Kanye West: Head of the Class

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

kanye west head of class
Danny Clinch
Kanye West
By |

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?

West was born in Atlanta, the only child of Donda West, a professor of English at Chicago State University for the past twenty-four years, and Ray West, a pastoral counselor who holds two master's degrees. The couple divorced when Kanye was just three, and Donda moved to Chicago with her son. Kanye grew up in a single-parent, single-child home and became extremely close with his mother. "I've always worshipped the ground he walked on," Donda says. "People could say I spoiled Kanye. I don't think so. He was very much indulged." (He spent summers with his father and is less close with him. Kanye calls their relationship strained, though Ray disagrees. "There's never a phone call we don't end with 'I love you,'" he says.)

Donda is Kanye's biggest fan. She bought fifteen copies of The College Dropout and accepted no freebies. She listens to it constantly. "I'm a fan of 50 Cent, Ludacris, Eminem," she says. "I even like Chingy. But I really haven't been as impressed by their lyrics as I am by Kanye's. I mean, Kanye has a way of putting a unique twist to things. [On 'Through the Wire'] he doesn't say, Thank God I ain't too cool for the safety belt.' He says, 'Thank God I ain't too cool for the safe belt.' I just think it's so brilliant."

He was a kid who lived in his own head, made his own toys and always had tremendous presence. "My son displayed his charisma even in day care," his father says. "From his earliest age my son would be focused on what he was focused on, and you'd find other kids gathering around him, focused on what he's focused on."

West began rhyming in third grade. A few years later he got the itch to design video games. "For a video game, you need a design program and characters and movement and animation and background and music," he says. "So my mother's helping me get all these programs. And I remember the day, back in seventh grade, getting the sound program and going home and getting hooked onto it." He became obsessed with sounds. "I never had to worry about 'Where's Kanye?'" Donda says, "because he was sitting right there in front of that keyboard."

At fourteen, West met the man he calls his stepfather, Willie Scott. "He taught me just like Boyz N the Hood." West says. "I'd come home, and there'd be trash in the yard, and he'd say, 'Pick up that trash.' And I'd be like, 'Why? I ain't put it there.' He'd say 'It's your house. You have to take care of it.' That's the reason I'm here today."

In high school, West took honors classes and made beats that he sold for $50 to $200. His drawing and painting won him a one-semester scholarship to the Americar Academy of Art in Chicago. But he already knew he was going to make it in hip-hop. "I didn't believe in school," he says "but I didn't have anything better than that." When he was asked to take out a loan to pay for a second semester, he balked. "Why would you take out a loan for something you don't want?" he says. "That's like getting somebody to loan you some money for a car that you're not really into."

His mother was the head of the English department at Chicago State, so he went there at a steep discount but remained disenchanted. "One of my courses was piano," he says. "I actually went to college to learn how to play piano. Talk about wastin' some money." After a semester and a half, he dropped out. "I put my hand over my heart like Fred Sanford when he said he was dropping out!" Donda says. "But he had the right words to convince me that it was the right thing for him to do. He said, 'Mom, all my life I've had the professor in the house.' What could I say to that?" Three years later, he was still living with his mother when an A&R man at Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records took a liking to West's sound.

It's minutes to Midnight. In the parking lot of little Kean University in Union, New Jersey, amid affordable Hondas and Volkswagens, there's a hulking tour bus devoted to West, and there are two Maybachs, which is, right now, the ultimate hip-hop ride. The superluxury sedan costs more than $300,000; only 600 were sold last year. One miracle whip is Jay-Z's.

West hops out of his tour bus, zips over to Jay-Z's Maybach and climbs into the front seat. Jay's in the back, in a blue Rocawear jacket, crisp Rocawear jeans and sneakers so white he's probably never worn them before. Beside him is a sexy woman in a short skirt and fabulous Pucci boots. There's an assortment of Dentyne packs in the console and The Love Below on the sound system.

West signed with Roc-A-Fella in 2002 and developed a close relationship with his boss. "I still look up to Jay like a father figure," West says. Jay agrees that there's something of a father-son bond between them. "We talk about a lot of things," he says. "About how shit will go, what shit he gonna step in and what to look out for."

Jay-Z has this air of confidence so towering that if you've got even a speck of insecurity, it'll come out. Surely West knows this, but he's got a new toy that he's excited about. He takes the Jesus piece from around his neck and hands it to Jay for inspection. At first, Jay's impressed with the exquisite craftsmanship. Then I ask, "Don't it look funny to you that Mr. 'Jesus Walks's Jesus is white?" With that, Jay's eyebrows lower and skepticism comes over his face.

"That is a little different," Jay says, no longer impressed.

"Nah," West argues. "That's Grandma's Jesus!" It's his first time testing the excuse.

Jay is unmoved. "You gotta darken that face up, man."

"And get rid of them blue eyes," the woman next to him chimes in.

"We tried to get rid of the blue eyes," West says, on the defensive. He knew this would happen. "The blue eyes look best."

"Yeah," Jay says, knowing he's got West cornered. "That's what they make you think." Then he blurts out a laugh at the young rapper's expense.

West tries to explain, but Jay has heard enough. "Yo, man, we got a friend of ours' party to go to," he says. "What time you get onstage? Kick them niggas off or something."

They all say it's tough love at the Roc.

Ten minutes later West hits the stage, still wearing his troublemaking Jesus. Most of the few hundred students know all the words to West's songs, which is a bit ironic. Dropout's songs and skits poke fun at the imperative to attend college to a bitter effect, as if the message were, "You're a fool for staying in school." ("I do think [the skits] are a little harsh myself," West says.) But West's rhymes play up his intelligence while mocking the world of books. Jay-Z won't let him off the hook for wearing a white Jesus, but with his fans, West can have it both ways. Long past midnight, the Kean crowd raps right along with West's smart anti-college rhymes: "Ain't no tuition for havin' no ambition," he says on "We Don't Care." "And ain't no loans for sittin' yo' ass at home. There'll be no hitting the books tonight."

This story is from the April 29th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 947: April 29, 2004