, 'Houston, we have a problem.'"
How he manages to find the time to watch X-rated films is beyond me. His Motorola Razr vibrates incessantly. "Nobody in rap, except for 50, is this busy at this level," says West, who in upcoming months plans to direct music videos, to star in and produce films, to launch artists like GLC and Farnsworth Bentley (Diddy's former umbrella-wielding assistant) and to finish renovating his loft in Manhattan and his grand home in the Hollywood Hills. Despite his hectic schedule, he has no problem fretting over the smallest of details. At one point he even argues that he should be able to proofread this story. (So not happening, by the way.) He's been burned in the past, he says, and would like to make sure every word in this piece is an accurate reflection of him. I call him a control freak. "You want to be that person in the Fruit of the Loom line putting that 'This was inspected by No. 832' sticker on each pair of underwear," I suggest.
"No," he shoots back, "I want to be the person that hires that person."
Later, he says, "If I was more complacent and I let things slide, my life would be easier, but you all wouldn't be as entertained. My misery is your pleasure."
After brunch, West invites me to tour his sprawling panty-dropper-of-a-pad in Hollywood. I am reminded of my earlier conversation with Adam Levine. "I knew that Kanye was a great artist — not when we had one of those deep, meaningful conversations about what inspires him," Levine said, "but when he invited me over to his place. It's gutted, there's no paint, no furniture, no floors. I asked him why he hadn't renovated yet, and he said, 'I did, but we had to do it again because it wasn't right.'" Though construction is still very much under way — workers clutching heavy machinery mill about — the four-story shell is fabulous. Like a kid let loose in an FAO Schwarz, West races throughout the space, pointing out the ceiling where an Ernie Barnes painting he's commissioned will hang; the massive master bedroom; the glossy catalogs with photos of the B & B Italia furniture he's already purchased; the dorm-room-size closet, which, among other things, holds nearly fifty pairs of sneakers. "Those are where the Grammys are," West says, pointing to a cardboard box. An assortment of teddy bears (his mascot) rests on a windowsill near a BET award that's collecting dust. "People give me bears all the time," he says. "I love stuffed animals." Standing at the center of what will be the media room, he says, "Once this place is finished it's going to be so tastefully done."
He rushes up to the top floor's balcony and takes in the breathtaking view of Los Angeles. "Top of the world," he says smiling. For a minute, he looks at peace. Then we leave.
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