Artist Spotlight: Kanye West

I would be the first to admit that my life wasn’t very hard, comparatively speaking. My mother was an English professor, and she made sure that I was never left wanting, or left empty-handed with any essential. She encouraged me to follow my musical dreams, and even after I dropped out of college, she was still supportive of me and my nascent career (although I suspect that finishing college would have sat a lot better with her). So yeah, I was no gangsta. I never lived in a truly poor ghetto, and I don’t know what the gang life is really like. But that doesn’t mean that my voice mattered any less, or that my music was less “authentic” to the Black experience. And it was long past the time for people to learn that. So, after helping to produce Jay-Z’s seminal album The Blueprint, and after that horrific car crash that nearly took my life, I decided that my real contribution to the musical landscape was gonna be done through rapping. So, in 2004, I released my first album, The College Dropout.

*****

“Hey BT, you gonna fuck her?” BT wheels his head around, not completely sure that he just heard what he think he did. He faces David with a half-disgusted, half-quizzical look and asks “…What???” “Are. You. Going. To. Fuck. Her!” David smirks back at BT, knowing he’s just rustled his feathers, knowing that he’s just pricked BT where it counts. His smirk grows more pronounced when he sees the faint blush start to creep over BT’s face. “That’s…that’s gross, David. Besides, she doesn’t like me…like that.” After BT blubbers his way through his lame shrug of a response, David offers up his own head-tilt and continues, “Well, I guess it’s not happening with THAT attitude. When the fuck are you gonna get over yourself and ask her out? Take her to the movies. Just stop being such a FUCKING PUSSY, and maybe you wouldn’t beat yourself up…or off.” With one last self-satisfied smile at this last remark, David leaves the locker room. BT’s flustered. He KNEW that he should have never told David about liking her. He fumbles for his bag, and reaches inside to pull out his CD player. He needs something to take his mind off of this latest disgrace at the hands of someone he used to consider his best friend. What did he ever see in him? He presses the play button, and his reprieve arrives through the earbuds.

*****

It was a hit. A sea-change. People raved, they acclaimed my new voice, they welcomed the arrival of new blood, new life. In fact, the album became such a breakout success that I didn’t feel comfortable repeating too many of the techniques I used during the production. They had been taken and applied to a lot of other records since its original release, and I’m never one who wants to rest on my laurels, or just repeat and remix what I’ve done before. I don’t want anyone to ever accuse me of not being unique, or unwilling to do things my own way. People out there are watching me now, and I don’t want them to think their new emperor had no clothes after all. So with all this in mind, I brought in an actual string orchestra, as well as a film composer, during the recording of my second album, Late Registration. Through collaboration, both helped me to broaden my sound, and the second album reached even greater heights of commercial and critical success. I had reinvented the wheel, and it wouldn’t be the last time I would do so.

*****

BT hates it here. He’s isolated. Alone. Since the move to high school, he’s so far failed to make one single friend, and he’s starting to come to terms with the idea that he never will. The other kids in class look at him with suspicion, his teachers think he’s too acerbic and mean-spirited, his parents have been shuttling him between different psychologists and counselors, trying to ascertain why their son had become so miserable, so closed-off from any affection. The idea of Autism was thrown around. ADD had once been fingered as the culprit, and the Wellbutrin that had been prescribed had caused him to become even more withdrawn, more isolated. So BT’s not in any particular mind to change his mood or his position in school. He’s made peace with not having any friends, so here he sits, alone in the cafeteria, eating a bagged lunch by himself, shooting dirty looks at anybody who dares to glance at him. He admits to himself that this behavior might have something to do with his isolation, but for now, it gives him a perverse sense of pleasure to alienate his peers. He reaches into his bag, and pulls out his iPod. He doesn’t want to think about this anymore. He just wants to be alone, or as alone as one can get in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. The sounds of Kanye rumble through his earbuds and he, for a moment, forgets what he’s even upset about.

*****

But I was starting to be known for other things besides my music. Controversy was starting to follow me. First, the AMAs refused to recognize me as the Best new Artist of 2004, and I stormed out, frustrated with their awards process. They couldn’t seem to recognize my genius, and I’m not the only one who was pissed at them. Then, during a Hurricane Katrina benefit concert, I told the world that President Bush didn’t care about black people. Which was totally true, but understandably made others very uncomfortable, since race isn’t supposed to be talked about in “polite” circles. Black people are supposed to keep their mouths shut about this and pretend that the Civil Rights Act ended systemic racism. I refused to play their game, and I was made to feel like I was the bad guy. I was ostracized. Politicized. And my name became verboten. But when I saw U2 on their Vertigo tour, it blew my mind. It made me realize that certain types of rap, any genre really, could work with the masses, and all it took was a certain style, a certain attitude. I had already wracked my brain over ideas of how to expand my sound yet again, and the tour took my mind back to house music. Born and bred in Chi-town, just like me. Something new, something exciting, something most other rappers had never dared touch before. If I could combine this electronica-inspired production with the slower anthemic sound, I could really have something here. And so Graduation came to fruition. I had graduated myself to the next level of superstardom, and I needed everybody to know that I had “made it.” I needed to prove to the haters that I was my own force, my own self-made man, not reliant on the Man’s approval to get recognition. So I did.

*****

BT’s admitting to himself that he’s in a better place right now, all things considered. He remembers the sleepless nights on Wellbutrin, the anxiety, the misery accompanied with being lonely, with being purposely ostracizing and off-putting to anybody who dares to offer him companionship. He’s made a few friends now, and he’s starting to wonder what happened to David. He has a Driver’s license now, so he cruises through his old neighborhood, looking for his former friend. Looking for answers. He’s never noticed how dirty this apartment complex is. Probably never noticed before, or maybe fading memories tend to sand all the grit and grime off of all the buildings. He stops outside the place his friend lives, and he steels himself. He needs to know why David would do what he did. Why David would betray him so thoroughly, and in so brutal a fashion. He needs to know why David would hit her. Why David would have the gall to ask her out behind BT’s back, and then have the audacity to treat her so miserably. BT still hasn’t worked up the courage to tell her to leave, but he does have the resolve to tell David that he needs to stop. He walks to the door, he knocks, and…nothing…nothing at all. Well maybe next time, BT thinks to himself as he scurries back to his car. As he drives away, he kicks himself for his cowardice, he lambasts himself for his silly behavior. It’s not his place to be doing this. He knows better. He reaches for the knob to turn up the music, needing something to drown out his thoughts. He finds it.

*****

Goddamnit. My mother…my mother was my world. She raised me, told me to follow my dreams, told me that the world was mine for the taking. And then she died. She died, because she didn’t think she was up to the standards of my new world. She went in for plastic surgery, and it killed her. And it ruined me. I brought her to Hollywood, because I was convinced that I had finally made it, that I had finally earned my place in the pantheon of the Hollywood glitterati. But…fuck. She was my everything. And I needed people to know. I needed to make a monument to this woman, this woman who had gone through so much for me, and who had ultimately given up her life in service of disgusting beauty standards. I slowed down. I slowed WAY down. I brought in synthesizers, and I started to experiment with Auto-Tune. Other pop artists had used it for over a decade, but never to this extent. It was going to be the backbone of my entire sound profile. I needed the chilliness I felt for the world to reflect in my music, and I think I succeeded handily. 808s and Heartbreak was my new confessional piece.

*****

BT’s laying in his room, once again in a state of misery, kicking himself over another failure to be honest with his feelings. One of these days, he promises himself. One of these days, he’ll tell her how he feels. For now…for now, he reaches for his keys, and he’s soon hurtling down the highway towards Downtown Seattle. The Columbia Center glows in the dark blue of night, and the light of a million cars and streetlights dances around his windshield, reflecting infinite patterns into his face. He wonders what Kanye must be feeling right now. He had just read about Kanye’s loss of his mother and how it had funneled into his music. BT’s mother has just retired for health reasons, and she’s been starting to fade, mentally and physically. She used to be so sprightly, and now she dodders around the house, a shell of her former self. BT’s thoughts, for a moment, wander to wondering about his own mother, and what he might do if she died. She has always been there for him; he was her last chance for a child, and she’s since held onto him for dear life, worried sick about him through his travails and tribulations. He owes her everything, and at the thought that she wouldn’t be around forever, he tears up. He fumbles for the dial on his stereo, and loses himself in the music. This really is a good song to drive to.

*****

The critics were not as kind to my experiment as I had expected. I think my stark departure from my previous sound alienated them, made them wonder aloud when I would get back to “rapping”, even thought that had become such a small part of what my artistry was centered around. I needed to wow them. Maybe I needed to wow myself. And the best way to do so would be to converge my disparate inspirations, my individual reinventions, into something truly extraordinary. Something nobody was gonna be able to shrug off. Something that everybody would know and truly understand was special. Unique. Always unique, like nobody else making music today. So I called in all the favors. I retreated to Hawaii. I went Maximalist, as some would later call it. I needed something brash, something broad and far-reaching, something LOUD and all-encompassing. I even directed an album-spanning music video to reinforce that this was an EVENT. This was my magnum opus, and maybe it’s not okay for you to proclaim your own masterpieces, but damnit, this was mine, and I wanted people to KNOW that it was.My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy needed to stun my fans and my critics. And by God, it did.

*****

BT slowly drives through the city, wondering where it could have all gone so wrong. He shouldn’t have said that to her. He should have checked his temper, but now he and his fat fucking mouth have probably ended this relationship. He rolls the conversation over and over in his head, looking for something, anything he could say to right the ship again, finding nothing. He remembers the moment when he told her that she might as well leave him, and she took this as a challenge. He wonders if he should call her, apologize, beg, grovel for an apology. He stops himself from picking up his phone, but his hand finds itself searching for the knob, skipping ahead to the track he knows he needs to hear right now. Out of all the artists he’s ever known, only Imogen Heap and Kanye West have never failed to live up to his expectations, have never failed him in a moment of need, but Imogen Heap is too painful, too raw for him to listen to right now. He finds it. He turns it up, the sound rolling out of his windows, blaring across the street, letting everybody on the sidewalk know what he’s listening to. They NEED to know what he’s listening to. Because it’s one of the most important songs he’s ever listened to, and people need to hear it.

*****

I was getting married, and I really needed an outlet. I was having a child soon, and I needed to wail. I needed to utter this primal scream, let loose with all this anger and hate that I had bottled up. All this negative energy. All this torture. It needed to go because I didn’t want to inflict any of it on my new family. So I, once again, decided to try something radically new. I discared every bit of the Maximalist aesthetic, and I stripped down to the industrial, electronic beats, and I then expanded those to such heights that critics were taken aback, unsure of what to think about this bold new sound, brave even by my standards. Alienating, angry and disgusting were the new words of the day, the new maxims to live by. This could make or break my career, but it was an album that needed to happen. Yeezus, my discarding, my shedding of all my old tics and mannerisms and methods. It was a new frontier for me, but I needed to zig where I had previously zagged. And it was freeing.

*****

BT’s crying again, and he’s no longer sure of why. She had died a year ago, and he’s now kicking himself, as he used to do, for not having gotten over it. “She’s dead,” he repeats to himself. “She’s dead, and this is gross. This isn’t okay. I shouldn’t have to feel this way.” She was his world, but at some point, he needs to recognize that this misery, this appalling despair, is not going to cut it anymore. He needs to become his own person. He’s driving, this time through cow country, and the mountains loom so large in the distance, and the trees seem so dull today that he wonders if there’s legitimately less color in the world. He thinks about Kanye. He wonders if this is what Kanye felt like after he lost his mother. Did he see less color in the world? Less beauty, less to look forward to, less to love? He remembers how cold 808s was, and he settles on a firm “yes”. And in that instant, he feels so much closer to his idol than he ever did before. He stops crying. A smile comes to his face, the first one he’s had in quite some time. He flicks over to Kanye’s new album, sets it, and pumps his fist in righteous anger towards this cruel world, this life that was taken from his mother. He joins Kanye in solidarity, two men who couldn’t be less alike, both with their hands raised in fury for their mothers, for their former lives. Two souls united in indignation at reality.

*****

I didn’t know what my “sound” was supposed to be anymore. I wondered if there was anything I had left to say. I really struggled with this one, in a way that I never did previously. The album was fragmented, almost unfinished. Entire songs were created and scrapped in a near-instant. The entire flow of the album was upended multiple times, and up until the release, I was still working in the studio, still perfecting each individual beat, honing each song to be flawless. When you’re already lauded as being “perfect”, it’s an impossible standard to live up to. What were people going to say about this one? Is THIS the one where people turn away? I couldn’t think about that. I just needed to work, and I needed to ensure that nobody could criticize any aspect of the design. At least then, my production record could remain intact. Who knows what people would say, but I couldn’t dwell on any of it. The Life of Pablo might be the most confessional record I had ever made, but I wasn’t sure if anybody recognized it as such. It was a melding of all my influences, in a way that even MBDTF couldn’t quite be. It was the next step, the next chapter in my musical career. And I’ll be honest: I didn’t know what was to come after this.

*****

BT agonizes over this. This is perhaps the first time that Kanye has ever failed him. He repeats the album, over and over, looking for something, anything to be found among the rubble. It’s like combing through the remains of a horrible battle. There is horrific brutality here, but a bird sings its haunting melody over yonder. A soldier lays dead, but a rainbow crests over the field. Kanye had always been there for him, and now he seems to have vanished, left a bizarre, fragmented album in his wake. BT’s unsure of what to make of the whole thing. But he perseveres, he works through it, he puts the album back on repeat. He knows there must be something here, some insight into Kanye, something new to be revealed that he’s of yet unable to see. He needs to find what it is. Kanye has done so much for him, and BT owes him that much.