How he went from being a nerdy Midwestern kid with braces to become the most provocative pop star in America
It's just weeks before the forty-eighth annual Grammy Awards, and Kanye West is lounging in a well-appointed suite in Manhattan's swanky Mercer Hotel, now commonly referred to as the site where Russell Crowe, in a fit of rage, hurled a telephone at an unsuspecting employee. Far away from the fabulous chaos that is the downstairs lobby – Lindsay Lohan, Ben Kingsley and the designer Marc Jacobs are but a few of the boldfacers swirling about – West tucks into a dinner of roast chicken and squash soup. It doesn't take long for conversation to wind toward the eight Grammy nominations that his second album, Late Registration, has garnered. But before he begins cataloging the specifie statues he'd like to see on his mantel, West takes a moment to reflect on how far he's come since he burst on the scene with his stellar debut, The College Dropout, in 2004.
All of the goals he set for himself as a fledgling producer in Chicago years ago have since been achieved, goals that he simply defines as such: "To go gold or platinum," he says, "to have songs that are respected across the board, to have some sort of influence on the culture and to change the sound of music and inspire up-and-coming artists to go against the grain." In West's mind, his mission has already been accomplished: "If I was to say that I hadn't already done all of that, then I'd be on some fake Hollywood bullshit modesty, and that's just plain stupid."
It has become a cliché to call Kanye West arrogant. Whether discussing his music or his style of dress, his intellect or his production prowess, he has absolutely no qualms about patting himself on the back. "Everyone in the country is in therapy and spending all their money on self-help books so their little internal voice will be able to say, 'I am good and I am OK,'" says Fiona Apple producer Jon Brion, who worked closely with West on Late Registration. "If you're going to believe all the stuff about positive thinking and self-actualization, that we affect our environment by the way we think about ourselves, do you want a better example than Kanye West? Fuck Tony Robbins. Kanye West should have infomercials."
Those hoping that success will tamp down West's outsize ego will be waiting for quite some time. "In America, they want you to accomplish these great feats, to pull off these David Copperfield-type stunts," West says. "But let someone ask you about what you're doing, and if you turn around and say, 'It's great,' then people are tike, 'What's wrong with you?' You want me to be great, but you don't ever want me to say I'm great?"
At twenty-eight, West is one of the most popular and polarizing artists in music today. And while he's sold more than 4 million albums to date, he is as known for his outspokenness as he is for his hitmaking ability. His temper tantrum at the 2004 American Music Awards after Gretchen Wilson heat him out for Best New Artist, his no-holds-barred takedown of George Bush after the Hurricane Katrina disaster – not since Tupac Shakur has a rapper been so compelling, so ridiculously brash, so irresistibly entertaining. After having produced a slew of chart-toppers for the likes of Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name"), Twista ("Slow Jamz") and Jay-Z ("Izzo [H.O.V.A.]," "Takeover"), he traded his position behind the mixing board for a microphone. Since then, he has amassed a pile of his own hits, including "Through the Wire," "All Falls Down" and the massive "Jesus Walks." Six months after its release in 2005, "Gold Digger," his hypercatchy ode to women who "ain't messin' with no broke niggas," still blasts from radios across the country and packs club floors. "You'll be out somewhere dancing or having a drink, and when that song comes on, people just lose their shit," says Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, who collaborated with West on the Registration track "Heard 'Em Say." "You just see the room ignite. It's a monster, monster hit. A classic."
"Gold Digger," which features Jamie Foxx in Ray Charles mode, is nominated alongside Mariah Carey and Green Day for Record of the Year, and naturally West believes his effort should win. "Don't ask me what I think the best song of last year was, because my opinion is the same as rest of America's," he says, shrugging. "It was 'Gold Digger.' " Never one for understatement, he goes so far as to call his track an "international anthem." White ladies, old Jewish guys, Ethiopians, Australians, they all loved the single, he says, "It's got all these pop accolades, but it also really connected in the hood. It's what you attempt to do every time you walk into the studio." Just to be clear, he would also like the Album of the Year Grammy, thank you very much. He doesn't, however, believe "They Say," his song with Common, should win for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. "I just think it was a bullshit nomination," he says. "You're telling me that if someone sat you down in a room for thirty minutes and told you to come up with a list of all the best collaborations of the year, you would come up with 'They Say'? Not to sound arrogant, but how was 'They Say' nominated over 'Heard 'Em Say,' and how was that song nominated over 'Gold Digger'? And why wasn't 'Gold Digger" nominated for Best Rap Song? That's a gimme Grammy."
If he's afraid that his statements will hurt his chances of dragging home a wagon filled with miniature gold-plated phonographs, he's not letting on. "Kanye is always opinionated and outspoken, and now that it's Grammy time he turns into a house nigga?" he asks, referring to himself in the third person. "Come on. That's not even realistic."
Days later, on a bright Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, West is holed up in a wood-paneled studio, working on a song for the Mission: Impossible III soundtrack. He is photo-shoot-ready in dark jeans and a fitted brown T-shirt with fuchsia sequins that spell out the words GETTING OUT OUR DREAMS, the initials of which form the name of his record label. His pastel-colored Nikes are unlaced just so; his khaki Bathing Ape bomber jacket, which perfectly matches his outfit, rests on a leather couch. This was not a look that was just thrown together. (Few things in West's life, it turns out, are left to chance.) As his voice blares from behemoth speakers – "I don't want to hear that bullshit," he rhymes, "I want to hear that official shit/Kanye and that Twista shit/It's so impossible to get it/Get it/It's so impossible to get it" – he dances about the room, vigorously nodding his head, furiously pumping his fists, skipping side to side in immeasurable glee. West is in the zone, and consequently hours will slip away without him noticing.
In the course of the day, he'll receive several visitors, including two execs from the MI3 empire, a representative from the clothing line LRG and Will.i.am, the dread-locked member of the hip-hop quartet Black Eyed Peas. The two buppie rappers immediately launch into a brief conversation about Justin Timberlake.
"I'm finishing up Justin's album, and that shit is dope," says Will, who moonlights as a producer. "He surprised me again." "Oh, yeah," West replies, smiling. "Well, I know who's going to win the Grammy next year." Timberlake, he later says, is one of his idols. The two exchange more pleasantries before Will grows pensive. He is wondering in what direction he should take his upcoming solo album. "Why don't you just do vintage hip-hop?" West suggests.
"Yeah, we kinda did that with Q-Tip's new joint," says Will. "That song is so fresh. It sounds like Midnight Marauders."
It's not long before Will and West are trading compliments. "This shit is hot," Will says, as the line "I don't want to hear that bullshit" plays overhead.
"I love your album," West says. "The only albums that I listened to were yours, System of a Down and Fiona Apple."
West's booking agent at the management firm CAA, Jeff Frasco, drops by shortly after Will takes off. "It's going to be a good year, Kanye," Frasco declares after listening to the skeleton of the new song.
"It's already starting off good," says West.
Before departing, Frasco says, "Duran Duran asked me if you'd do a track on their album."
West is noncommittal. "Oh, yeah" is all he offers.
Later in the afternoon, the raspy-voiced Macy Gray, who is working in a neighboring studio, pops in. West immediately enlists her services, inviting her to sing the hook on the new song.
"I know you're a big, famous superstar and all, but can you reference this song for me?" he says sweetly.
Gray agrees, but before bounding into the recording booth she asks, "What note should I sing it in?"
"I don't know stuff like that," West says matter-of-factly.
It turns out that Gray's unique high-pitched voice, to put it kindly, doesn't exactly work for the track. He considers going with Keyshia Cole, the R&B singer many have taken to calling the new Mary J. Blige.
As Gray machetes her way through the chorus, West asks his light-skinned and leggy girlfriend, Brooke Crittendon, what she thinks. "Give her a minute," Crittendon says diplomatically. "Maybe if she sings it in a lower register it will work."
It doesn't work, but nevertheless West continues to solicit advice from his lady throughout the day. In fact, it appears that he likes to create by committee. Background singers and studio engineers, girlfriends and fellow producers, all will eventually be mined for insights, At one point during the afternoon he even turns to me and asks for my help in filling out the chorus. He uses two lines that I suggest and never looks back. (Kanye, I know you're reading this. We'll talk points later.)
"I have to be careful," says Crittendon, a twenty-four-year-old assistant at MTV "because if I tell him I don't like something, he'll cut it." The two have been dating for more than a year, an eternity in the music industry, and she's racked up her fair share of frequent-flier miles jetting around the country to spend weekends with West. "I don't think we've ever been apart longer than seven days," she says, as a screensaver photo of the couple flashes on West's laptop. Entire days spent in the studio are nothing new to her. "Even if he isn't talking to me, he just likes me to be here," she says. How does their relationship work? "By the grace of God," she says, chuckling softly. Does she trust him? "If someone makes an agreement, I expect them to honor it." She pauses. I notice that the two have matching gold Bulgari watches. "I trust him," she says finally. "He's got so much going on, but he never makes me feel like I'm number two."
The clock strikes 3 A.M., which means that West has been in the studio for more than thirteen hours.
The last thing he'd like to be doing right now is an interview. Still, he grudgingly obliges. I ask him about the last line in "Gold Digger" – the "he leave yo' ass for a white girl" line. It's one of his best lyrics, he says. "When I said that line in my head I was like, 'This is why I get paid the big bucks. It's lines like that that separate the good from the great.'" Anyone who may have interpreted that line as an indictment of interracial dating would be sorely mistaken. If it wasn't for race mixing, there'd be no video girls, West argues in all earnestness. And, he continues, "Me and most of my friends like mutts a lot." By mutts does he mean biracial, cablinasian types? "Yeah, in the hood they call 'em mutts."
On "Heard 'Em Say," he rhymes, "I know the government administered AIDS." Does he honestly believe that? "Yes," the rapper says. "My parents taught me that AIDS was a man-made disease designed to get rid of the undesirable people." Blacks and homosexuals, he means.
After spending a few days with West, I start to believe that he has an entire arsenal of grenadelike one-liners, a Louis Vuitton backpack filled with incendiary quotables like "George Bush doesn't care about black people." "With Kanye, it's either say nothing or tell the truth," says Antonio "L.A." Reid, head of the Island Def Jam Music Group. "He's not concerned with all of that bullshit in between."
West is reluctant to relive the evening of September 2nd, when, at an NBC telethon benefiting victims of Hurricane Katrina, he decided to veer off script and speak from the heart, "You don't know how many people have asked me about that," he says, sighing heavily. "It's like my gift and my curse." A quick recap: As comedian Mike Myers looked on in abject horror, West launched into a passionate and unfiltered minute-and-a half rant about Bush's slow response time. "I hate the way they portray us in the media," he said. "You see a black family, it says they're looting. If you see a white family, it says they're looking for food." His voice was noticeably shaky and he seemed just seconds away from wetting his pants. "It was definitely a courageous move," says Aaron McGruder, creator of the popular hip-hop comic strip "The Boondocks," which, over the years, has been particularly tough on the W. administration. "He didn't know what the ramifications would be. He didn't know if it would end his career, and you could see all of that on his face. You're not just dissing another rapper. You're dissing the president of the United States. That's real beef."
West says he didn't set out to dis Bush. "I threw more jabs at myself that night," he says. "Does anybody remember the whole thirty seconds I spent talking about how I turned away from the television set, how I went shopping? No, all anyone remembers is 'George Bush doesn't care about black people.'"
West has been lauded for what he said that night, but in his mind his call to end homophobia in hip-hop during an MTV interview was a gutsier move than blasting the president. Last year the rapper, who has a homosexual cousin, decided he'd had enough of the gay-bashing in an industry where the word "faggot" is as common as the word "the." Instantly, rumors about West batting for the other team began to swirl. "I knew there would be a backlash," he says, "but it didn't scare me, because I felt like God wanted me to say something about that."
West will be the first to admit that he's never been the type to conform. Raised in the middle-class South Shore suburb of Chicago, he says, "I was always on my own island." His parents divorced when he was three, so West spent the school year with his mother, Donda, the former chair of the English department at Chicago State University, and summers with his father, Ray, a former Black Panther who – among other things – has been a photographer, a counselor and is now a sociology professor at the College of Southern Maryland. Ray, whose loving but no-nonsense style is reminiscent of Laurence Fishburne's character in Boyz N the Hood, recalls a time when a band of local kids tried to make off with his son's bicycle. When he wouldn't hand over his wheels, "they pulled a knife out on him and slashed his tires. He was about eight or nine." In high school, West, according to people who knew him back then, was teased for having braces and teeth the size of Chiclets. Even West's year in the Far East with his mother, who was a visiting professor at Nanjing University, was joke fodder. "When he came back from China, he was teased frequently," his father says. "He was called China Boy. Kids can be very cruel." Through it all, West maintained a mask of self-assuredness. "In the past, people have mistaken my aloofness for arrogance, so he probably gets that from me," explains Ray, an affable man with a smile in his sturdy voice. "The braggadociousness comes from his mother's father, Buddy. Buddy is a true Muhammad Ali fan. He will tell you in a minute that he's the best thing to ever come along." Play is clearly his son's biggest fan, but he does have some reservations about Kanye's use of the n-word: "I've stated to him very clearly that he needs to move beyond the negative language and the 'nigger' statements. It's all right to say 'bitch' and 'motherfucker' on the corner, but when you start operating on a different level you can't talk like that. Fine, you're trying to get some street acceptance. Now that you got that, get back to your roots. You know that's not where you came from. You know that's not how you were raised."
At age nineteen, after a year of college, West decided that he would prefer a life in the music industry as a rapper-producer to hours spent in musty libraries researching term papers, and dropped out, much to the chagrin of his parents. He pestered local beatmakers into teaching him the tricks of the trade. A mixture of sheer will and serendipity led to West producing songs for Jay-Z's critically and commercially adored Blueprint album. But when West asked to make his own records, Hova and his then-partner Damon Dash weren't convinced that their charge was necessarily ready to rock a crowd. This had as much to do with his penchant for pink polo shirts as it did his background, which was far more Cosby Show than Good Times. Fearing that West would flee to a rival label, they eventually signed the fledgling rapper to Roc-A-Fella. "We figured if we kept him close, at the very least we'd still have some hot beats," Jay-Z says. Things changed, however, once The College Dropout, a seventy-two-minute catalog of West's various neuroses, debuted near the top of the Billboard charts. "It went from skepticism to excitement," says Jay.
Another gloriously sunny day has arrived in the City of Angels, and West is at his home away from home, the Mondrian Hotel, devouring a brunch of scrambled eggs, bacon and ham. Neighboring diners try their best not to stare at him. Our overly attentive waitress quickly becomes a nuisance. "Just let me know if you need anything else," she chirps every five minutes. Despite his posh surroundings, he can't forget his humble beginnings, the nights when he was booed off stage, the doors that were constantly slammed in his face. "It's always right there," he says, "so even amidst all the cheers, I can never quite enter into la-la land. And the fact that these issues are always looming is why I get paid the big bucks. Because I'm so conscious of all these things, I put it in my music and everyone relates to it."
Keyshia Cole calls, and the two discuss West's previous evening in the studio. He asks her to lend her vocals to the MI3 track. It will be worth her while, he promises. "This joint right here is so good, it's disrespectful to motherfuckers," he says. "Niggas are gonna hear this and be like, 'Come on, nigga, fall back.'"
He finishes with Cole, and I ask him if he remembers being nearly jacked for his bike when he was a kid. He does. "But I don't want to talk about that in Rolling Stone, because I know they'll make that the highlight of the story," he says. Instead, West, for some inexplicable reason, feels more comfortable discussing his addiction to porn, something, he points out, he has in common with the gospel singer Kirk Franklin. Partial to the popular Booty Talk series, West traces his "addiction" back to age five, when he happened upon one of his father's Playboy magazines. "Right then," he says, laughing deeply, "it was like, 'Houston, we have a problem.'"
How he manages to find the time to watch X-rated films is beyond me. His Motorola Razr vibrates incessantly. "Nobody in rap, except for 50, is this busy at this level," says West, who in upcoming months plans to direct music videos, to star in and produce films, to launch artists like GLC and Farnsworth Bentley (Diddy's former umbrella-wielding assistant) and to finish renovating his loft in Manhattan and his grand home in the Hollywood Hills. Despite his hectic schedule, he has no problem fretting over the smallest of details. At one point he even argues that he should be able to proofread this story. (So not happening, by the way.) He's been burned in the past, he says, and would like to make sure every word in this piece is an accurate reflection of him. I call him a control freak. "You want to be that person in the Fruit of the Loom line putting that 'This was inspected by No. 832' sticker on each pair of underwear," I suggest.
"No," he shoots back, "I want to be the person that hires that person."
Later, he says, "If I was more complacent and I let things slide, my life would be easier, but you all wouldn't be as entertained. My misery is your pleasure."
After brunch, West invites me to tour his sprawling panty-dropper-of-a-pad in Hollywood. I am reminded of my earlier conversation with Adam Levine. "I knew that Kanye was a great artist – not when we had one of those deep, meaningful conversations about what inspires him," Levine said, "but when He invited me over to his place. It's gutted, there's no paint, no furniture, no floors. I asked him why he hadn't renovated yet, and he said, 'I did, but we had to do it again because it wasn't right.' " Though construction is still very much under way – workers clutching heavy machinery mill about – the four-story shell is fabulous. Like a kid let loose in an FAO Schwarz, West races throughout the space, pointing out the ceiling where an Ernie Barnes painting he's commissioned will hang; the massive master bedroom; the glossy catalogs with photos of the B&B Italia furniture he's already purchased; the dorm-room-size closet, which, among other things, holds nearly fifty pairs of sneakers. "Those are where the Grammys are," West says, pointing to a cardboard box. An assortment of teddy bears (his mascot) rests on a windowsill near a BET award that's collecting dust. "People give me bears all the time," he says. "I love stuffed animals." Standing at the center of what will be the media room, he says, "Once this place is finished it's going to be so tastefully done."
He rushes up to the top floor's balcony and takes in the breathtaking view of Los Angeles. "Top of the world," he says smiling. For a minute, he looks at peace. Then we leave.