In the space of six months, Complex editor-in-chief Noah Callahan-Bever confided in Kanye, flew to Hawaii, and found himself in rap nerd Nirvana.
“Did you look at my eyes?” asked Kanye West over the phone. He was calling from Milan. It was the middle of October 2009. It had been over a year since the completion of his last LP, 808s & Heartbreak, but this conversation was my first glimpse of what would become My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “I mean, really look in my eyes in the ‘Run This Town’ video. If you do, you can’t tell me you’re surprised by what happened. It was all there in my eyes.”
He was, of course, referring to “what happened” at the 2009 VMAs, one week after the video shoot. Kanye and I had exchanged emails days after the Taylor Swift incident, but between him being inundated with criticism and my own personal distraction—a recently discovered brain tumor, of all things—this conversation, a month later, was our first real catch-up. And yes, Kanye West and I do periodically catch up. (And yes, I know how that sounds. Believe me.) Which is why, when I finally got around to explaining my condition over email, I received this concerned phone call from Milan, like, four minutes later.
After I hurried through the uncomfortable explanation of where I was at, the commiserating naturally turned to the major event in his life. Besieged and apologetic—but defiant—Kanye explained the fragile, overworked mental state that led to the outburst, his disgust with the ensuing media storm, and why he’d suddenly, and seemingly indefinitely, gone full ex-pat.
Kanye West was over it, he said. Done with music. He’d clearly needed a break, and his subconscious had manufactured one. Now, he was all about fashion—red leather, gold details, and recapturing the decadence of late-’90s hip-hop in design. While I encouraged his pursuit since he was so obviously enthused, I confessed that it’d be a bummer if he abandoned music altogether. In response, he shared rhymes from a still-never-released song he’d done with Jay-Z and Jack White and talked at length about trying to master the physicality of rap. He also admitted that he had beats in his head—ones that sounded like 808s melodies over Mobb Deep drums, no less—that he had to get out. But he was over it. Riiiiiiiight.
Conversation over, we hung up, but my mind went to the story behind the Rolling Stones LP Exile on Main Street; the band had recorded it entirely in the South of France, due to a seven-figure tax debt that kept them off English soil. I thought of Kanye in Italy, I thought of his trials here in the States, and I thought: “This is about to get really…interesting.”
Months went by, and—save for two brief one-line check-ins on my recovery (I’m fine now, thanks!)—Kanye was ghost. At least until mid-January, when an email appeared in my inbox: “Yooooooo, happy new year fam. I can’t wait to play you this new shit!!!!” He explained that he’d holed up in Hawaii and was importing his favorite producers and artists to work on and inspire his recording. Rap Camp! Two weeks later, while Kanye was briefly in NYC, I got a preview of five rough, but incredibly promising songs: “Power,” “Live Fast, Die Young,” “Monster,” “Lost in a World,” and “Gorgeous.” And even better, I got an invite to Hawaii.
On a late March afternoon, I arrive at Avex Honolulu Studios, the seaside recording studio on Oahu where West tracked 808s and is now block-booking all three session rooms, 24 hours a day, until he decides he’s done. He had deliberately concealed the names of the players he’d enlisted, but I can’t say I’m totally shocked to find him posted up in the studio’s A room with Kid Cudi and the Clipse’s Pusha T. Those are his guys, after all. What does elicit a visceral reaction—hard, heavy laughter—is the wall of Kanye Commandments posted on 8.5″x 11″ sheets of paper on one side of the studio. They include the obvious—”No Tweeting” and “No Pictures”—and some…well, some less obvious ones, too. Not that “No Hipster Hats” and “Just Shut the Fuck Up Sometimes” aren’t rules to live by.
In any case, within 15 minutes I get to see Rap Camp in action. Kanye throws on the instrumental for “So Appalled,” which plays on hypnotic repeat for more than an hour while Pusha puts pen to paper finishing his verse. Then RZA walks in the room. And of course he’s got on sunglasses inside. And of course he’s wearing an all-black Ed Hardy-esque ensemble with matching dragon tattoo prints that start on his baseball cap, slither down his T-shirt, and end on his cargo pants. And of course he pulls out a Bobby Digital customized Akai drum machine with the Zorro mask and Wu logo on its face. Because that’s what you do when you’re a motherfucking national treasure. BONG!
Meanwhile, Kanye stares at his laptop, jumping between email and 15 open windows of art references in his browser. He polls those assembled on how risqué is too risqué for his blog, and occasionally barks mixing orders at the engineer, tuning subtle parts of the beat—all without breaking eye contact from his computer. This is how he works: all-A.D.D. everything.
The sun sets, and Q-Tip and Consequence arrive, straight from the plane. Kanye asks RZA if he’d voice the hook—”Champagne wishes and 30 white bitches/You know the shit is, fuckin’ ridic’lous”—and the Abbott steps into the booth and obliges, immediately transforming from sedate and stoned to amped and aggressive. It’s enough to make us all chuckle on his first take; wrapped around those words, his thick and bizarre drawl just sounds so perfectly…RZA. But Kanye notices something off in the delivery, and he presses the intercom button to talk to RZA: “Um, fam, it’s actually ‘thirty white bitches,’ not ‘dirty white bitches.’” RZA laughs. “I’ll do it again,” he says, “but to be real, the way I be saying words, you ain’t gon’ be able to tell the difference.” Ha! At Rap Camp, the shit is fuckin’ ridiculous.
The rest of the trip settles into a fairly routine pattern, if by “fairly routine” you mean “a succession of both magical and mundane moments starring the musicians who defined your adolescence alongside the most exciting artists of today.” Each morning begins with a 10 a.m. breakfast at Kanye’s Diamondhead residence. Pusha, Tip, RZA, Cudi, Cons, and Kanye’s crew slowly assemble to enjoy the absurdly tasty cooking of Kanye’s in-house chefs. If you’re smart, you order the French toast with the flambéed banana. An hour later, Kanye pulls up in his Porsche Panamera, fresh from the studio. That’s right, from the studio. During my five days in Hawaii, Kanye never slept at his house, or even in a bed. He would, er, power-nap in a studio chair or couch here and there in 90-minute intervals, working through the night. Engineers remained behind the boards 24 hours a day.
With everyone assembled and enjoying their leisurely multi-course breakfast, music is the only thing discussed at the kitchen table—or anywhere else. Despite the heavyweights assembled, the egos rarely clash; talks are sprawling, enlightening, and productive. Topics range from the future (whether “Live Fast” should be gifted to Rick Ross, who ended up with the track) to the present (reactions to Drake’s single “Over”) to the past (RZA describing the exact frequency to which he would tune Ghostface’s voice in order to regulate its whininess). But mostly we talk about Kanye’s album: what it has to mean, and what it has to accomplish.
At its heart, beyond the beats or rhymes, this conversation is the reason we were all summoned to the island (no LOST). It’s never explicitly discussed, but everyone here knows that good music is the key to Kanye’s redemption. With the right songs and the right album, he can overcome any and all controversy, and we are here to contribute, challenge, and inspire. And to play basketball.
After the Y comes free time until 3 p.m. or so, when people naturally reassemble at the studio—at which point, make no mistake about it, time is anything but free. On one particular afternoon, Kanye is hell-bent on finishing “Power,” which has had exactly 1.5 completed verses for the better part of a month now. He takes up residence in the A room. Sitting again at his laptop, perusing fashion and art sites for bloggable images, he scribbles lyrics and holds court trying to fill the first verse, which exists only as a mumbled, wordless flow reference. This goes on for hours.
Kanye’s process is communal—he literally goes around the room asking everyone there what “power” means to them, throws out lines to see how they’re received, and works out his exact wording with whomever is around to help. But his output is most definitely entirely his own—one listen to that consistently unique cadence, word choice, and sense of humor reveals that. Rappers, producers, and entourage are all welcome to offer ideas or phrases, but the funny thing is, nearly every suggestion is met with, “That’s really not at all a word I would ever say, but don’t stop offering ideas, thanks!” In fact, that day, a rah-rah couplet is offered by a rapper in the room (who will remain nameless) to close a line on “Power,” and Kanye jokingly says it would be “great—if my name was LL and I was making ‘Mama Said Knock You Out Pt. II.’” You get the feeling it’s addition by subtraction with him—the demonstration of what he doesn’t like illuminates what he does like.
And when he hits a creative wall, as he does this evening, he heads to another studio room to make progress on another song. In this case, it’s upstairs to check in on Q-Tip, who is syncing a beat he’d made to an acappella Kanye laid for a song called “My Momma’s Boyfriend.” Kanye had spit it to a Madlib beat, but didn’t feel like it was the right fit, so Tip is fitting a new track around the words. At first, Kanye is engaged, offering copious feedback, but as the record plays over and over, Tip tweaking small parts, Kanye starts to zone out. At first this means he just nods and stares without talking— processing, but too tired to speak. Eventually, the weight in his eyelids overcomes him and he nods off. It’s only 11 p.m., which means that we can expect a rested and ready Kanye by 2 a.m. at the latest. Tip keeps banging on the MPC for his sleeping audience while the rest of us decide whether to crash out at the hotel or wait on the next burst of creativity.
Of course, we wait. Who would allow themselves to miss a moment of this?