Born Kanye Omari West on June 8, 1977; son of Ray (a marriage counselor) and Donda (a professor) West. Education: Attended The American Academy of Art and Chicago State University. Addresses: Record company--Roc-A-Fella Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019. Website--Kanye West Official Website: http://www.kanyewest.com.
Kanye West began his career in music as a producer for top hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z, but he wanted more: he wanted to rap, too. Though his middle-class background and preppy dress made him seem ill-fitted for a hip-hop scene dominated by gangsta personalities, West's talent and determination led to his massive success. His debut album, The College Dropout, rewrote the rules of hip-hop, reviving socially conscious lyrics and mixing them with cutting-edge commercial party beats. By the time he released his second album, Late Registration, in August of 2005, West had become one of hip-hop's biggest stars.
West was born on June 8, 1977, to Ray, a former Black Panther who went on to become an award-winning photographer and then a marriage counselor, and Donda, an English professor. (His name, pronounced kahn-yay, means "the only one" in Swahili.) His parents divorced when he was three years old; he mostly lived with his mother, but often spent summers with his father. He lived in China for a year at the age of ten while his mother was teaching English at a university there; he would make money entertaining people by break dancing on the streets. His father taught him to be race-conscious, while his mother helped him develop a wide vocabulary through word games. "I was taught to think on my own," he told Jim Farber of the New York Daily News. "That's what a lot of black kids don't get."
In high school, West became friends with producer No I.D., who was working with the rapper Common before he became a star. Inspired, West got a sampling keyboard at 15, and spent a lot of time rapping and beatmaking in his bedroom. He attended Chicago's The American Academy of Art for a year on a scholarship, then transferred to Chicago State University to pursue a degree in English. But he dropped out to pursue a career in music, thwarting his mother's hopes that he would earn several degrees. "It was drummed into my head that college is the ticket to a good life," Donda West told the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot. "but some career goals don't require college. For Kanye to make an album called College Dropout, it was more about having the guts to embrace who you are, rather than following the path society has carved out for you. And that's what Kanye did."
Signature Soul Sound
Instead, West started producing songs for Chicago rappers. In 1998, he contributed to Atlanta producer and recording star Jermaine Dupri's album Life in 1472. He moved from Chicago to Newark, New Jersey, and then to Hoboken in that same state, close to New York City. His big breakthrough came when he composed five songs on Jay-Z's 2001 album The Blueprint. The songs established a key part of West's production style: he sampled classic songs and sped them up so they turned high-pitched. Usually the songs were soul music, such as the Jackson 5 and the Temptations, though he also sampled '60s rockers The Doors. West has admitted getting the idea from The RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, but at a time when sampling had fallen out of fashion in hip-hop, it was still unusual enough to impress. He began working with other top hip-hop artists on Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella label. Since then, West has produced songs for more than 40 artists, including Scarface, Foxy Brown, and DMX.
West was convinced he could rap as well as produce. He started working on his own album in 2001. But when he first asked Roc-A-Fella executives to let him record his own hip-hop album, they were not receptive, because he did not have the tough background or image that had become almost required of hip-hop stars. "Kanye wore a pink shirt with the collar sticking up and Gucci loafers," Damon Dash, then-CEO of Roc-A-Fella, told Josh Tyrangiel of Time. "We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by," Jay-Z told Tyrangiel. "Then there's Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn't see how it could work."
Accident Changed His Life
"I was mad because I was not being taken seriously as a rapper for a long time," West told Kot of the Chicago Tribune. "Whether it was because I didn't have a larger-than-life persona, or I was perceived as the guy who made beats, I was disrespected as a rapper." A near-tragedy ended up giving West the creative inspiration for his project. He fell asleep at the wheel of a car in Los Angeles in October of 2002 and got in a car accident that nearly killed him. He called Roc-A-Fella's CEO from the hospital, asked for a drum machine, and created the song "Through the Wire" about his accident. He recorded the mumbled vocals three weeks after the crash, while his jaw was wired shut. The song was built on a sample from Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire." It helped convince Roc-A-Fella to let him record an album. West used the song as his calling card, passing it around on mix tapes he created to show he could rap as well as produce. "Death is the best thing that can ever happen to a rapper," West quipped to Tyrangiel in Time. "Almost dying isn't bad either."
While working on his album, West also produced a string of hits. His triumph came in early 2004. First, two songs he produced hit number one: "Stand Up" by Ludacris and "You Don't Know My Name" by Alicia Keys. Others, including "Slow Jamz," a collaboration with Chicago rapper Twista, and Jay-Z's "Encore," also became hit singles. Then, West's album The College Dropout appeared and quickly became both a critical and commercial success. It sold 440,000 copies in its first week of release, and almost three million within a year and a half. "Through the Wire" became a top-rated video on MTV and MTV2.
Critics and peers fixated on West's mix of popular party music with intelligent, socially aware lyrics. Admirers, including actor/singer Jamie Foxx (who appears on "Slow Jamz") and Darryl McDaniels of the classic rap group Run-D.M.C., declared that The College Dropout had restored their faith in hip-hop. The New York Daily News' Farber called the album "one of the most informed and political rap records since the heyday of Public Enemy and the Jungle Brothers." The song "All Falls Down" questioned materialism in the black community, while "Jesus Walks," which Village Voice critic Hua Hsu called "a desperate masterpiece," stunned listeners with its redemptive message embracing even drug dealers, its ambivalence ("I wanna talk to God but I'm afraid 'cause we ain't spoke in so long," West raps), and its explicit defiance of the conventional wisdom that a song about God would not get played on commercial radio.
Bridged Mainstream and Underground
West eagerly admitted he was mixing two sides of hip-hop: the commercial side, dominated by gangsta rap, and politically aware rappers (who were less numerous and popular at the time than in early hip-hop). "My whole theory of music is message and melody," West told Neil Drumming of Entertainment Weekly. While other political artists are "like cod-liver oil," West said, he promised "cough medicine mixed with Kool-Aid." The New York Daily News ' Farber noted a lack of "gangsta clichés" in West's work. "I never killed anybody, so I don't rap about it," he told Farber. "Every song [of mine] is an inspirational song, to make you feel good." To Spin's Chris Ryan, he explained, "I'm one of the only rappers who has both his parents and all his grandparents still alive. My father was a Black Panther. My grandparents were involved in civil-rights marches. So I have a responsibility to reflect them."
Kelefa Sanneh of the New York Times called The College Dropout "2004's first great hip-hop album" and "a concept album about quitting school, a playful collection of party songs, and a 76-minute orgy of nose-thumbing." Sanneh wrote that West "taunts everyone who didn't believe in him: teachers, record executives, police officers, even his former boss at the Gap."
West's huge ego, which gave him the confidence to defy hip-hop stereotypes and record the album, became a huge part of his public personality. "I do music for the sake of showing off," he told Ryan of Spin, explaining that he shows off through music like some people flaunt their cars. He complained to interviewers about one review that gave his album a grade of B+. "My CD is so good, people will have to buy second and third copies because other people will be stealing them," he bragged to the New York Daily News' Farber. Sometimes, West's arrogance has alienated people, especially after he walked out of the American Music Awards, furious that he lost the award for Best New Artist to country star Gretchen Wilson.
In early 2005, West won three Grammy awards: Best Rap Album for The College Dropout, Best Rap Song for "Jesus Walks," and Best R&B Song for co-writing Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name." After Dropout's success, West started his own record label called Getting Out Our Dreams (G.O.O.D.), a fashion line named Pastel Clothing, and the Kanye West Foundation, which promotes music education in schools.
West reportedly spent $2,000,000 putting his second album together, breaking his production budget. He surprised many by working with producer Jon Brion, whose previous work had been mostly with alternative singer-songwriters such as Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann. West aimed to have more musicianship on the new album: 40-piece string sets and 30-piece horn sections grace some tracks. Guests on the album included Jay-Z, Foxx, R&B singer Brandy, Adam Levine of the band Maroon 5, and the rapper Nas.
Made Cover of Time
The album, Late Registration, was released in late August of 2005. Distributors shipped 1.6 million copies of it to stores for its release week. It was greeted with rave reviews. Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield gave it five stars, declaring it "an undeniable triumph, packed front to back, so expansive it makes the debut sound like a rough draft." Time dubbed him "the smartest man in pop music" on its cover.
On the album, the song "Gone" is built on an Otis Redding sample and a simple piano melody. The track "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," built on a sample of Shirley Bassey's theme song from the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, protests the sale of "blood diamonds" that profit from conflicts in Africa. "Gold Digger" encourages women to stick with working-class men who are mopping floors and serving French fries. His duet with Nas, "We Major," was considered a highlight, both for the interplay between the two rappers and an exciting moment where the music fades and West starts it up again, convinced the song is so good, it can go on past seven minutes.
Again, music writers noticed a lot of contrast and mixed inspiration in West's work, and he freely admitted it. "I'm pretty calculating," he told Tyrangiel in Time, while standing in a church in Prague, where he was filming the "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" video. "I take stuff that I know appeals to people's bad sides and match it up with stuff that appeals to their good sides." He mentioned lyrics in "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" about a woman that he admitted were "crass," then the lyrics that follow it, about his father baptizing him. "He's trying to change this genre, and in order to do that he's got to get people to listen to his music," Run-D.M.C.'s McDaniels told Time's Tyrangiel. "They've gotten so used to hardness, to stupidity, that if he has to engage in a little of that to be relevant, so be it."
West also displayed his political passions with two benefit performances in the summer of 2005. First, he performed at the Live 8 concert, meant to raise awareness about poverty and debt in the Third World. Then, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in late August, West joined the benefit A Concert For Hurricane Relief. It was broadcast on NBC-TV four days after the storm, when the country was still watching terrifying news footage of evacuees stranded and even dying in downtown New Orleans. West criticized the federal government's response to the crisis in remarks carried live on national television. "George Bush doesn't care about black people," he charged, according to the Associated Press, adding that the country is set up "to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible."
As fall of 2005 arrived, critics were writing that West seemed to be trying to personally embody pop music. Clearly eager to break more stereotypes and musical boundaries, West announced he planned to go on tour with rock band U2 and possibly also Coldplay.
Before he could make good on his outlandish touring promises, Grammy season had arrived, and in December of 2005, West and Late Registration were nominated for 10 awards---the most for any artists that year. A bit more humble than usual, West was quoted at the nomination presentations as saying, "Ten nominations ... that's amazing. That's like a perfect score. I'm at a loss for words." But as the awards got closer West announced, "If I don't win album of the year, I'm really going to have a problem with that."
When the Grammy Awards aired in February of 2006, West ended up walking away with three awards, including Best Rap Solo Performance for "Gold Digger" and Best Rap Song for "Diamonds of Sierra Leone" and Best Rap Album for Late Registration. At the awards, West's impact was undeniable, as he performed "Gold Digger" live with singer/actor Jamie Foxx and a full marching band by his side. When accepting the award for Album of the Year, Bono, from the winning band U2, singled out West by saying "You're next." West later told MTV.com that he was more proud of his performance at the awards than the awards themselves, and that he wasn't disappointed that he lost out to U2. "I would have been more disappointed if I didn't have a good performance and I had won Album of the Year. The performance, that's what it's about, the entertainment and people having a good time." He continued by saying, "The first thing I thought is, 'Let's go back to the studio, let's go.' It's good for me, I'm happy, because I have accomplished so much in the last two years, all the way from running the [G.O.O.D.] label to being the artist that you [go to when you] run out of things to do. So now it's like, 'OK, we didn't get the Album of the Year. Let's go [try again].' John Legend, Jon Brion, anyone named John, let's go."
by Erick Trickey and Ryan Allen
Kanye West's Career
Producer for Chicago rappers; began producing for national hip-hop acts by contributing to Jermaine Dupri's album Life In 1472, 1998; produced five tracks on Jay-Z's album The Blueprint, 2001; produced number-one hits "Stand Up" by Ludacris and "You Don't Know My Name" by Alicia Keys, 2004; released The College Dropout, 2004; released Late Registration, 2005.
Kanye West's Awards
Grammy Awards, Best Rap Album for The College Dropout, Best Rap Song for "Jesus Walks," Best R&B Song for "You Don't Know My Name" (performed by Alicia Keys), 2005; BET Award, Best Male Hip-Hop Artist, 2005; BET Award, Video of the Year, 2005; MTV Video Music Award, Best Male Video for "Jesus Walks," 2005; Grammy Awards, Best Rap Solo Performance for "Gold Digger," Best Rap Song for "Diamonds of Sierra Leone," Best Rap Album for Late Registration, 2006.
- Selected discography
- The College Dropout Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam Records, 2004.
- Late Registration Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam Records, 2005.
June 27, 2006: West shared the BET award for best collaboration and video of the year with Jamie Foxx for Gold Digger. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, June 30, 2006.
- Associated Press, September 3, 2005.
- Chicago Tribune, February 11, 2004.
- Detroit Free Press, August 28, 2005, p. 2E.
- Entertainment Weekly, February 27, 2004, pp. 64-65.
- New York Daily News, January 27, 2004.
- New York Times, February 9, 2004.
- Rolling Stone, September 8, 2005, pp. 109-10.
- Spin, February 9, 2004.
- Time, August 29, 2005, pp. 54-61.
- Village Voice, April 7, 2004.
- "Kanye Explains Why He Didn't Freak Out About Losing to U2," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1524093/20060209/story.jhtml (March 31, 2006).
- "Kanye West," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 21, 2005).
- "Kanye West Leads Grammy Nominations," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Music/12/07/grammy.noms/ (December 7, 2005).
- "Roc-A-Fella Records Artist Kanye West," Roc-A-Fella Records, http://www.rocafella.com/Artist.aspx?v=bio&key=7 (August 21, 2005).