It's the wee hours of a Monday night in London, and inside Stringfellows strip club, about a dozen scantily clad women form a rough semicircle around Kanye West and his small entourage. The girls let him know that for just one twenty-pound note (about forty dollars), they will drop their knickers and gyrate in his face for the length of one song, and while I contemplate how low the U.S. dollar has plummeted, West scans the room and kicks back on a couch, armed with a stack of bills. Over the next few hours, he hardly moves an inch. The strip-club environment seems to have tranquilized him. For someone who travels through life at hyperspeed and talks a mile a minute, West is unusually still and silent. Inside these walls, during this brief moment, he is able to pleasantly disconnect himself from the hoopla surrounding his new album, Graduation, and his impending showdown with 50 Cent at the record stores.
Graduation is West's third album. In 2004, as a pink-Polo-wearing preppy with a positive message, the Chicago native broke through with The College Dropout, netting three Grammys, including one for his song "Jesus Walks," which contemplated his relationship with God, and another for his skilled production work behind the Alicia Keys hit "You Don't Know My Name." In 2005, he branched out with Late Registration, the five-star album on which he collaborated with producer Jon Brion. Over the years, West has become a lightning rod for controversy, not only for his highly un-hip-hop fashion sense (which could be described as metrosexual) but also for braggadocio and unfiltered outspokenness regarding the ills of society.
Famously, West complained to reporters backstage at the 2004 American Music Awards after country singer Gretchen Wilson won for Best New Artist, expressed his outrage at the rampant homophobia in hip-hop and, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, declared that George Bush doesn't care about black people. Aside from the rare fashion faux pas – he'd like to forget that he showed up at the Grammys last year in a lavender tuxedo/white-glove combo – it is usually West's mouth that lands him in pop-culture purgatory. And last November, after he stormed the stage to protest a Best Video victory by dance-music tag team Justice and Simian at MTV's European Music Awards, he watched his approval ratings plummet. "When I saw it on MSN the next day, it looks like I went into an orphanage and bit a baby's head off," says West, who obsessively monitors his image via blogs and other Internet sites. "I felt like the Earth was on top of me."
It was a wake-up call. And instead of publicly defending himself, West chilled out and hunkered down, immersing himself in the music. Graduation is another stellar accomplishment. His thoughts are focused, his stories are vivid, and his rhymes can be both bizarre and breathtaking. "Drunk and Hot Girls" is a dead-honest portrayal of chasing ladies, inspired by a hook from the 1972 Can cut "Sing Swan Song." (Listening to the original track, West heard the line "drunk and hot girls," while the actual lyrics appear to be "drunky hot bowls.") "Champion" samples Steely Dan's gem "Kid Charlemagne." Coldplay's Chris Martin adds gospel-flavored piano on "Homecoming." And "Big Brother" is a tear-jerking ode to his mentor and label boss, Jay-Z.
As a performer, West seems to operate entirely on impulses. During the three shows I witness in the London area, there is no set list, and if a song failed to ignite an audience, it was aborted on West's command. In conversation, over the course of many hours in his hotel room and while traveling through England, he is impulsive as well. He frequently veers off-subject, breaks into song, thinks up new lyrics and cracks jokes. Sometimes he can only tide his loquacity and end a rant with a sentence so random that there is nowhere to go with it ("Hey, I just looked down and realized how dope my shirt is").
Nevertheless, it is fascinating to watch his mouth try to keep pace with his brain. Over Diet Cokes and fistfuls of popcorn and chocolate M&M's, the inquisitive Mr. West begins with a question of his own: "What's your favorite song?"
That would be "Drunk and Hot Girls."
That's my life-defining song. Jay-Z said that that's the anthem, a stadium-killer. I'm going to tell you, on some real shit, out of all the songs I've done – "Touch the Sky," "Jesus Walks" – that song represents me the most.
At the end of the day, everything relates back to trying to do something for a girl. [Sings] "We go through too much bullshit just to mess with these drunk and hot girls." It's my entire life, from being a five-year-old trying to reach for that porno magazine all the way to the thirty-year-old getting into an argument with his girlfriend. It sums up my whole fuckin' life. Guys will go through a lot to chase women. A guy will get on a plane and go to the other side of the world to hit it for the first time, and won't cross the street to hit it the second time. But as a man, your whole life is to provide for that girl in that white dress, that missing picture in your wedding photo. That was poetically put, if I do say so myself.
If you will, tell me about your fiancée.
Even though I will tell you mad shit about porn, I don't go into depth about me and my fiancée's relationship. "Fuck you, this is my life." I dedicate a lot of my time to make music and provide something for the fans that they'll enjoy, but my relationship isn't for the fans to like and enjoy. It's for me to like and enjoy.
People probably ask, "Why are you settling down?"
I think real rock stars get married and have little rock-star kids. At some point, you have to add some sort of stability to your life. You have to have something real that you can hold on to. There can be a point where your records don't sell as much, or you're not as popular as you used to be. The best thing that any of the Backstreet Boys could have had was a really good woman in their life. I'm sure they had a lot of good pussy, but good pussy is fleeting. What's another word for "good pussy" that's less vulgar?
Moving on, I also like your new cut "Everything I Am."
Aw, yeah. I thought that that song could relate to a girl in high school, dealing with people coming down on her. [Sings] "Everything I'm not made me everything I am." In my humble opinion, that's a prophetic statement. Gandhi would have said something like that. Picture somebody going up to him saying, "This is bad about me, blah, blah, blah." And Gandhi would come back and say, "Everything you're not made you everything you are. Leave, my son."
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