Kanye West flies commercial. Sure, he may seem like the collar-popping embodiment of hip-hop glamour, but West endures air-travel indignity just like everyone else. A recent ?ight down the East Coast, for example, proved fatal to his Japanese backpack, the casualty of a faulty lavatory that leaked into the ?rst-class cabin. It would be nice to avoid hassles like this. It would be nice if a man with property in Beverly Hills didn’t have to carry his valuables in a plastic sack with an airline logo on the side, after having his nice Asian luggage suffer death by toilet. Unfortunately, there’s this little problem. “I really can’t afford to ?y private all the time,” West says on a steamy Atlanta afternoon, comfortably ensconced in Doppler Studios, a discreet recording facility where he’ll spend the next several hours working on his third album, Graduation. “It’s a lot of people who can’t afford to ?y private. It’s only maybe 10 entertainers who really, really, really get down with it.”
This self-effacing nugget is shocking on multiple levels. For starters, Kanye West—like most rappers—is hardly known for admitting weakness, ?nancial or otherwise. For another, it seems impossible that a man with two multi-platinum albums can’t afford to ?y any damned way he pleases. And yet, compared with some of his more entrepreneurial peers, West has a pretty one-dimensional portfolio: He focuses on making music, freely admitting to a lack of business acumen.
To compensate, he has developed a plan. “I decided that I’m really going to be the number-one artist in the world, and that’s the way I’ll really get up into that multimillion,” he says. “I’ll get up there through music. I’ll just be the best at this right here, and then eventually try to get to that touring thing that U2 does and Rolling Stones do. Yeah. That’s the goal.”
To be the best. It’s not such a rare aspiration, really. Every Olympic athlete, every Wall Street tycoon, every Top Gun pilot, Harvard medical student and grand master of chess wants essentially the same thing. And, in so many ways, West seems to have the perfect formula for success: He’s handsome. He’s ambitious. He’s both street-smart and book-smart. He’s a deceptively intricate lyricist with a mischievous wit and a golden ear. He appeals to hip-hop purists who crave authenticity and to rap novices who just want “Gold Digger” for the ringtone. He has pan-racial appeal, having toured with both Usher and U2. He has pan-generational appeal, having dedicated the ?rst song on his ?rst album to “the kids” and having penned earnest odes to his family matriarchy on his sophomore disc. He makes music for fry cooks, frat boys, ballers and bankers.
“When I was on tour with Bono,” West recalls, “he said, ‘Nobody from your community has ever ?gured this out, except for Michael Jackson.’ And, of course, people always have a negative connotation whenever you bring up Michael Jackson now. But the positive thing is, he really did do stadiums. He really was that one. And I feel like I’m that one.” And yet, there are obstacles on the path to world-domination. West has a reputation—earned through assorted tantrums—for being rather petulant. His misbehavior at awards shows has become legendary. He notoriously bum-rushed the stage to protest losing an MTV Europe Award for best video to Justice and Simian, and he reportedly called country singer Gretchen Wilson “bullshit” after losing best new artist to her at the American Music Awards. His con?dence has been construed as egomania. His ?ossy clothes give an impression of vanity. His wit is occasionally blunted by a lyrical coarseness that seems either pandering to the lowest common denominator or just plain lazy. West has also been known to boast about both materialism and spirituality, making him seem like a hypocrite. Oh, and he once called the president a racist on live national television. West is 30 years old and seasoned enough to have perspective on all of this. But it’s a perspective tangled up in the very contradictions that land him in trouble in the ?rst place. “I get a really bad rap of being arrogant,” he says, “when I’m really one of the nicer people that I know.”
He’s softer than you’d expect. In person, that is. Softer and calmer. His hairline is ?nely detailed, framing his face. He has long eyelashes. He is pretty in the way that a young Muhammad Ali was pretty. He lives fast and yet, apart from a faint scar etched diagonally across his nose, he appears to move through life unscathed.
West has rapped gleefully about this very thing. When he recorded his early anthem “Through The Wire” with his jaw wired shut after a 2002 car crash, he provided meta-commentary on his condition: I must got a angel, ’cause look how death missed his ass / Unbreakable. What, you thought they called me Mr. Glass?
Back then, he was best known as the architect behind Jay-Z’s landmark album, The Blueprint, a record that owed an enormous debt to the vintage rock and soul samples West used as a musical backdrop. By dusting off old Doors and Jackson 5 material for Jay to rap over, West gave The Blueprint sonic dimension and musical context. By placing Jay next to Jim Morrison, West compounded the album’s bravado. By using melodic detail from “I Want You Back,” West announced that Jay was making a classic on par with Motown’s best. In short, West did what producers are supposed to do—he made the artist look good.
Producers rarely succeed as solo acts (Pharrell Williams and Timbaland have each released heinous albums under their own names, despite being two of hip-hop’s all-time great beatmakers) so West came hard on his 2004 debut, The College Dropout. He secured a key guest vocal from then-rising star Jamie Foxx on the uproarious single “Slow Jamz,” and he dared radio stations to play his spiritual manifesto “Jesus Walks” (which they did). And then there was “Through The Wire,” a song that proved West could deliver a hit without even opening his mouth.
If Dropout demonstrated West’s potential as an artist, then Late Registration—his cinematic follow-up—made him a mainstream star, thanks to the Adam Levine collaboration “Heard ’Em Say,” the political “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” and, of course, the crossover smash “Gold Digger.”
Even while becoming an A-list rapper, West continued to successfully produce everyone from benevolent Chicago homeboy Common to West Coast gangsta rapper The Game. This is a bigger deal than it may initially seem. The more music West makes, the more he seems like the world’s most accomplished producer/artist. In all of pop-music history, no one has triumphed as mightily in both capacities. To fully appreciate how rare West’s versatility is, try to imagine Phil Spector crooning a power ballad on The Tonight Show or Sam Phillips headlining Madison Square Garden. They couldn’t do it, and neither could any other legendary producer. Steve Albini is too cantankerous to be a celebrity, and Brendan O’Brien is too shy. Rick Rubin has all the sex appeal of ZZ Top. And if you put top hip-hop producers Scott Storch, Just Blaze and Swizz Beatz in a lineup, 99 percent of even die-hard rap fans wouldn’t know who was who. West, on the other hand, recently performed at Live Earth alongside John Mayer and The Police. He ?t in just ?ne.
“I think he probably means more to the greater good and the larger world of music—he probably means more there than he does to hip-hop,” says West’s label boss, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, chairman of the Island Def Jam Music Group. “He comes from hip-hop—and, yes, he’s a rapper and he writes rhymes—and yet, he’s not the same. There’s something different. He’s like pop art in the middle of hip-hop. He’s like the Andy Warhol of music.”
Live Earth took place Saturday in New Jersey. And now here we are, Monday afternoon, tucked away inside Doppler. The low-lit studio has marble countertops and end tables, and a ?at-screen TV above the console. Headline News runs on mute. West is wearing a rainbow-colored Fred Perry polo shirt underneath a peach track jacket, plus blue jeans and spotless white sneakers that match his gleaming Casio watch. (That’s right, Casio.) His toys are spread out in front of him: a cherry red Motorola cellphone, a stealthy black MacBook computer and a tremendous gold chain.
West’s demeanor is conspicuously subdued—his composure kept, his voice hushed. He doesn’t seem like nearly as much of a wild child as he’s let us all believe. Maybe his rude outbursts are the exception, and today’s polite comportment is the less-often-seen rule. Maybe he only acts up because he knows it’ll keep us watching—after all, it’s difficult for public ?gures to draw attention by being nice. If they could, then Tom Hanks would get as much ink as Paris Hilton.
It’s hard to know exactly why West is being such a sweetheart. But whatever the reason, when someone tells him that his Live Earth performance was well-received, he’s almost bashful in response. “For real?” he says, sounding surprised. “Man, that’s great.”
This gentle, even insecure disposition has popped up from time to time in West’s work—check songs like “Roses” and “Family Business” for the speci?cs—but it’s been a marginal thing, quite secondary to the cocksure attitude he usually projects. Only once has West’s vulnerable side come front-and-center in his public life—and that one time has, somehow, been twisted into an episode of grandstanding. Due to the nature of our sound-bite world, West has gone down as the brash artist who turned a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser into a personal soapbox to attack President Bush. But go back to the tape—it’s all over YouTube—and you’ll ?nd something much more complicated. Sharing a set with Mike Myers shortly after the storm, West looks uncomfortable from the moment he starts speaking. His hands are stuffed deep in his pockets; his voice trembles in anger and frustration and self-loathing. “I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch,” he stammers. “I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation. So now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give.” West, a man who rhymes words for a living, continues to stutter and fumble. He wonders aloud what it would be like if he was down there in New Orleans suffering. He says that the people of New Orleans are his people, and that “America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less-well-off as slow as possible.” And then, after Myers stiffly mourns for the “spirit of the people of Southern Louisiana and Mississippi,” Kanye West looks straight into the camera and—with a newly con?dent edge in his voice—utters the single most damning celebrity protest remark of his generation: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
So maybe the uncertainty is always there, shadowing his braggadocio. Maybe we just don’t see West’s daily psychodramas, his struggles to keep his head up, his tireless e?orts to live as both a humble Christian and a world-famous entertainer. Maybe he feels constantly torn between turning the other cheek and speaking truth to power. Maybe he struggles every day between sainthood and sin. And maybe his normal state is somewhere in the messy middle. If all of that’s true, doesn’t it make West seem a little more human, a little more like the rest of us? If we’re all ?ying on the same cramped airliner, isn’t it somehow comforting to know that West is on the very same plane, and that—even though he’s up there in ?rst class—his baggage might not survive the trip any better than ours?
Less than two months before it’s supposed to be on shelves, Graduation still isn’t finished. West is still mixing, mastering, tinkering. But the album is close enough to completion for West—who keeps the music on his laptop—to o?er a pretty serious sneak preview. He doesn’t announce the album with any great fanfare. He just sits at his computer and cues it up.
The opening cut feels a bit like Burt Bacharach—it’s melodic and piano-driven, with snare hits that sound like blasts of static. As the song plays, West taps his foot and nods his head, grooving to his creation.
“These drums are gonna mesh perfectly with these drums right here,” he says. And then—blam!—the second track kicks in with an exuberant West booming the words, “good morning.” And now he’s up on his feet, bouncing and dancing, singing along with himself. Good mornin’, the song says, look at the valedictorian. It’s a massive production, a clever celebration of the self. A single line, almost a throwaway, embodies the whole scope of West’s sly, swaggering artistic persona: I’m like the ?y Malcolm X—buy any jeans necessary.
Now it’s on to the third song, “Homecoming,” which pairs huge piano chords (and a Joni Mitchell allusion) with block-rocking beats. As “Homecoming” gets going, West peels off his track jacket. What he’s wearing isn’t all that special piece by piece—millions of American men have polos, jeans and sneakers in their closets, just as thousands of rappers work with beats, rhymes and samples. But West has a gift for assembling familiar looks and sounds in fresh ways. He clashes colors until they match, just as he tweaks samples until they transform from played-out to cool again. Yes, he starts with excellent materials. But his style is how he puts it all together. Maybe this is what Reid means when he compares West to Warhol—everything about the guy is artful. Although West’s wardrobe may seem vain, it’s equally possible to read his clothes as just another creative statement. For an artist this deliberate, nothing is left to chance—he walks, talks and dresses himself knowing that every little component creates a complete artistic package. Viewed through this lens, West’s award-show behavior isn’t boorishness. It’s performance art.
West soon plays his single, “Stronger,” a track that deftly samples French trance-rock band Daft Punk, and that somehow references Christian Dior, Kate Moss and Klondike bars. In sounds and words, “Stronger” is a case study in West’s disparate cultural reference points. One lyrical refrain: You know how long I’ve been on ya / Since Prince was on Apollonia / Since O.J. had Isotoners.
West opens a PDF ?le of the illustrated Graduation album cover. “This is Takashi Murakami,” he says. “He’s well-known for the rainbow Louis Vuitton print. I’ve been working with him for over a year.” Murakami’s artwork depicts the rapper’s familiar teddy-bear logo striking an exultant pose, with a mortarboard cap and diploma ?ying overhead. The background is a distinctive electric-blue color—“graduation blue,” West says—which is apparently a design theme in the record’s promotional rollout. He plans to introduce a Casio in the same color.
Before long, West arrives at the album’s most universal moment, “The Good Life.” If “Stronger” skews toward a pop audience, and West’s other single, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” goes straight for the heart of the rap scene, then “Good Life” is the tune that Reid thinks pulls everyone together—it’s a laid-back bit of summertime bliss featuring a few naughty rhymes involving champagne and Snakes On A Plane.
Later comes “Drunk and Hot Girls.” “This is what I think will be the most talked-about song on the album,” West says. “Out of every song I’ve done in my life, this one de?nes me the most.” Which seems unbelievable once the song reveals itself to be a mean-spirited dig at the fairer sex. The music feels creepy and voyeuristic. West raps impassively, as though he’s announcing Blue Light Specials at Kmart. And what can you say about the lyrics? They’re so far beneath West that it seems impossible he even bothered to record them. He doesn’t want you to run up his bar tab, he says. He doesn’t want to drop your friends o?, he says. He’d prefer that you not puke in the car, he says. It’s like “Gold Digger,” without the energy or sense of humor. This is the song that de?nes Kanye West? Is his life really so hassled by beautiful, vacuous groupies that he feels artistically obligated to immortalize the feeling with this grinding, late-night, post-club pout?
A shuffling, old-school track called “Everything I Am” rights the course, and the thumping “Good Bye” winds the album up. “Drunk and Hot Girls” leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth, but it’s by far the weakest song here. The good outweighs the bad, there’s no question about that. And besides, it would be ridiculous to expect Graduation to be perfect, since nothing else about West—or anybody else, for that matter—is without fault. Graduation is merely excellent, easily among the year’s best. And the album feels better and better the more you contemplate its place in the pop canon. After all, thematically and musically, The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation constitute something of a trilogy. All three are marvelous in their own ways, and their combined impact is pretty overwhelming. There’s only one contemporary solo artist whose last three albums have been this consistent, this interesting and this ambitious, and that’s Bob Dylan.
For his own part, West says that Graduation demonstrates what he’s been listening to—rock ’n’ roll. He may have a reputation as a soulhead thanks to his proli?c sampling of R&B singers like Chaka Khan and Otis Redding, but he insists, “I never listen to that.” For instance, he says, when he and his girlfriend travel to Paris, they listen to U2 and Keane. “All I listen to is rock music,” West says. “But it’s still a black album. So it juxtaposes those two things, and that tension is what makes it exciting.” That tension is also what gives West commercial pull beyond the traditional hip-hop community.
“A lot of rap music is very ?ash-in-the-pan,” West says. “It’s the super-hottest thing for two, three months. And then someone else comes along. A lot of songs don’t have that classic stay-with-you appeal. Of course there are some classic hip-hop songs, but I think they’re more few-and-far-between than the songs that you get on, let’s say, a Norah Jones album. For people who listen to Norah Jones, those songs stick with them longer. Or maybe like Maroon 5 or something, or The Killers. Those songs just stick with them longer. Hip-hop, it’s all about who’s the hottest artist, ‘We got 12 [guest artists] on it,’ it’s got the right producer and its hook is the latest slang or the latest dance move. What happens when that dance move plays out?”
Although West obviously wants to sell records today, he’s also thinking about tomorrow—and about 20 years from now. He’s serious about being the next Michael Jackson, and it’s not as though he has a lot of competition from other artists trying to transcend age, class and race. “There’s only one other person I think has that, or it’s two: Beyoncé and Justin [Timberlake],” West says. “I think they both consciously think about that, too.”
Perhaps surprisingly, West can rattle o? statistics that make him seem pint-sized compared with the reigning queen of R&B, and that illustrate just how far he has to go in order to truly cross over. “When I’m in Japan,” West says, “I perform to 8,000 people. When Beyoncé’s in Japan, she performs to 30,000 people. So how the f— am I there? You know, Rolling Stones—they do 80,000. So they say, ‘You should be happy because you’re a rap artist and you’ve reached this, or because you’re black and you’ve reached this.’ I’m trying to break down every boundary. It’s like the Grammys: I really appreciate the Grammys, the type of look that they give me and everything. But I’m tired of just winning the black Grammy. Give me the real shit.”
It’s impossible to know whether West—or anybody—can reach as many people as Jackson did in his prime. (Reid says he thinks West has the talent to pull it of. “If this album, Graduation, is Off the Wall,” he says, “then Kanye’s next album is Thriller.”) In order to truly reach the masses, though, West will have to make the world comfortable with his contradictions. He certainly has made peace with them in his own life. He sees no reason why the man who had a hit with “Jesus Walks” can’t also have a song called “Drunk And Hot Girls.”
“I feel like Jesus does walk with me,” he says. “But I do feel we go through too much bullshit to mess with these drunk and hot girls. I de?nitely feel like that. I feel like that’s who real people are: Real people are con?icted. And you know when you’re doing wrong, and you know when you’re just being a human being and you fall short of the glory—that’s what we say back in church, ‘fall short of the glory.’ I mean, that’s what makes the world exciting. Would a movie be exciting if it didn’t have any ups and downs?”