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“MY GREATEST PAIN IN

LIFE IS THAT I WILL NEVER


BE ABLE TO SEE MYSELF
PERFORM LIVE”

19 Hip Hop Mag


By: Evan Serpick

West was born in Atlanta to Ray West, a photojournalist, ex-Black Panther


and counselor, and Donda West, an academic. The couple divorced when
Kanye was three, years olf and Donda raised him during school years in Chi-
cago’s South Shore suburb. Kanye spent a year in college but dropped out to
pursue a musical career. He began making hip-hop beats for several number
of local acts before moving on to placing tracks on Top Ten albums by Jer-
maine Dupri, Foxy Brown, and Lil’ Kim.
West’s big break came when he put together the beat for Jay-Z’s “This
Can’t Be Life,” from the Roc-a-Fella co-founder’s 2000 The Dynasty: Roc la
Familia album. The following year, he handled production on a third of the 15
tracks on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (2001, Number One), including the smash
“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (2001, Number Eight) and the Nas dis track, “Takeover.”
West’s hot streak as a producer continued apace with his “chipmunk soul”
style—sped-up vocal snippets of old R&B records—inspired, according to
West, by the RZA’s production for the Wu-Tang Clan and their associates.
His signature sound helped make him one of the most in-demand producers.
In the two-and-a-half years between The Blueprint and his own debut, West
contributed tracks to two-dozen albums, among them: Cam’ron’s Come
Home with Me (2002), Talib Kweli’s Quality (2002), Nas’s The Lost Tapes
(2002), T.I.’s Trap Muzik (2003), Beyonce’s Dangerously in Love (2003), Lu-
dacris’s Chicken-N-Beer (2003), The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003), and Jay-Z’s
The Blueprint 2.0: The Gift and the Curse (Number One, 2002) and The Black
Album (Number One, 2003).
In October, 2002, amid this whirlwind of activity, West survived a near-fatal
car crash. With his jaw wired shut, West wrote the song “Through the Wire”
(2004, Number 15) about the accident,
rapping his lyrics (yes) “through the
wire.” The funny, profoundly personal
track helped build the buzz for West’s
first album. After several delays,The College
Dropout was issued on February 10,
2004 and yielded two more hits in gos-
pel-choir-backed “Jesus Walks” (2004,
Number 11) and “All Falls Down”
(2004, Number Seven). That year West
won three Grammy Awards, including
Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song (“Jesus
Walks”). West continued making hits for others,
in- cluding post-College Dropout cuts like Brandy’s Talk About Our Love”
(Number 36, 2004), Slum Village’s “Selfish” (with John Legend; Number 55,

Hip Hop Mag 20


2004), and Common’s “The Corner” (Number 42 R&B, 2005). Additionally, he produced
all but two of the songs on Common’s 2005 album Be (Number Two), and signed R&B
singer John Legend to his Getting Out Our Dreams (GOOD) label.
West’s second album, Late Registration, was issued August 30, 2005, and debuted
at Number One, producing several more hits: “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” (Number
43, 2005), “Gold Digger,” featuring Jamie Foxx (Number One, 2005), “Touch the Sky,”
featuring Lupe Fiasco (Number 42, 2005), and “Heard ‘Em Say,” featuring Adam Levine
(Number 26, 2005). Controversy ensued three days after the album’s release when,
during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief on NBC, West went off script: “I hate the
way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says they’re looting. If you see
a white family, it says they’re looking for food. Bush doesn’t care about black people.” His
statement caused an uproar and the television network issued an apology. (West’s utter-
ance was later sampled into a scorching anti-Bush song by rappers the Legendary K.O.,
“George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” which utilized West’s rhythm track from
“Gold Digger.”) Late Registration went on to win Kanye West another Best Rap Album
Grammy Award.
West garnered headlines in early 2006, when he appeared on the cover of Rolling
Stone wearing a crown of thorns in a shot inspired by the Martin Scorsese film The Last
Temptation of Christ. After concentrating on producing albums by John Legend (Once
Again) and Common (Finding Forever), live performance (with a DJ, live drummer, backing

21 Hip Hop Mag


singers, and string section accompanying him), Bonnaroo organizers and Pearl Jam, whose
West announced his third album, Graduation, longer-than-scheduled show preceded him.
would be issued September 11, 2007—the In September, 2008, West debuted “Love
same date as 50 Cent’s Curtis, prompting a Lockdown” (Number Three), the first single
rivalry between the MCs, and landing West an- from his fourth album, 808s and Heartbreak,
other Rolling Stone cover, this one opposite 50. at the MTV Video Music Awards. The MC
50 Cent swore he would stop making music doesn’t rap on the single, but sings with a heav-
if he didn’t outsell Kanye, which he didn’t: Grad- ily auto-tuned effect, and it signaled the sound
uation debuted at Number One and sold nearly on much on the album. Released in November,
a million copies its first week (an increasingly 808s debuted at Number One, but sold
rare event in the mid-2000s). Initially buoyed less than half in its first week than
by omnipresent Daft Punk-sampling single Graduation did, and included subse-
“Stronger” (Number One, 2007), the album quent singles “Heartless,” (Number
went on to go triple platinum thanks to single Two) and “Amazing,” (featuring Young
“Good Life,” featuring T-Pain (Number Sev- Jeezy” (Number 81).
en), “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” (Number In September, 2009, West proved
41), and “Flashing Lights,” featu- that there would be no stop to the
ing Dwele (Number 29). At the controversies.when he bound
Grammy Awards in February, onstage while Taylor Swift
he won four trophies, including was accepting the award for
Best Rap Album and per- Best Female Video, snatched
formed “Stronger” and “Hey the mic from her hand, and
Mama,” the latter in dedica- declared that Beyonce she
tion to his mother, who died should have won. He later
of complications from cos- called Swift to apologize
metic surgery in November, . and she accepted, but the
In the Spring of 2008, incident seemed to fit right
West launched the Glow in into the fascinating perso-
the Dark Tour, an ambitious na that will likely continue
spectacle with a futuristic to draw our collective at-
space set and light show and tention for years to come.
rotating opening acts includ-
ing Gnarls Barkley and Rihan-
na. A bit of controversy erupt-
ed when the tour made one of
its last North American stops
at Bonnaroo in July: West’s show
started more than two hours late,
at around 4 a.m., and was cut short
as the sun began to rise, rendering
his light show less-than-dazzling.
Many fans angrily blamed West
who, in a rant on his blog, blamed

Hip Hop Mag 22