Kanye West: Head of the Class

Producer-turned-rapper Kanye West shapes up as the most successful college dropout since Bill Gates

April 29, 2004
kanye west head of class
Kanye West
Danny Clinch

Kanye West is in his bedroom, getting dressed. This often takes a while, sometimes up to sixty minutes (as a child he dreamed of becoming a fashion designer), which gives a reporter time to look around his apartment while he gets ready. He's got a luxury loft in Hoboken, New Jersey, with a spectacular view of the Hudson River and Manhattan. It's sparsely decorated because he's been traveling a lot, thanks to his freshman album, The College Dropout, which has already been bought by more than a million fans. It confirms his place as one of the great modern hip-hop producers as well as a witty, neobackpack rapper. "Kanye works for the same reason [André 3000's The Love Below] works," says Jay-Z, whose 2001 single "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" was West's first production smash. "There's too much music out there with no feeling and everybody soundin' the same. People'll give it up for creativity."

The apartment shows the spoils of new money, like a buffalo-leather couch with kangaroo-fur pillows, because West's bank account is swelling each day, thanks also to extracurricular projects such as producing Alicia Keys' chart-topping soul ballad "You Don't Know My Name." According to industry insiders, he gets $75,000 to $100,000 per track. On the wall in the main living room, there's a larger-than-life poster of himself, evidence of a certain arrogance he's long had. "When he was in kindergarten," his mother, Donda, says, "the teacher said to me, 'Kanye certainly doesn't have any problem with self-esteem, does he?'" But the poster is coming down soon. "I put me on the wall because I was the only person that had me on the wall at that time," West says later. "And now that a lot of people have me on their wall, I don't really need to do that anymore."

West has made so much money because of the soulfulness of his music, which is often built on speeding up old R&B samples, as well as the integrity of his rhymes. So many hip-hop heroes are invincible alpha men such as Jay-Z and 50 Cent, but West, 26, comes from the De La Soul family tree as a rapper unafraid to be intellectual, playful and vulnerable. "In hip-hop, we been waiting for some music that's pure and honest and a person that people can relate to and connect with," says Common, a longtime friend, who, like West, grew up in Chicago. "He shows his human side."

West's lyrics are brimming with thoughts about the black experience, the world of college and life itself. On "School Spirit," he rhymes, "Back to school and I hate it there, I hate it there/Everything I want I gotta wait a year, I wait a year/This nigga graduated at the top of our class/I went to Cheesecake, he was a motherfuckin' waiter there." He's also quite free with his shortcomings. On "All Falls Down," he says, "I got a couple past-due bills/I won't get specific/I got a problem with spending before I get it/We all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it."

"My niche is that I'm the funny version of Dead Prez," West says. "I'm the rap version of Dave Chappelle. I'm not sayin' I'm nearly as talented as Chappelle when it comes to political and social commentary, but like him, I'm laughing to keep from crying."

West has been criticized for his sample-heavy production, and he doesn't contend that it's a complex thing he's doing. "It's just speeding the records up so there'll be a tempo we can rap to," he says. "It's a natural process. If I speed Chaka Khan up to 83 bpm" – as he did on his first single, "Through the Wire," about surviving a car accident – "I'll be able to rap on it, but it'll sound chipmunky. I do my best to fight against the chipmunky shit."

He finally emerges from the bedroom in a Ralph Lauren sweater with a huge teddy bear on it, Paper Denim and Cloth jeans, and New Balance sneakers. But the center of today's outfit is the Jesus piece West picked up yesterday from Jacob the Jeweler, perhaps the top custom-jewelry man in hip-hop. About the size of a grown man's palm, it has a cluster of clear diamonds for the crown of thorns, a river of yellow and light-brown diamonds making up Jesus' blond hair, aquamarines for his blue eyes and little rubies for the tears of blood on his face. It's an ornate rendering, a $25,000 piece, and he's very proud of it. "This is so fabulous it could be in the Robb Report," he says.

"It doesn't bother you to sport a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus?" I ask him.

"Only thing that bothers me is how other people are going to react to it," he says.

"But don't you believe Jesus was black?"

"I believe Jesus was black. When I saw it, I said, 'I don't particularly want to wear this as far as what I represent, even though I love it.' But I do think it's a beautiful piece of artwork." An hour later he's back at Jacob's.

Jacob Arabo has an office at the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan with a wall of photos of him and everyone in hip-hop who's made a little money. He's got the classy, ready-to-bend-over-backward air of a luxury-goods salesman.

"I love the way it looks with the blue eyes," West tells Jacob, "but I'll get too much flak for it. I can't explain that blue-eyed shit. I need to do another one. A black one. Because I have socially conscious lyrics and I'm-a get flak."

Jacob pops out the blue stones, but West discovers that no other colored stone looks good. So even though the blue eyes bother him politically, they go back in. Can he live with a blue-eyed Christ on his chest? Can he handle the inevitable criticism?

"I gotta get my explanation together," he says as he leaves Jacob's. Twenty minutes later he's got his defense. "I'll say it's the one off my grandmother's wall!" he says. It's a eureka moment. "It's Grandma's Jesus!" Huh?

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