It's the wee hours of a Monday night in London, and inside Stringfellows strip club, about a dozen scantily clad women form a rough semicircle around Kanye West and his small entourage. The girls let him know that for just one twenty-pound note (about forty dollars), they will drop their knickers and gyrate in his face for the length of one song, and while I contemplate how low the U.S. dollar has plummeted, West scans the room and kicks back on a couch, armed with a stack of bills. Over the next few hours, he hardly moves an inch. The strip-club environment seems to have tranquilized him. For someone who travels through life at hyperspeed and talks a mile a minute, West is unusually still and silent. Inside these walls, during this brief moment, he is able to pleasantly disconnect himself from the hoopla surrounding his new album, Graduation, and his impending showdown with 50 Cent at the record stores.
Graduation is West's third album. In 2004, as a pink-Polo-wearing preppy with a positive message, the Chicago native broke through with The College Dropout, netting three Grammys, including one for his song "Jesus Walks," which contemplated his relationship with God, and another for his skilled production work behind the Alicia Keys hit "You Don't Know My Name." In 2005, he branched out with Late Registration, the five-star album on which he collaborated with producer Jon Brion. Over the years, West has become a lightning rod for controversy, not only for his highly un-hip-hop fashion sense (which could be described as metrosexual) but also for braggadocio and unfiltered outspokenness regarding the ills of society.
Famously, West complained to reporters backstage at the 2004 American Music Awards after country singer Gretchen Wilson won for Best New Artist, expressed his outrage at the rampant homophobia in hip-hop and, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, declared that George Bush doesn't care about black people. Aside from the rare fashion faux pas – he'd like to forget that he showed up at the Grammys last year in a lavender tuxedo/white-glove combo – it is usually West's mouth that lands him in pop-culture purgatory. And last November, after he stormed the stage to protest a Best Video victory by dance-music tag team Justice and Simian at MTV's European Music Awards, he watched his approval ratings plummet. "When I saw it on MSN the next day, it looks like I went into an orphanage and bit a baby's head off," says West, who obsessively monitors his image via blogs and other Internet sites. "I felt like the Earth was on top of me."
It was a wake-up call. And instead of publicly defending himself, West chilled out and hunkered down, immersing himself in the music. Graduation is another stellar accomplishment. His thoughts are focused, his stories are vivid, and his rhymes can be both bizarre and breathtaking. "Drunk and Hot Girls" is a dead-honest portrayal of chasing ladies, inspired by a hook from the 1972 Can cut "Sing Swan Song." (Listening to the original track, West heard the line "drunk and hot girls," while the actual lyrics appear to be "drunky hot bowls.") "Champion" samples Steely Dan's gem "Kid Charlemagne." Coldplay's Chris Martin adds gospel-flavored piano on "Homecoming." And "Big Brother" is a tear-jerking ode to his mentor and label boss, Jay-Z.
As a performer, West seems to operate entirely on impulses. During the three shows I witness in the London area, there is no set list, and if a song failed to ignite an audience, it was aborted on West's command. In conversation, over the course of many hours in his hotel room and while traveling through England, he is impulsive as well. He frequently veers off-subject, breaks into song, thinks up new lyrics and cracks jokes. Sometimes he can only tide his loquacity and end a rant with a sentence so random that there is nowhere to go with it ("Hey, I just looked down and realized how dope my shirt is").
Nevertheless, it is fascinating to watch his mouth try to keep pace with his brain. Over Diet Cokes and fistfuls of popcorn and chocolate M&M's, the inquisitive Mr. West begins with a question of his own: "What's your favorite song?"
That would be "Drunk and Hot Girls."
That's my life-defining song. Jay-Z said that that's the anthem, a stadium-killer. I'm going to tell you, on some real shit, out of all the songs I've done – "Touch the Sky," "Jesus Walks" – that song represents me the most.
At the end of the day, everything relates back to trying to do something for a girl. [Sings] "We go through too much bullshit just to mess with these drunk and hot girls." It's my entire life, from being a five-year-old trying to reach for that porno magazine all the way to the thirty-year-old getting into an argument with his girlfriend. It sums up my whole fuckin' life. Guys will go through a lot to chase women. A guy will get on a plane and go to the other side of the world to hit it for the first time, and won't cross the street to hit it the second time. But as a man, your whole life is to provide for that girl in that white dress, that missing picture in your wedding photo. That was poetically put, if I do say so myself.
If you will, tell me about your fiancée.
Even though I will tell you mad shit about porn, I don't go into depth about me and my fiancée's relationship. "Fuck you, this is my life." I dedicate a lot of my time to make music and provide something for the fans that they'll enjoy, but my relationship isn't for the fans to like and enjoy. It's for me to like and enjoy.
People probably ask, "Why are you settling down?"
I think real rock stars get married and have little rock-star kids. At some point, you have to add some sort of stability to your life. You have to have something real that you can hold on to. There can be a point where your records don't sell as much, or you're not as popular as you used to be. The best thing that any of the Backstreet Boys could have had was a really good woman in their life. I'm sure they had a lot of good pussy, but good pussy is fleeting. What's another word for "good pussy" that's less vulgar?
Moving on, I also like your new cut "Everything I Am."
Aw, yeah. I thought that that song could relate to a girl in high school, dealing with people coming down on her. [Sings] "Everything I'm not made me everything I am." In my humble opinion, that's a prophetic statement. Gandhi would have said something like that. Picture somebody going up to him saying, "This is bad about me, blah, blah, blah." And Gandhi would come back and say, "Everything you're not made you everything you are. Leave, my son."
On "Stronger," you rhyme "Apollonia" with "Isotoners." How does that happen?
That shit's crazy, right? [Sings] "You know how long I been on ya/Since Prince was on Apollonia/Since O.J. had Isotoners . . ." It's just retarded. Certain lines are so pure. There's a lot of rappers that get into freestyle battles, and they use prefabricated metaphors and similes. Like referencing guns to sports: "I got a nine on me like . . ." some quarterback who wears number nine. You see those rhymes coming a mile away, and they're unimpressive, after the fact. The lines that are genius are the Apollonia/ Isotoners, just out-of-the-blue shit. Or "she got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson . . ." [from The College Dropout's "Slow Jamz"]. That line made me a star. Before that record came out, I used to go to Virgin Megastore and thank God for those last moments of solitude, because I knew I'd be famous after people heard the Michael Jackson line.
Each of your songs has the arc of a storyteller, and such great wordplay. What do you know about Bob Dylan?
Man, a couple of people have played me some tracks. Samantha Ronson was like, "Yo, certain shit that you do reminds me of this guy." Not only the music but the way I've dealt with the press. I need to get more into it. They've said the same things about Johnny Cash. Somebody played me a Johnny Cash song, and the story was so dope. It came together better than any story I had – a father had named his son . . .
Yeah! I haven't reached the level of what Johnny Cash did. The closest thing in hip-hop is "Girls, Girls, Girls," by Jay-Z.
The date for your 50 Cent showdown is, of all days, September 11th.
Right. That was a scary thing. I was a little worried about that day, because I didn't want to be offensive to anyone, to act like I was neglecting that. But people also want to celebrate and have a good time and have something to uplift their spirits. And I believe that my music is inspirational, so it's the perfect album to come out on a day like that. The songs dial into the energy that people need at that time: "Did you realize that you were a champion?"; "Throw your hands up in the sky"; "That which don't kill me can only make me stronger"; "I did it for the glory." [Smiles] Barack couldn't have given a better answer than that.
Everybody knows how you felt about Bush's response to Katrina. How do you rate Bush 's response to 9/11?
I haven't studied enough about it. When I made my statement about Katrina, it was a social statement, an emotional statement, not a political one. After that statement, people were coming to me for these magical statements to sum up the emotions of the entire country. They don't always come to me.
You just turned thirty. How was that?
We had a little get-together with less than twenty people, my close, close friends. We had some mad-good barbecue chicken, and my mom gave me a painting of some angels, which was really thoughtful.
What about the aspect of growing older?
Fuck the thirties! I hate my thirties. It's going to take me a while to get used to it. I envy people who like getting older, because I don't.
You were pissed that Jay-Z also recorded with Chris Martin, and their track "Beach Chair" came out first.
What's so funny is, he is really mad cool with Chris Martin – they hang out. Are they not allowed to go into the studio because he did a song with me? So that was pretty bitchy on my part. He had the right to do it, but it was like me wanting to be the first one to wear Jordans. It was just me being competitive.
So you initially refused to play Graduation for Jay? Like he was going to rip off another one of your ideas?
Yeah, that was the thing. I was complaining that I didn't want to play the album for Jay, because of the Coldplay thing. Then Jay [Z] hit me back, like, "What the fuck do you mean, you can't play the album for me? You forget who I am? I'm your big brother." That's where I got the term.
For "Big Brother," obviously. Were you in the room when Jay first heard that?
I played him a piece of it. I had that first verse done, that line where I said, "You got me outta my mama's crib/And then you helped me get my mama a crib." Which are two major turning points in any man's life.
What was Jay's reaction? I heard he shed a tear.
All I will say was that it was a very serious moment. The song was like an apology for me. Jay had so many good ideas for the record, and I was acting like a bitch and not wanting to play it for him.
You are the only current pop star to tour with a string section. When did you realize that strings and beats were such a potent combination?
Especially since Late Registration, right? [Grabs his laptop and opens to an image of the cover of Portishead's 1998 album "Roseland NYC Live," featuring a sea of string players.] Seeing this album cover did so much for me. This picture inspired me. I saw it years back, but on my first album I couldn't afford real strings. So after I won those Grammys, the first thing I did was run to Jon Brion, and then I ran and got a string section. Hip-hop never had strings that lush with drums that hard. But Portishead had that. And they sounded hip-hop, and people vibed to that. I said, "OK, what if we do that and I drop my poetry shit on top of it?" [Quoting "Anchorman"] "Drink it in San Diego, it goes down smooth."
You're always on your computer. Common said that you're always on the Internet. What sites are you on?
Yeah, we're always moving around – we do about 200 shows every year – so the Internet is the only way to be in contact with what's going on in the center of the universe, which is New York. I look at party sites like What's Poppin'. I look at blogs. I look at porn, but I still only trust manual DVD porn purchases.
In hindsight, what would you change about Late Registration?
Man, I think it had a lot of great songs on it, but I think the songs were indulgent and that the album itself was poorly put together. I put too much shit on it. Songs are too long, there are skits that I would have left off. It could have been a tighter package. When you listen to it, you have to fast-forward some shit.
What albums do you listen to and not fast-forward?
Sam's Town, by the Killers. Thom Yorke's Eraser is my shit. Keane's Under the Iron Sea. Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Those songs are stadium songs. I listen to everything on John Mayer's last album except for "Waiting on the World to Change." What the fuck was that?
What are the biggest regrets of your career?
I made mistakes that I regret so much. Like that Grammy outfit. People always hold that against me. But those mistakes have been turning points. If you read books – which I don't, none at all – about how to become a billionaire, they always say, "You learn more from your mistakes." So if you learn from your mistakes, then I'm a fucking genius.
You don't hesitate to call yourself a genius on Graduation.
I want to drop songs where other rappers are like, "I wish I had that." If I heard Graduation and it was made by somebody else, I would go to the bathroom and take a shit, because I would be scared. This record speaks to me so much. If I think back over the past two years, how many songs can I say, "I wish I had that song." I never wish I had "SexyBack," but I wish I had "My Love." I even wish I had [50 Cent's] "AYO Technology." I wish I was that other guy in the video with Justin. That video hurt me, man, with all the Minority Report stuff. But I think that Justin, Timbaland, 50 and I push each other.
How do you define genius?
If you have a series of genius moments, then you can be considered a genius. Genius moments can be created when a new idea is met with an overwhelming response. Like Timbaland right now – he at that point. He keeps dropping shit like, "Oh, my God! That was genius! How did you think of that?" He's in a genius zone. But if someone didn't have the intention of creating a genius moment, then it's just dumb luck, and you're not a fucking genius. That's like the George Bush comment – because I didn't know shit about politics. Everyone was like, "That was genius," but it wasn't. Not really. It wasn't premeditated.
On "The Glory," you mention empty bottles of NoDoz. I assume you like NoDoz?
Back when I was breaking into the game, I spent every waking hour focusing. I'd take a couple of NoDoz – all the time. But aside from the fact that my girl won't let me take NoDoz, they don't even work anymore. I'm completely numb to NoDoz at this point. I've taken so much that my body is immune to it.
What do you think about pot, coke and Ecstasy?
They seem like they might be OK. I don't know. A lot of people like those drugs. I don't do any of them.
Because you've tried them and you don't like them?
Wouldn't Rolling Stone wish that was the answer? I actually wish it was like that too. But contrary to the way I was acting for the past two years, I actually haven't tried coke. I've never even had the urge to. It scares me.
Everybody does coke these days, especially in L.A., where you live.
Just because I live there doesn't mean I party there. I stay in Hollywood, and I see the flashing lights and the people dancing and drinkin', but I hardly ever see someone do coke. Like in Boogie Nights, or Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls, I see people getting caught up in that whole thing and hanging out with fake-ass friends. Man, that shit could really be a real thing for me, but I won't allow it to be. My thing is making music and hanging out with my friends and doing the same regular shit I did before all of this. I don't go to a lot of parties in L.A. That shit is wack, man. I don't like the scene there. I never got into it. I love L.A., but fuck the parties. I don't want them to stop playing my music at those parties, though.
You seem more like a New Yorker than an Angeleno.
I love New York, and New York loves me. I love getting on that red-eye and landing at 7 or 8 A.M., whether it's winter or summer. I love turning on Hot 97 and knowing that I'm back in New York. It's the greatest city in the world – next to Chicago, if I'm being politically correct. I fell in love with New York before I even went there, just from watching the old videos. And now when I'm in New York, people show me so much love, in a way where I can still get to where I need to go. That's what I love about New Yorkers: They also have somewhere to be.
You seem brutally honest. Do you ever lie?
I like facing up to the realities – like black people being superhomophobic. It's still prevalent. We still are. We still will be. I'm not as brutally honest as I used to be. Sometimes honesty can be used improperly. You can use it to hurt somebody, which is wack. You have to have more tact and class than to blurt out honest statements. People can't handle the truth sometimes. I try my best not to lie to myself. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of pop culture. I feel the vibe of what's going on in the community, what's happening in the hood, what's people's temperament toward me as a celebrity, as entertainment, as a rapper, as a musician. When pop artists put a facade up and live in a fake-ass world, they don't deal with the reality of "Damn, do people really like this shit?" That's when you start falling off, when you make stuff that's less relevant to people. With a lot of the shit that older artists put out, you've got to think, "Are you listening to anything that's on the radio right now?"
You seem to consider yourself a rock star, as opposed to a hip-hop star.
Nobody represents hip-hop like Swizz Beatz. He embodies the essence of what hip-hop is about more than anyone in the game, by a long shot. His party records, his "get out of my face" shit is what hip-hop is about. It's about "boom, bap, original rap, boom, bap, throw your hands in the air, let's go." Hip-hop is black bravado times a thousand. "Yeah, bitches, yeah, my bitches and my ho's and fuck that faggot." When I say some shit like "Stop homophobia" or "My songs mean something," that's no rap shit, that's some rock shit. Hip-hop has no sensitivity.
So rock star it is?
I am a rock star. Because rock stars don't need security, and I can go to dinner and chill. Rock stars can speak well, or hop on a plane to Paris if they feel like it. Rock stars can catch cabs, they don't need entourages and they don't have to pop out of limos all the time. Rock stars can wear the same clothes every day, they can get their shoes dirty and they don't need a fuckin' haircut. Rock stars can pull their dick out in public and then go rock 20,000 people. Rock stars have a wife and kids. Rock stars do the drugs that they want, and they can get over drugs, or they don't get over drugs and it fucks them up. Rock stars can give their fucking opinion without having to deal with . . . what's that thing I get dealt with every day of my life? Oh, yeah. Backlash.