”White people, this is your only chance to use the word p‘nigger,’” Kanye West shouts to the Theater at Madison Square Garden crowd roaring the words to p“Gold Digger,” the biggest rap hit of the past year. “Take advantage of it.”
That snapshot from West’s recent tour sums up the wit and audacity of the 28-yearold rapper and producer. The chorus of the song p“I ain’t saying she a gold digger/ But she ain’t messing with no broke niggers”—is not only as catchy as bird flu, it’s also a provocative comment about money, race and sex. A one-man smash factory who has produced songs for Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, John Legend, Common, Cam’ron and Jay-Z, West doesn’t back down from any topic—or from the spotlight.
Last September, during NBC’s live broadcast of a benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims, West burst the apolitical cue-card solemnity, denouncing the media for referring to black New Orleanians as looters and alleging that the government had been slow to respond, because those in need were mostly black. His digression was full of pauses and incomplete sentences, and co-presenter Mike Myers stood by in silent panic. After Myers interjected a few
lines from the Teleprompter, West distilled his argument to its pith: p“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” NBC instantly cut away and excised the dangerous moment from a rebroadcast later that night on the West Coast, but the clip was kept alive on the internet, where bloggers called West everything from a racist to a hero to a self-promoting profiteer.
His name, pronounced KAHN-yay, means p“the only one” in Swahili, and he’s the lone child of Donda West, who recently retired as chair of the English department at Chicago State University, and Ray West, a photographer and former Black Panther who is now a Christian counselor. When Kanye was three, his parents split up. He was raised primarily by his doting mother, and his father has said, Kanye a“displayed his charisma even in day care.”
He first wrote rhymes in third grade and four years later began to make beats, the produced tracks rappers rhyme over. He won an art scholarship but dropped out of college, lived at home and continued to struggle until 2001, the year of his personal tipping point: Jay-Z picked five West tracks for his CD The Blueprint, including m“Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” which used a Jackson 5 sample to (over)popularize the phrase “fo’ shizzle my nizzle.”
West’s beats were vivid and brassy, and he helped even the dullest rappers get on the radio. But when he told Jay-Z and other decision-makers at Roc-A-Fella Records that he wanted to rap, they snickered with reverse class snobbery. West came from a comfortable background and had no firsthand knowledge of drug dealing or weaponry; he was cute, wore pastel polo shirts with the collars turned up and couldn’t have been more the opposite of 50 Cent, rap’s biggest star of the past few years.
The record label finally relented, and West began to work with his customary industriousness. Driving from a studio one night in October 2002, he fell asleep and crashed his car, fracturing his jaw. With his mouth still wired shut, he recorded p“Through the Wire,” one of four hit singles on his first CD, The College Dropout. They are songs of celebration and mourning, with comedy as the lone constant; in m“Slow Jamz” he talks about using old soul records to seduce women and drops a great joke at Michael Jackson’s expense. But the album has as many wisecracks as wisecracks. In “Jesus Walks,” West confesses both his sins and his devotion to Jesus, and “All Falls Down” traces young blacks’ appetites for expensive sneakers and gold-heavy watches to insecurity: “We all self-conscious/I’m just the first to admit it.” As it turned out, there was a big market for a rapper who’d never sold drugs. The best-reviewed album of 2004, The College Dropout sold 3 million copies and earned 10 Grammy nominations. The world suddenly gave West as much adulation as he said he deserved.
For Late Registration, released in August 2005, West added a co-producer, Jon Brion, a white Angeleno best known for working with Fiona Apple. No other rapper would have risked such an audacious move, and it paid offwith even more raves. m“There’s never been hip-hop so complex and subtle musically,” wrote The Village Voice, while The New Yorker claimed the album m“encompasses decades of African American music.” Late Registration broke West fully into the mainstream—from the cover of Time magazine to a place among Barbara Walters’s 10 Most Fascinating People of 2005.
While West was on tour, PLAYBOY sent writer Rob Tannenbaum to interview him; the two began their discussion backstage at a De Kalb, Illinois concert hall, then continued it later at a Manhattan studio. Tannenbaum reports, g“West’s mind leaps around unpredictably, so in the course of our conversations he told me about the suede jacket he was wearing (’It’s Yves Saint Laurent’), the music video he was editing with animator Bill Plympton and his 2,700-square-foot loft in SoHo, which has a 16-foot walk-in closet and a 12-foot bathroom sink.
”He says some pretty outrageous things, usually about how great he is, but it’s a welcome antidote to the false modesty most stars put across. And it’s clear he subscribes to the playful theory of Muhammad Ali: ’It’s not bragging if you can back it up.’
”But it’s also clear how seriously he takes his work. ’I really study rap,’ he said, and he can keenly analyze changing trends in the arcane field of rhyming couplets. And he played at shatteringly high volume a new beat he’d written for Jay-Z, a simple, monstrous thing with a resounding cymbal. ’That beat is killing,’ he said. ’Just think of that with Jay on it.’ Along the way, he announced he had lured Jay-Z out of retirement. And no wonder: West really is that great. Just ask him.”
PLAYBOY: Let’s start with the seven words that made national headlines: g“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Had you planned on saying that, or was it an ad-lib?
WEST: I’ve never been asked this question before, but I totally didn’t plan to say it. I planned the bullet points about the media portraying black people as looters and how it took the government so long to go down there to help. Bad news is great news, and I felt like CNN, NBC and all these stations were capitalizing on the tragedy.
PLAYBOY: Describe what led to your making that statement.
WEST: Tim McGraw did a song, and it was really emotional, showing all the imagery from New Orleans. When I went up to read the Teleprompter, I just thought what was on it wasn’t heartfelt enough. They wanted me to read some random point about the levees. Mike Myers and I talked about how we had a problem with that word. He said, g“I just don’t want to mispronounce levees.” That was his main goal when we went up there. He was already nervous, and I told him, “Yo, I might stray off the Teleprompter a little bit.” I told him I was going to ad-lib. I was talking to him backstage, and I saw Chris Tucker. I remember telling Chris, “Get ready for live TV.”
PLAYBOY: Did Myers say anything when you got off-camera?
WEST: He shook my hand and said, g“It is what it is.”
PLAYBOY: What kind of greeting did you get backstage?
WEST: The Red Cross and the NBC execs didn’t say anything to me. They acted like I wasn’t even in the building. Before that, it was all VIP.
PLAYBOY: How did the day end?
WEST: At the bar, taking shots of Patrón. [laughs] You know, if you go up and hit the class bully in his face, you’re like, m“What am I going to do tomorrow?” I still live in a country that George Bush controls.
PLAYBOY: When NBC broadcast the telethon on the West Coast, it cut your comment about the president.
WEST: I thought that was great because it proved my point about the media. It let America know that the media still censors us and monitors us and brainwashes us. For them to chop it, everybody in America was like, g“Oh shit, they still do that? I thought this was America.” Yeah, this is America. This is America.
PLAYBOY: Did the reaction surprise you?
WEST: A lot of people feel that Bush doesn’t care about poor people. It’s a common opinion.
PLAYBOY: But you didn’t say he doesn’t care about poor people; you said he doesn’t care about black people. There’s a difference.
WEST: There just happen to be way more poor black people. If you pick at the statement, I’m sure you could find something wrong, but that was the overall feeling of America at the time.
PLAYBOY: Entertainers don’t often really speak their mind, especially not on live TV.
WEST: And entertainers who would say what they’re thinking wouldn’t be given that opportunity on live TV. Networks are more apt to put a five-second delay on me now. They didn’t really listen to g“All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks” and “Crack Music.” They just heard the hooks. They didn’t hear what I was saying about social issues. With my polo collars popped, they never saw me coming.
PLAYBOY: There’s an element of social awareness to your music but also a party element. They probably thought they were going to get the second guy.
WEST: I bet they wouldn’t have put Dave Chappelle up there. But that’s who I am: I’m like the rap version of Chappelle.
PLAYBOY: What’s the similarity?
WEST: He talks about serious things, but he makes you laugh to keep from crying. The humor is the honey in the medicine.
PLAYBOY: Actually Chappelle’s been doing a joke about you: g“I gotta give props to my man Kanye West because he said some real shit. That took a lot of bravery and a lot of strength. I’m proud of Kanye. And I’m gonna miss him so much.”
WEST: [Laughs] Oh shit. That’s why we were popping Patrón that night.
PLAYBOY: Laura Bush denounced your comment as disgusting, and Bill O’Reilly said it was g“simply nutty” and called you a “dopey little rapper.” Did any of the criticism bother you?
WEST: I didn’t even know that until now. I care as much about Bill O’Reilly as I care about somebody at my show who goes to the bathroom during g“Jesus Walks.” I’m not going to stop the song; I’m not going to stop my show. Matter of fact, I need to never say his name again, because I’m making him too hot right now.
PLAYBOY: He does love to pick on rappers.
WEST: He can’t pick on us. He picks at us. We’re like statues. He picks at pop-culture icons, which is what we rappers are right now, like modern-day royalty.
PLAYBOY: Did anything about the coverage of your comments bother you?
WEST: People kept misquoting me and using incorrect English: [in an exaggerated dialect] m“George Bush don’t be carin’ ’bout no black people.” And I’m like, “I didn’t say that.”
PLAYBOY: Has the comment hurt you in any way? It seems you got a lot of publicity from it.
WEST: I wouldn’t say it was the smartest business move. At this point I’m not going to say any more things that could be harmful to me. PLAYBOY: So we shouldn’t ask for your position on the war in Iraq or Supreme Court nominees?
WEST: I’m not into politics at all. I can’t even name the people in politics. That’s not what I do. I’ve learned from this how powerful my voice is. It’s like going to your bank to take out $20 and seeing $1 million in your account. You’re like, g“Oh shit, what am I gonna do with this?” Now I know my voice is powerful, and I just try to use it wisely.
PLAYBOY: During the telethon, you announced you were going to donate g“the biggest amount I can give.” So how much did you donate?
WEST: I would never tell you that. I called my business manager, and I was like, g“Yo, what’s the most I can give?” And that’s what we gave.
PLAYBOY: You won’t name an amount?
WEST: I’ll just say it’s way more than I would have made in a year if I’d gone to college and gotten my doctorate.
PLAYBOY: Before your career as a rapper, you were one of the biggest producers in hip-hop. How good a rapper are you? The New Yorker described you as m“merely average,” and Entertainment Weekly said you have a m“clunky flow.”
WEST: I’m nowhere near as good as Jay-Z, Eminem or Nas. So I compensate.
PLAYBOY: How do you compensate?
WEST: With star power, sheer energy, entertainment, videos, really good outfits and overwhelmingly, ridiculously dope tracks. Justin Timberlake isn’t the best singer, but he’s a true star, the entire package. The main thing I use to make up for my lack of rapping skills is my content, my subject matter.
PLAYBOY: What’s an example?
WEST: I’ll use words or rhymes no other rapper has used. [raps] m“Take your diamonds and throw 'em up like you’re bulimic/ Yeah, the beat cold, but the flow is anemic.” Damn, nobody would ever rhyme those two words together. When they come up with a hip-hop curriculum, I want my raps to be in the textbooks.
PLAYBOY: Some people say you just rap about clothes and brand names.
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