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West World

How Kanye West went from being a nerdy Midwestern kid with braces to become the most provocative pop star in America

February 9, 2006

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 993 from February 9, 2006.. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus

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 specific 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 like, '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 beat 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 Kanye West 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 most 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."

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