Kanye West is the narcissist we deserve, often admire, and sometimes love. To prepare for the release of his sixth album, Yeezus, and to contextualize the upcoming onslaught of reviews, rambles and write-ups, we've prepared a sort of annotated bibliography of his past decade.
THE FADER FEATURES
"Kanye West's Time Has Come," FADER #20, 2003
A bourgeois background is nothing new in hip-hop, of course. The music's secret history is the way in which the middle class has pumped out gangs of tough-talking rappers and thus, as these things go, steered the fate of the music itself. What distinguishes West is not even that he's openly admitting these values. West is distinct because he's claiming the middle class as his own and rapping from that perspective, about that life, and directly to those listeners in myriad ways: a formula that propelled the huge success of Lauryn Hill's Miseducation in '98.
Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, 2013:
"Rob Stone, co-founder of music magazine the Fader, recalled the budding lyricist visiting his office in 2003 and quietly asking him to put on a CD. He then rapped 'voraciously' over the instrumentals for a song he wrote after a serious car crash, 'Through the Wire,' which would become his first solo hit. Mr. Stone says, 'He was performing as if he was in front of 20,000 people but there was only four of us in the room.' That display earned Mr. West his first magazine cover."
Since the release of College Dropout in 2005, West has been served a heaping stack of shit along with his even bigger stack of shine. He's been blasted about his credibility, his character, his personal life, his history and the number of shirt buttons he leaves open in public. West's extreme self-confidence has always been tempered with a tendency to take critique harshly, but instead of defending himself on Graduation, he responds with the daring of an artist who has something to prove.
Kanye West has become a brand synonymous with not just success, but innovation, and its CEO is as mercurial and provocative as Steve Jobs.
Ever since I was at preschool I had little kids following me around.
I think in the daily life of a black male, we gay-bash way more than we disrespect women. We would call a gay guy a fag to his face. But if we walked up to a woman and said ''Aiight, bitch!'' we would know that was disrespectful. I remember five years ago I was in this clothing store in Greenwich Village with my old girlfriend. I said the word fag kind of loud and there were some gay dudes in the store. My girlfriend was like, ''Yo, c'mon, step into the new millennium.'' Well, my level of consciousness has since raised. And I actually think that standing up for gays was even more crazy than bad-mouthing the president.
I'm a pop enigma. I live and breathe every element in life. I rock a bespoke suit and I go to Harold's for fried chicken. It's all these things at once, because, as a tastemaker, I find the best of everything. There's certain things that black people are the best at and certain things that white people are the best at. Whatever we as black people are the best at, I'ma go get that. Like, on Christmas I don't want any food that tastes white. And when I go to purchase a house, I don't want my credit to look black.
[Jay-Z] 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. I was complaining that I didn't want to play the album for Jay, because of the Coldplay thing. Then Jay 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."
I want the freedom of having less fans. It's like the freedom of having less money. If you have less money, you have less responsibility. It's like Björk. If she wanted to pose naked, you'd be like, 'Oh, that's Björk.' But if I wanted to pose naked, people would draw all type of things into it. I definitely feel like, in the next however many years, if I work out for two months, that I'll pose naked.
I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life.
What was arrogant about that [the Taylor Swift situation]? That's completely selfless. That's like jumping in front of a bullet. I lost an arm. I'm walking around trying to put my album out with one arm right now. Every time I try to perform a song, everybody's like, 'Well, what's up with that missing arm, though?'
"It's like this," West adds before hanging up, "by not giving my album a classic rating, you diminish your magazine's credibility. And that's real."
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."
Back in 1996, when he left college to pursue music, he couldn't get arrested. He blew an interview with Mike Mauldin at Columbia records by announcing his ambition to overtake R&B kingpin Jermaine Dupri, oblivious to the fact that Dupri's real surname is - oops - Mauldin.
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.'"
"It's weird - I heard about my Mom passing on a plane and I heard about Obama getting elected on a plane," he says. "Like Obama, I'm from Chicago and I would have loved to have made it back to take in the celebrations that night but it just couldn't be done. I still find it unbelievable that he won." There's a slight feeling that he finds it equally unbelievable, and not a little inconvenient, that Obama went and made political history in the same week as West was beginning the promotional campaign for his new album.
A question about the type of woman he'd settle down with elicits a classic hyperbolic yet self-evident response: "What I feel like—'cause I wanna be married, of course—I feel like the type of girl I would be with is a fellow superhero. So we get that 'already flying and now we're just flying together' thing."
But when West complains about the pillows, it's not just an underhanded brag. It also speaks to a deeper sense that, as life has gotten ever more luxuriously comfortable for him, he has become that much more restive and incapable of truly enjoying it. He fancies himself a king these days, but throughout his career he has frequently come across like a princess tossing and turning atop a pea. It's as though an irritating little voice nags at him from down below, telling him that he still hasn't achieved everything he can, that he still doesn't have all the success he deserves, and that he never will. Sometimes he says he doesn't want to be "limited by the art form of rap," and sometimes he sets his sights higher and says he doesn't want to be limited by the 21st century: "When I think of competition it's like I try to create against the past. I think about Michelangelo and Picasso, you know, the pyramids," he says.
"Drake was the first thing that actually scared me and put pressure on me, because it was the first thing that was blatantly from a similar perspective and lane. When I feel pressure, I step my game up. So I believe that Drake made great music for people to love and enjoy, but he also forced me to step my game up, because I have to be Kanye West."
STORIES BY JON CARAMANICA
Once liminal, now integral, West is the person in pop music who is most entitled to overreach and the one most likely to overstep.
Mr. West has kept a relatively low profile since he hijacked Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at last year's MTV Video Music Awards. A few weeks ago he made some of his first public appearances since then with performances at the offices of Facebook and Twitter. But now he's back at saturation levels, thanks to his Twitter intensity and a slew of new songs that he's releasing weekly through his blog, kanyeuniversecity.com/blog. This is the familiar Mr. West, logorrheic and punchy, seeping all over the media available to him.
"Twisted Fantasy" is a hip-hop album accessible to both insiders and outsiders, arriving in a moment in which other genres are as open-armed as ever. Since his debut album Mr. West has boldly asserted his primacy, demanding that others — critics, award shows, other artists — fall in line. By asking to be judged at a higher level Mr. West implicitly allows for it by creating the language for that acclaim. And maybe in some way fear plays a role, with institutions worried that history will not smile on dissenters.
Mr. West is often depicted as arrogant and surly, but the warm swaddle of the Kardashian clan has done him wonders. In one episode he helps clear Kim's closet of clothes that he deems out of style and fills it up with sexier, more severe items; in another, he attends Kourtney's baby shower and has a private moment with Khloe discussing his relationship with Kim, admitting, "It's scary, but it's about me being responsible with my heart."
"Like, J-Kwon, "Tipsy." People would think that's like a lower-quality, less intellectual form of hip-hop, but that's always my No. 1. There's no opera sounds on this new album, you know what I mean? It's just like, super low-bit. I'm still, like, slightly a snob, but I completely removed my snob heaven songs; I just removed them altogether.
West has shown he can be all things to all people, from the nouveau riche who shares his thirst for diamonds to the janitor earnestly working his way up. He possesses a pathological need to ask the impossible, important questions, even if he is the first to confess that he hasn't a clue about the answers.
On the surface, this stripped-down, haunted album promises a paean to vulnerability—in other words, all self-doubt, no arrogance. Ironically, though, 808s and Heartbreak is the least vulnerable thing West has released. It's a spiteful breakup album in which he plays the mostly blameless victim, a nasty feast of wound-licking and backbiting, and a claustrophobic pity party that brooks hardly any self-reflection.
Do you think Kanye ever made the extremely morbid connection between his verse on "Throw Some D's" (in which he offers to upgrade his theoretical girlfriend's breast implants) and the fact that his mom died from complications following cosmetic surgery? That his single mom's overwhelming need to be physically attractive to men (which led to her death) is connected to Kanye's own desire for women to be perfect sex robots who he can mentally control.
Here is an album that has begged to be taken seriously as an event, from its lavish, paranoid listening sessions to Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci's gilded, Transformer-at-rest album cover. The powers that be chose to debut the album on iTunes rather than stores so that fans worldwide could experience the duo's grand vision together at the same time — a strike against Internet piracy disguised as a gesture of egalitarianism, a victory for the big guy over mom-and-pop record shops. But none of this could truly prepare listeners for Watch the Throne, which, at its core, is a marvel of affluenza...[Watch the Throne] is the culmination of a wealth-happy maximalism that is as logical as it is ill-timed. Rarely has an album seemed so simultaneously in and out of touch with the exigencies of American life.
THE FADER LISTENING PARTY REVIEWS
There's a couple more joints we can't wait to hear again, but we don't want to ruin the surprise for the rest of y'all by going into detail (plus, we went there for music and Hen-rock, not to take notes).
West delivered a monologue about how this album is about the freedom to do what you want to do and that he used Auto-Tune because it is the most fun thing ever. Then he said 808s & Heartbreak was about emotional nakedness. Then he said he'll have another album out next June. Then the DJ played "Good Life" and we went to get our car from the valet parking before the line got out of hand.
West's intro speech highlighted his connections to black "pioneers" of the last generation, but Kanye spent the more time talking about his rollout strategy and the Yeezy sneakers he designs. Talking about how he's learned to make a "better sneaker" than Lanvin's for just $300, he didn't sound so much anti-establishment as he did a guy from a start up, bragging about smartly "disrupting" an industry. Smart ideas and business strategies don't necessarily challenge the status quo, though.
Bloated tracklist, guest star overload, lyrical paradoxes: It all might sound a bit critical for an 8+ album, but College Dropout's flaws tend to only help make Kanye West all the more personable as an artist.
Those who claim Kanye West's antics hinder his work are missing the point. His self-importance is obvious, but the arrogance that comes pre-packaged with his insecurity is what makes West the most interesting hip-hop figure of the past five years.
Lyrically, West is magnanimous, corny, self-aggrandizing, and likeable in the all the usual ways. The difference here is that he's dialed down his inner conflict. The neurotic inner monologues of his most engaging verses are virtually absent here. If there's one criticism to be made of Graduation, it's that in striving for universality, he's sacrificed a more personal dimension of himself.
Poor Kanye West.
West's comments would be cut from the West Coast feed, an NBC spokeswoman told The TV Column. (The Associated Press later reported that only his comment about the president was edited out.) The show was live on the East Coast with a several-second delay; someone with his finger on a button was keeping an ear peeled in case someone uttered an obscenity but did not realize that West had gone off-script, the spokeswoman said.
Six-ish hours later, and I'm still unsure if the Kanye West/Taylor Swift brouhaha at tonight's Video Music Awards was a work or a shoot. That is, whether it was the result of a genuine outpouring of emotion on Kanye West's part, or just a way for the VMAs to sneak up behind the rest of the cable lineup and command the television-watching nation's attention.
Rapper Kanye West does not read books or respect them but nevertheless he has written one that he would like you to buy and read.
Barack Obama: "[Taylor Swift] seems like a perfectly nice person. She's getting her award. What's he doing up there? He's a jackass."
If this is the way fashion's going then anyone with any real talent should seriously consider a career in Tesco instead. Because that's a job with dignity. Unlike ghost-designing for a rapper who has the presumption to show "his" very first collection in Paris during prêt-à-porter – supposedly the summit for true creativity in fashion. It was the equivalent of Karl Lagerfeld launching a hip-hop career: i.e. absurd.