Kanye West Biography
Born to Be a Star, Made Misstep in Meeting at Columbia, Sampled Vandross Hit
The double-platinum, triple-Grammy award success of Kanye West's debut album, The College Dropout, was a surprise to many in the industry, but not to West himself. The young rapper and producer had confidently touted the classic status of his work, shaped creatively during a harrowing period of recovery from an auto accident. Some charged him with arrogance, but West, as he put it in his autobiographical track "Last Call," used "arrogance as the steam to power my dreams." "I always say you have to be a little postal to push the envelope," he pointed out to Margena A. Christian of Jet. And push the envelope he did: The College Dropout was a brilliantly innovative 21-track production that diverged sharply from the gangster stereotypes of the hip-hop music of its day and, in its hit single "Jesus Walks," merged hip-hop and gospel musical languages in an entirely new way.
Born to Be a Star
Born June 8, 1977 in Atlanta, Kanye West (whose first name is Swahili and has been translated as "only one") was raised on Chicago's South Side. His father Ray West was a former Black Panther who earned two master's degrees, becoming an award-winning photojournalist and later a counselor. West's paternal grandfather, West told Chris Campion of England's Daily Telegraph newspaper, was "the original hustler. He shined shoes and did whatever he had to do to send all his kids to college." His mother Donda West was an English professor at Chicago State University. A strong thread of activism ran through both sides of the family. West's parents divorced when he was three, but both remained involved in his upbringing. As a child, West often spent summers with his father in Maryland.
"I was really raised in the church, and raised as a good Black man," West told Kimberly Davis of Ebony. That said, his background was an unusually varied one; when he was ten, his mother landed a one-year teaching job in Nanjing, China, and West became proficient enough in the Chinese language to be an interpreter for his mother in restaurants. "I think that got me ready to be a celeb because, at that time, a lot of Chinese had never seen a black person," he told Campion. "They would come up and stare at me, rub my skin, fishbowl me." West became fascinated by hip-hop music at a young age, successfully badgered his mother into buying him a sophisticated electronic keyboard, and wrote his first raps by the time he was ten. His abilities first became apparent at school talent shows. "I would help the others because I just knew I was going to win anyway," West told Campion. "The teachers used to say, 'This ain't meant to be the Kanye West show.'"
Soon West had his eye on bigger and better things. "I thought I was going to get signed back when I was 13 years old," he explained to Associated Press writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody, "and come out with a record and take [youthful rap group] Kriss Kross out." These ambitions had to take a back seat to West's education for a while, though. He graduated from Chicago's Polaris High School, and, having shown skills as a visual artist as well as a verbal one, enrolled at Chicago's American Academy of Art on a scholarship. He then transferred to Chicago State, declaring an English major but spending most of his time, he told Campion, "in music class or in the lunch room talking to girls."
Made Misstep in Meeting
An initial brush with the big time helped to divert West's interests away from higher education. The Columbia label made noises about offering him a recording contract, and he was shuttled to Columbia's offices in a limousine. But West mishandled his meeting with Columbia executive Michael Mauldin, claiming confidently that he would be bigger than superstar Michael Jackson or Atlanta producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri—not knowing at the time that Mauldin was Dupri's father. Whether or not it was because of that faux pas, West's promised contract did not materialize. But the experience only strengthened his determination.
West left Chicago State, becoming the college dropout later referred to in the title of his debut album. After The College Dropout became a hit, West took criticism from some who believed he was encouraging young African Americans to abandon their schooling. In response, he drew a distinction between high school and college. "I feel like high school is a necessity, but college is a choice …," he explained to Davis. "[Some people] have no idea what they're even going to college for, other than they believe that's what you're supposed to do." West backed up his commitment to education by forming the Kanye West Foundation, whose "Loop Dreams" initiative helped finance production equipment for school music programs.
Initially, it was West's production skills that helped him break into the music business. In 1997 he co-produced some cuts on rapper Mase's album Harlem World; Mase later returned the favor by making a guest appearance on a remix of "Jesus Walks." He notched other successes as a writer and producer in the late 1990s, but his music-business profile spiked sharply upward after he began working with rapper Jay-Z, one of the top hip-hop hitmakers of the day. He produced Jay-Z's "This Can't Be Life" and composed such Jay-Z cuts as "Izzo H.O.V.A," "Encore," and "'03 Bonnie and Clyde." Soon West found himself in demand as a producer, working with rappers Twista and Ludacris and with R&B chanteuse and pianist Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name").
West's production style was distinctive, and he succeeded in transferring it to his own music after being signed to entrepreneur Damon Dash's Roc-a-Fella label in 2002. He favored samples from classic soul and R&B pieces, with the vocals often sped up so that they turned into rhythmic high-pitched squeaks but were not distorted to a point where they were totally unrecognizable. This technique, the All Music Guide pointed out in its analysis of West's "peerless" beatmaking skills, was matched by "a likewise trademark stutter-step drum-programming touch—a simple yet potent combination." West's eclectic tastes brought him in contact with new sounds that showed up in his own music; he was known as a fan of the alternative rock band Franz Ferdinand.
Sampled Vandross Hit
A good example of West's characteristic sound was provided by his composition "Slow Jamz," based on a sample from the Luther Vandross hit "A House Is Not a Home" (originally composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and first recorded in a version featuring fellow Chicago rapper Twista before West added new text on a single released at the beginning of 2004. Samples from the Vandross song are heard at various speeds, while West's rap likewise manipulates the listener's perception of time, accelerating to a blistering pace in one extended passage. On top of this virtuoso mastery of the ebb and flow of musical time, West delivers a rap that deftly satirizes the seduction clichés of urban contemporary music.
By the time "Slow Jamz" appeared, West had gone through a near-death experience: he fell asleep at the wheel of his Lexus after a late-night production session in October of 2002. He later recalled little of the episode except for intense pain and the sensation of the steering wheel hitting his face. His jaw was broken in three places, and he underwent reconstructive surgery. "Being that I was so close to dying, I realized that nothing in life is promised except death," West told Davis. "So, while I'm here, I have to make the most of it."
During his rehabilitation, West continued working on the album that became The College Dropout—not just thinking about it, but actually rapping through his wired jaw about his own predicament on "Through the Wire," a piece that cleverly samples a song by R&B vocal diva Chaka Khan called "Through the Fire." "Through the Wire" was also released at the beginning of 2004 and became a hit along with "Slow Jamz," setting the stage for the debut of the long-delayed but much-anticipated The College Dropout. West's skill as a producer was unquestioned, but whether he could put together an album's worth of original raps and concepts was in doubt.
Remixed Album to Foil Pirates
Any doubts were dispelled when advance tracks of the album leaked out. The hyperactive West stayed one step ahead of the pirates by remixing much of the album's contents and adding several tracks. What finally emerged in February of 2004 was a complex group of 21 pieces that touched on many different themes but completely avoided the violence of many of West's hip-hop contemporaries. Much of the album was marked by West's pointed sense of humor, rooted in everyday situations; "Workout Plan" satirized aerobics programs and their music, while "Spaceship" depicted the frustrations of a token black employee at a mall clothing store. "All Falls Down" took aim at materialism with its jab at a "single black female addicted to retail." New versions of "Slow Jamz" and "Through the Wire" were also included.
The most successful track from The College Dropout was "Jesus Walks," which West, clad in white, performed at the 2005 Grammy awards ceremony. Three separate videos of the song were aired. Religiously oriented hip-hop had been attempted almost since the genre's beginnings, but "Jesus Walks," with its serious marching-band rhythms and rhythmically complex gospel vocal-group backing, sounded completely new. The song referred to police abuse and included a long passage in which West listed "hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the strippers" and had his backing vocal group affirm that "Jesus walks for them." Ebony's Davis praised West for his "amalgamation of the street hustler's credo and the Black Protestant ethos." With his mother Donda serving as his manager (and experiencing what she described to Christian as "a huge learning curve" in moving from her professorial duties to the music industry), West went on tour with R&B superstar Usher.
West's frequent assertions of the value of his work ("It's something completely different. … It's definitely a classic," he told Moody) gained support when he garnered ten 2004 Grammy nominations, eight of them for The College Dropout and two for his work on the album The Diary of Alicia Keys. He won three (for best rap album, best rap song for "Jesus Walks," and best R&B song for Keys's "You Don't Know My Name"), losing the best new artist award to rock group Maroon 5—who seemed surprised to win and praised West from the podium as they accepted the award. Sales of The College Dropout, even in a depressed music market, rose toward the three-million mark.
By early 2005, Kanye West was riding high. He had founded his own record label, G.O.O.D. (Getting Out Our Dreams), and it had already delivered a major hit album, balladeer John Legend's Get Lifted. He was preparing to launch a line of sneakers, and his preppy look, which he himself compared to that of the character Carlton on the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, seemed to offer potential big dividends in its total divergence from the bling-bling trends of the day. Unattached after several years in a committed relationship, he inspired speculation about his romantic future. The only question mark was his sophomore CD, Late Registration, whose release date was pushed back several times and was finally slated for the summer of 2005. At first West seemed daunted by the idea of following up what was widely considered a hip-hop masterpiece, but by 2005 he had warmed to the task. "The best thing [about success] is being able to get my creative ideas out," he told Davis. "That's why I rap in the first place–so my voice can be heard."
The College Dropout, Roc-a-Fella, 2004.
Associated Press, August 4, 2004.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 11, 2004, Arts section, p. 8.
Ebony, June 2004, p. 90; April 2005, p. 156.
Jet, January 31, 2005, p. 54.
London Free Press (London, ON, Canada), February 14, 2005, p. D1.
Kanye West, www.kanyewest.com (May 18, 2005).
"Kanye West," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 7, 2005).
"Kanye West," AskMen, www.askmen.com/men/entertainment_150/155_kanye_west.html (May 7, 2005).
"Rising Career of Kanye West," Day to Day, National Public Radio (transcript), December 7, 2004.
—James M. Manheim
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