Kanye West: A Genius in Praise of Himself

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On "Stronger," you rhyme "Apollonia" with "Isotoners." How does that happen?
That shit's crazy, right? [Sings] "You know how long I been on ya/Since Prince was on Apollonia/Since O.J. had Isotoners . . ." It's just retarded. Certain lines are so pure. There's a lot of rappers that get into freestyle battles, and they use prefabricated metaphors and similes. Like referencing guns to sports: "I got a nine on me like . . ." some quarterback who wears number nine. You see those rhymes coming a mile away, and they're unimpressive, after the fact. The lines that are genius are the Apollonia/ Isotoners, just out-of-the-blue shit. Or "she got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson . . ." [from The College Dropout's "Slow Jamz"]. That line made me a star. Before that record came out, I used to go to Virgin Megastore and thank God for those last moments of solitude, because I knew I'd be famous after people heard the Michael Jackson line.

Each of your songs has the arc of a storyteller, and such great wordplay. What do you know about Bob Dylan?
Man, a couple of people have played me some tracks. Samantha Ronson was like, "Yo, certain shit that you do reminds me of this guy." Not only the music but the way I've dealt with the press. I need to get more into it. They've said the same things about Johnny Cash. Somebody played me a Johnny Cash song, and the story was so dope. It came together better than any story I had – a father had named his son . . .

Yeah! I haven't reached the level of what Johnny Cash did. The closest thing in hip-hop is "Girls, Girls, Girls," by Jay-Z.

The date for your 50 Cent showdown is, of all days, September 11th.
Right. That was a scary thing. I was a little worried about that day, because I didn't want to be offensive to anyone, to act like I was neglecting that. But people also want to celebrate and have a good time and have something to uplift their spirits. And I believe that my music is inspirational, so it's the perfect album to come out on a day like that. The songs dial into the energy that people need at that time: "Did you realize that you were a champion?"; "Throw your hands up in the sky"; "That which don't kill me can only make me stronger"; "I did it for the glory." [Smiles] Barack couldn't have given a better answer than that.

50 Cent and Kanye West: Watch the Hip-Hop Titans Behind the Scenes at the Rolling Stone Cover Shoot

Everybody knows how you felt about Bush's response to Katrina. How do you rate Bush 's response to 9/11?
I haven't studied enough about it. When I made my statement about Katrina, it was a social statement, an emotional statement, not a political one. After that statement, people were coming to me for these magical statements to sum up the emotions of the entire country. They don't always come to me.

You just turned thirty. How was that?
We had a little get-together with less than twenty people, my close, close friends. We had some mad-good barbecue chicken, and my mom gave me a painting of some angels, which was really thoughtful.

What about the aspect of growing older?
Fuck the thirties! I hate my thirties. It's going to take me a while to get used to it. I envy people who like getting older, because I don't.

You were pissed that Jay-Z also recorded with Chris Martin, and their track "Beach Chair" came out first.
What's so funny is, he is really mad cool with Chris Martin – they hang out. Are they not allowed to go into the studio because he did a song with me? So that was pretty bitchy on my part. He had the right to do it, but it was like me wanting to be the first one to wear Jordans. It was just me being competitive.

So you initially refused to play Graduation for Jay? Like he was going to rip off another one of your ideas?
Yeah, that was the thing. I was complaining that I didn't want to play the album for Jay, because of the Coldplay thing. Then Jay [Z] hit me back, like, "What the fuck do you mean, you can't play the album for me? You forget who I am? I'm your big brother." That's where I got the term.

For "Big Brother," obviously. Were you in the room when Jay first heard that?
I played him a piece of it. I had that first verse done, that line where I said, "You got me outta my mama's crib/And then you helped me get my mama a crib." Which are two major turning points in any man's life.

What was Jay's reaction? I heard he shed a tear.
All I will say was that it was a very serious moment. The song was like an apology for me. Jay had so many good ideas for the record, and I was acting like a bitch and not wanting to play it for him.

You are the only current pop star to tour with a string section. When did you realize that strings and beats were such a potent combination?
Especially since Late Registration, right? [Grabs his laptop and opens to an image of the cover of Portishead's 1998 album "Roseland NYC Live," featuring a sea of string players.] Seeing this album cover did so much for me. This picture inspired me. I saw it years back, but on my first album I couldn't afford real strings. So after I won those Grammys, the first thing I did was run to Jon Brion, and then I ran and got a string section. Hip-hop never had strings that lush with drums that hard. But Portishead had that. And they sounded hip-hop, and people vibed to that. I said, "OK, what if we do that and I drop my poetry shit on top of it?" [Quoting "Anchorman"] "Drink it in San Diego, it goes down smooth."

You're always on your computer. Common said that you're always on the Internet. What sites are you on?
Yeah, we're always moving around – we do about 200 shows every year – so the Internet is the only way to be in contact with what's going on in the center of the universe, which is New York. I look at party sites like What's Poppin'. I look at blogs. I look at porn, but I still only trust manual DVD porn purchases.

In hindsight, what would you change about Late Registration?
Man, I think it had a lot of great songs on it, but I think the songs were indulgent and that the album itself was poorly put together. I put too much shit on it. Songs are too long, there are skits that I would have left off. It could have been a tighter package. When you listen to it, you have to fast-forward some shit.

What albums do you listen to and not fast-forward?
Sam's Town, by the Killers. Thom Yorke's Eraser is my shit. Keane's Under the Iron Sea. Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Those songs are stadium songs. I listen to everything on John Mayer's last album except for "Waiting on the World to Change." What the fuck was that?

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Song Stories


The Commodores | 1984

The year after soul legends Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson died, songwriter Dennis Lambert asked members of the Commodores to give him a tape of ideas. "And the one from Walter Orange has this wonderful bass line," said co-writer Franne Golde. "Plus the lyric, 'Marvin, he was a friend of mine' ... Within 10 minutes, we had decided it should be something like a modern R&B version of 'Rock 'n' Roll Heaven,' and I just said, 'Nightshift.'" This tribute to the recently deceased musicians was the band's only hit without Lionel Richie, who had left for a solo career.

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