Kanye west always knew his fate, it seemed. And this fate was Kim Kardashian. He knew in 2003, when they encountered each other for the first time. He was recording a song with Brandy when her friend Kim came by—then in her era of smoky eyes, nude lip gloss, flat irons, and less ass. Kim was married to producer Damon Thomas, though, so she and Kanye stayed squarely in the friend zone. But as the years passed, the more smitten he became, he explained later in an interview with Ryan Seacrest. By 2006, he was basically in love. He would see pictures of Kim on vacation with Paris Hilton and ask his friends, “What’s up with Kim Kar-dijon?” or “Kim Kardi-shawn?” “I just dreamed about being next to her,” Kanye told his future mother-in-law, Kris Jenner, on one episode of Kris, her talk show. In the segment, he admitted to using Photoshop to insert himself into the Kardashian-Jenner Khristmas cards and emailing the images to Kim.
Maybe it was because he kept mispronouncing her name and the universe only manifests what you ask for clearly, but it took almost a decade’s worth of other relationships and Kanye’s steady, increasing persistence—which included dropping little lyrical love crumbs in his songs—before the two of them finally got together in 2012. They had been dating only a year when Kanye gave an interview to Hot 97 declaring the immensity of their relationship, expressing to host Angie Martinez that they had a big meant-to-be type of union: “I felt like our love story is like a love story for the ages. I felt like when we first got together, it was like a Romeo-and-Juliet kind of thing.”
Unlike TomKat, Brangelina, and Bennifer, the appeal of Kimye was simple; it wasn’t Scientology, or the thrill of a relationship possibly (probably) born of adultery, or matching habanero-orange spray tans that made them captivating. They earned our infatuation because they seemed preternaturally well suited for each other. It was strangely reassuring to see two people who had wrestled with their flawed pasts so visibly realize they were a pot and a lid. It was relatable, even if the pot was a hypertalented, egotistical provocateur and the lid was a member of America’s burgeoning reality-TV dynasty and an Instagram savant. No matter how you felt about the separate ingredients, the combination felt completely right and true.
In the beginning, theirs was a lavish, baroque, well-documented show of adoration. Kim thought Kanye was an artistic genius. Kanye wanted to “dip Kim’s ass in gold.” And since every moment of their courtship was catalogued online, we saw all the ways they fawned over each other— like when Kanye trapped Kenny G in a rose-strewn room to sing a Valentine’s Day serenade to Kim. And no matter how outlandish or garish their exchanges of affection were, they seemed grounded in real love worth rooting for.
But as much as Kanye wanted Kim, he knew he wanted to marry a woman who could hold her own in the power-couple equation, one who had her own capital and resources, as he told Details in 2009: “I feel like the type of girl I would be with is a fellow superhero. So we get that ‘already flying and now we’re just flying together’ thing.” So while Kanye’s comparisons to Romeo and Juliet weren’t wrong, exactly (they nailed the scale, at least), Kimye’s union became more Dido and Aeneas with divorce lawyers. As much as theirs was a love story, it was also a story about power. And it was that tale, with its moments of conquest and cross-promotion, of influence and wealth amassed, of equal playing fields, and of reversals, that became the most interesting to watch.
What image comes to mind when you think of the Greatest Love Story of the 2010s? There are tens of thousands of hours of footage and paparazzi shots, selfies, magazine covers, and lyrics so evocative they might as well have been visuals. For me, it boils down to two images of the couple’s own creation: the April 2014 Vogue cover on which they held each other sweetly one month before their wedding and a still from Kanye’s “Bound 2” music video in which a topless Kim straddles Kanye while he straddles a motorcycle in front of many Lisa Frank–esque backgrounds. These are the images that launched Kimye. Technically, their relationship had been public for more than a year, hitting all the milestones at breakneck speed: She’d visited his mother’s grave site, he’d attended a family christening and accompanied her on an Italian Vogue photo shoot, and in June 2013 they’d had their first child. They were a known and notable couple, but these two images were about shaping what their coupledom would mean to the culture.
When Kim and Kanye first got together, people thought his association with the Kardashians would ruin his career. On “Bound 2,” his dark, romantic, messy love song to Kim from his 2013 Yeezus album, Kanye pulled out all his Kanye-isms to exalt her. She was his muse. He had to silence the critics. His lyrics, over soaring soul hooks, are characteristically filthy (“Can’t get spunk on the mink”) but uncharacteristically optimistic about love (this was one that could last past Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even to “the church steps”). On October 21 of that year, Kanye spent $3.3 million to propose to Kim at AT&T Park in San Francisco while a 50-piece orchestra played “Young and Beautiful,” Lana Del Rey’s song from The Great Gatsby soundtrack. And the “Bound 2” video, released that November, reflected his “Fuck it, I’m in big love” feelings. To him, they were the new American Dream—and the video made a point by putting a Black man at the center of traditional American iconography. Just a man on a motorcycle with his naked, hot wife (a nod to her infamous sex tape, a crash course in rewriting a narrative) amid running stallions and Windows desktop nature vistas.
The tenderness between them was palpable even in the shots intentionally framed to make it look as if Kanye were railing her on a motorcycle—but also fun and multicultural. Kanye debuted the video on Ellen, a talk show designed specifically for stars to charm and warm the hearts of Middle America—the segment before, full of North photos, elicited “aws” and approving chuckles, and the audience cheered for the video of America’s new sweethearts. DeGeneres’s response was an inscrutable “It’s very cool.”
After Kanye’s subversion came his push for normalization. If “Bound 2” was a love letter to prove it was all real, the Vogue cover was the debutante ball. They were taking their place in the culture, and anyone who didn’t accept it now would be forced to eventually.
It was always Kim’s dream to be on the cover. And at last, there she was, more pared down than she had ever been seen, in a demure strapless Lanvin wedding dress with her husband nuzzling her neck adoringly. She gazed at the camera with a coy smile, daring any snob to say shit. Which of course they did.
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