Balloon Mind State
He might blow up, but KANYE WEST is more concerned with popping the bubble of humility. NOAH CALLAHAN-BEVER takes notes as the self-professed college dropout ego trips his way to the head of the class.
“The press don’t make me,” says Kanye West, speaking into a cell phone while standing at baggage claim in Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport. “I feel like VIBE hasn’t tried to be a part of me, so I don’t want to be a part of it.” He’s arguing with Erik Parker, VIBE’s music editor, who has sent this reporter to write a feature story on West. But West wants the cover or nothing at all.
“Dog, VIBE only gave my album a 4!” exclaims Roca-A-Fella’s 26-year-old rappin’ producer, referencing a review of his debut album, The College Dropout, which ran in the October issue. “I know my shit is better than a 4. A horrible album with just ‘Jesus Walks’ on it is a 4! C’mon dog, the demo version was a 5! You need to rate it again, but you’ll have to create a new rating system.”
Parker tries to calm him down, explaining that it goes against editorial policy to review the same LP twice, and that he’d really like to have West in the magazine, but VIBE has made other cover commitments for this issue.
“Fam, it’s like this,” West begins, “in 2000, I got pulled over [by Chicago cops] in front of the mall.” He tells the story of getting arrested for stealing printers from OfficeMax, which he explains he didn’t do, nor would he need to, having already sold beats to Beanie Sigel and Lil’ Kim.
But the charges stuck, due to onlookers who identified him as the culprit based solely on his then cornrow hairstyle. He claims cops scratched out the original description of the vehicle, a cream Blazer, replacing it with one of his whip, a white Expedition. To avoid the risk of serious time, West’s legal counsel advised him to take a guilty plea with the promise that the charge would later be expunged from his record.
“So then, last year, I’m on tour with [Talib] Kweli, and we had a couple dates in Canada,” West says. “We get to the border, and they pull me aside and say, ‘Have you ever been arrested for stealing printers from OfficeMax?’” Despite the embarrassment, he eventually got into the country, but that doesn’t stop this meandering tale from functioning as his “a-ha!” moment.
“I say that to say this: Ever since that happened, I decided I’m not just taking what people give me if I feel that I deserve more,” West says, now riding in an SUV en route to a Milwaukee radio station. “When I was standing at customs in Canada, I could feel my grandfather looking down at me, just shaking his head. Right now, I feel like I deserve a cover and that doing another feature will just hurt my chances at a cover later. I don’t want you to be talkin’ about giving me a cover in 3 months, and then have you ask me if I stole a printer from OfficeMax. You feel me?”
After another half hour or so of arguing similar points, West relents, agreeing to do the story if an editor’s note amending the LP’s original review will run within the feature story. (Editor’s Note: VIBE reviewed a premature version of The College Dropout in the October 2003 issue—his label said it was the final—where it received a rating of 4. Granted, the final version is improved. You be the judge.)
“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.”
This is Kanye West at his worst.
* * *
“Um, excuse me, are you from Milwaukee?” inquires a young black woman of West, two hours before the great cover debate, while they await a delayed flight from Newark to the town Laverne & Shirley made famous.
“I’m from Chicago,” West answers. “I’m just going to do radio.”
“Radio? Are you a musician?” she asks.
“You don’t have a TV?” counters West, breaking scene to look at the camera, or in this case, the reporter, with a grin. “I just figured if you had a TV you’d know who I was,” he says, only half joking. “‘Through The Wire’ is my song. It was the number one video on MTV2 last year. You might have seen it.”
Familiar with the song, the two talk music until the woman reveals that her close relative is none other than Milwaukee’s favorite alum turned queen of the world….(*drum roll please*)…Oprah Winfrey.
That’s when West starts the hard sell, listing various accomplishments, such as producing recent number one records (“You Don’t Know My Name” and “Slow Jamz”), building a case for why he deserves to appear on Oprah’s world-famous talk show.
Then the young woman shifts gears, turning the conversation to a subject familiar to West: “I think the reason Oprah is so successful is that she’s always stayed humble,” she says.
“It’s funny that you say that, ‘cause people are always saying that I’m arrogant,” he says, “but I just think that when my confidence meets other people’s insecurity, that equals ‘Kanye’s arrogant.’”
He then does his favorite thing, illustrates his point with one of his raps. At the hushed gate, West smiles and kicks a verse to “Last Call”: “Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem or use my arrogance as a steam to power my dreams.”
This is Kanye West at his best.
* * *
At his worst or at his best, you have to appreciate West for, if nothing else, embracing his own inequities and standing behind his high opinion of self. Sometimes he pats himself on the back so hard that you might think he’s choking on his own dick, but that’s him, no front: a talented individual with an extremely weighty sense of self-importance. He’s learned that to achieve, he must sell himself, and his ability, to everybody and anybody who’ll listen. Love it or hate it, if it wasn’t for his egocentric disposition, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be enjoying his music. After all, it took gall for the Chicago upstart to go against the grain and make soul beats at a time when cheap keyboard crap ruled everything around us.
We can thank West’s ego for more than invigorating music. His success has the potential to shift the entire culture. For the last decade, rap in the mainstream has offered essentially one image of African-American males: the cold-blooded, cardboard-cutout ridah. And though one can’t blame rap for all social ills, it’s undeniable that the thug image promotes limited life options as well as limited life. West—contradictions, conflicts, conundrums, and all—offers, if nothing more, something different (that’s more approachable than Andre 3000). “I’m glad to be able to give people that option,” he says. “But I’d like people to have this alternative, even if it isn’t me.”
Whether West will truly have this influence still remains to be seen. But with almost 450,000 units of The College Dropout sold in its first week of release (a number he literally guesstimated six weeks prior, adding up his fan base as 150,000 backpackers, 150,000 college students, 100,000 females, 50,000 Roc-A-Fella devotees), and his production increasingly pervasive on the pop carts, the music industry has taken notice.
But the Kanye effect is no fluke. West’s commitment to quality, and the vanity to stand behind that which he believes in, are West family heirlooms.
Born in Atlanta to Donda and Ray West, an aspiring actress turned teacher and a Black Panther turned photojournalist, respectively, West learned these defining values from the get. His parents divorced not long after his 1977 birth. But in spite of their separation, West’s family remained tight-knit emotionally. His mother, a degree holder from Virginia Union University, as well as Clark and Auburn universities, gave up acting for a teaching position at Chicago State University, where she would go on to head the English department. This gave West a unique perspective as a rapper.
“He grew up with middle-class values and middle-class expectations,” says Donda, who moved Kanye to Chicago’s South Side when he was 3. “But we were living on my teacher’s salary, so we didn’t necessarily have middle-class income.”
Staying with his mother during the school year and only visiting his pops—who would eventually become a Christian marriage counselor—during the summer, West thrived in the new city. There he developed his boisterous personality, which his mother credits to her own father, an entrepreneur in Oklahoma City, and a huge fan of Muhammad Ali. He applauded Ali’s outspoken pride. “I can remember Kanye’s kindergarten teacher pulling me aside,” says Mrs. West. “and saying, ‘This one certainly has no issues with his self-esteem.’”
When West was in the fifth grade, his mother was offered a fellowship to teach two semesters in China, so they moved to Asia for a year. “It was weird going over there,” says West. “Most of the kids had never seen a black person before, so they’d come over to me and touch my face, thinkin’ it was paint or something.”
“I think it was very taxing on him,” says Mrs. West. “I think he got tired of being a novelty to those children. There were these skewers of sheep meat that he loved, and he used to charge kids skewers to watch him break-dance.”
During high school, West’s short attention span masked his intelligence and resulted in mediocre academic marks. These experiences followed him throughout his educational career. “We instilled a bullshit detector in Kanye from an early age,” says his mother, “and as he got older, it detected the bullshit in school. I don’t think education is bullshit, and I don’t think Kanye does either, but the schools are flawed.”
After graduating, West went to art school for one semester before enrolling at Chicago State University. Yet as he focused more attention on beats and rhymes than terms papers or final exams, it became clear that music was West’s calling. “I thought I would die when he dropped out,” says his mother. “But that’s when I realized that Kanye doesn’t respect people who don’t take their destiny in their own hands.”
* * *
So the question is, how exactly did we get to this place where Kanye West, a guy who previously couldn’t even get a record deal—perhaps the last person anyone (other than himself, of course) would’ve predicted to make a splash as a rapper—is a contender to lead the music into its next phase of evolution? One part of the answer has to do with the story of hip hop.
“When artists like myself and Mos Def came out, there was a sense of division between two opposing hip hop sides,” explains Talib Kweli, who once epitomized the underground but now enjoys moderate mainstream exposure. “You had to pick one side or the other.”
During this formative period, West nestled himself under the wing of No I.D., who produced Common’s first two LPs and whose jazzy sound defined the underground in the mid-’90s. “He taught me to speed up the records to save sample time and memory,” says West, who has since used this formula for the likes of Jay-Z and DMX and many others. “And that’s actually how I developed the style I’m known for.”
And so he came up producing for local Chicago underground acts like Grav. In ’97, West left college when Columbia A&R Donnie Inner invited him to New York City to talk about an album deal as a rapper. “I was so excited, and they sent a limo to pick me up at the airport,” says West. “But they ended the meeting by saying, ‘We’ll call you.’ And when I left the building, dog, I swear, I couldn’t even get a cab.”
West, still living with his mother, didn’t remain a lord of the underground for long. He hustled his beats to mainstream acts like Jermaine Dupri and Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, who used West as a ghost producer on his ’99 The Mad Rapper project.
“Kanye came from the generation after us,” says Kweli. “He grew up equally influenced by both parts of hip hop, so his music is a synthesis of the two.” And it was exactly that combination that attracted Roc-A-Fella A&Rs Hip Hop and Gee to West’s tracks and secured his beats on Beanie Sigel’s The Truth and Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia.
As West came into his own as a producer, Jay-Z’s stylistic sensibility shifted toward Kanye’s sample-heavy sound, resulting in The Blueprint, a collaboration that brought mainstream rap closer to its underground roots. At the same time, artists like Kweli broke ground commercially, thanks in part to West’s production.
But for many reasons (the waning economy, Internet bootlegging, a changed post-9/11 national consciousness, the jiggy rap’s glut of mediocre formula followers, the underground’s bitter lack of accessibility, etc.), the rap music industry slowed down. Under the commercial pressure, the one opposing walls of principle caved into each other, and West conveniently found himself at the point of intersection.
So now Kanye West finds himself in the precarious position of being all things to all people. He’s a cocksure rapper capable of boastful flows reminiscent of Black Sheep’s Dres. He’s got Jay-Z’s cutting-edge fashion references, 50 Cent’s sing-a-long-style choruses, and even those silly but memorable Large “mamabajahambo” Professor lines (“She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson…”). All this and strong social commentary that would make Chuck D grab some black steel. And adding to the air of young Extra P in his heyday, West pounds out his own top-of-the-line production.
“I’ve always called Kanye a totalist,” says his mother. “As a child, if he was going to dress up as a fireman, he had to have the whole outfit: boots, hat, jacket, hose, everything. He’s never wanted to do anything halfway.”
Though West’s appeal is more certainly rooted in his music, it was a nearly a nearly tragic incident in October 2002 that gave him a story to tell. While driving in Los Angeles, he fell asleep at the wheel of his Lexus sedan, breaking his jaw on the steering wheel. In the hospital, he wrote “Through The Wire”—an uplifting reflection on the indecent that sampled the Chaka Khan classic “Through The Fire”—and later, with his jaw still wired shut, recorded it. “No one at Def Jam or Roc-A-Fella believed in that record,” West says. “So I shot a video for it using $35,000 of my own money, and they didn’t even bother to clear the sample until after MTV2 added it to rotation.” More than half a year after its release, the song would peak at No. 15 on Billboard’s pop charts.
But all that outlines only half of how he’s come to be—and not the most important half, according to West. “There are a lot of people that have new and fresh ideas that just always suck,” he says, “but the ultimate thing is the quality of the songs. The fact that I’m actually talking about something new, that’s somewhat on the positive side, is just an added bonus.”
There is certainly a case to be made for this theory. With the notable exception of the tasteless but well-executed Makaveli jack “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” West has consistently rocked headphones with impeccable production for three years strong. Even if he isn’t your favorite rapper, there is no denying that The College Dropout—with its refreshing topics and meaty musical landscape—is a damn good listen, beginning to end.
* * *
With a multiplatinum promise, label-deal offers, and production commitments for J. Lo and Janet Jackson—as well as Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Slum Village—West’s unrelenting worst and charmingly confident best have put the pieces in place for a takeover of popular music rivaling that of the Neptunes.
The ‘Tunes have defined pop music at the beginning of this century, crisscrossing genres with ease. But West’s emotional musical sensibilities are a dramatic shift away from the formula the Neptunes made famous. And that’s just the beats. As a rapper, West challenges our insecurities, all the while boasting as he reveals his own. Save Eminem’s self-hating rants and Jay-Z’s occasional regrets, hip hop’s mainstream hasn’t seen this kind of vulnerable reflection in years. All of which has many fans questioning where his take on musicianship will take hip hop, and how it will affect the world of music in general.
“As far as the impact is concerned, I don’t really think that it’s my place to say,” he says, eluding even his own MO. “I told people things like, I’m gonna take over the world! because they didn’t know if it was going to happen. Now the work is gonna speak for itself.”
That is, unless you’re a doubtful rap fan, a reluctant editor, or a relative of Oprah, in which case he’ll gladly speak on his music’s behalf.