On the morning of July 29th, 2010, Rolling Stone‘s Twitter account sent out a message to Kanye West. “Hey Kanye!” it read. “Since you’re in NYC, come visit the Rolling Stone offices and rap for us!” West had been previewing songs from his upcoming album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and writer Daniel Kreps thought he should play them for Rolling Stone. “We did it as a joke,” says Kreps, “not anticipating he’d respond or actually come to the office.”
But the next day, West burst into Rolling Stone‘s midtown headquarters with a laptop full of unreleased music. For the next two hours, the most gifted, most complicated musician of his generation holed up in a small conference room packed beyond capacity with staffers. After a hilarious speech in which he talked about an internship at the Italian fashion label Fendi, explained the album and compared himself to Daniel Day-Lewis, West ripped off the jacket of his designer suit, leapt onto the conference room table and rapped along to much of Dark Twisted Fantasy. He sometimes got so close to staffers that they had to wipe his spittle off their faces. “He appeared to be actually weeping during ‘Runaway,’ ” says editor Christian Hoard.
The visit was the most bizarre moment in Rolling Stone‘s relationship with West, which dates back to a short 2003 feature just ahead of the rapper’s debut album. In that piece, and a handful of others, West proved himself an amazingly unfiltered interview, commenting on everything from his love of NoDoz to his belief that AIDS was created by the government. “He is stream-of-conscious,” says writer Lola Ogunnaike. “He’s so present, so raw, and that makes him a journalist’s dream.”
For his first Rolling Stone cover, in 2006, West infuriated the religious right by posing as Christ for photographer David LaChapelle. Ogunnaike wrote the story after watching West obsessively work on a track for the Mission: Impossible III soundtrack in an L.A. studio. “He was so committed to getting every line, stanza or note right,” Ogunnaike says. She finally got an interview – after watching him work for 13 hours. Writer Austin Scaggs had to wait even longer when he traveled to London for another cover story in 2007. Scaggs accompanied West and Rihanna to a strip club and chilled with him backstage, but West was constantly distracted. After a week of this, Scaggs finally interviewed him during a five-hour drive across England. “He had no access to the Internet, and it was so dark he couldn’t see out the window,” says Scaggs. “Once I had his focus, he was unbelievable.”
Weeks after the issue hit stands, West’s mother, Donda, died suddenly. “I don’t think he was fully able to process that loss,” says Ogunnaike. “She’d been his emotional and mental anchor and his biggest cheerleader.” After Donda’s death, West talked to the press much less; several planned Rolling Stone interviews collapsed at the last moment. “I was supposed to do a Q&A with him at one point,” says Scaggs. “But the whole interview turned into a 40-minute conversation about why he didn’t want to do the interview.”
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Setting up a story with West was a roller-coaster ride. “He wanted total control over the photo process,” says former editor Nathan Brackett. “He also wanted to literally control every piece of type in the article.” In 2016, West insisted that his friend Tyler, the Creator shoot his cover photo on his iPhone. After Rolling Stone declined those terms, West posted the photo to Twitter with the Rolling Stone logo on top and the baffling cover line kanye: does he like mustard? Rolling Stone had to clarify with its own tweet: “While we love Kanye, and have many mustard-related questions for him, this is not an actual cover of Rolling Stone.” (Kim Kardashian responded: “It Should Be. . . .”)
All of which makes West’s openness during his office visit more remarkable. After playing his album, West began asking every person in the jammed room to tell him their favorite band or artist. With deadlines pressing, staffers began to excuse themselves. “His publicist was like, ‘OK, we are going to go now,’ ” Kreps recalls. “So I never got to tell Kanye how much I loved the Beta Band.”
“Kanye didn’t want people to leave,” says Brackett. “In a way, you could see it was kind of a metaphor for his whole career. He’s this incredible genius, but the force of his personality would eventually wear you down. It’s a shame he doesn’t talk to the press anymore. He is one of the all-time great interviews.”