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Kanye West: Head of the Class

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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.

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