Kanye West - Biography

By David Downs


Chicago-based rap artist and prolific Hip Hop producer Kanye West became an iconic force in popular music in the 2000s by combining the contemporary rap tropes of rampant consumerism and Apollonian posturing with erudite, philosophical wordplay unpopular in rap since the '80s and early '90s. The child of a former Black Panther and a prestigious English Literature professor, West's masterful production skills earned him access to major rapper Jay-Z and his label Roc-A-Fella, as well as dozens of the world's top artists. But it was West's lyrics - contradictory thought investigations confronting stereotypes of and by black culture - that won him international fans far outside the traditional domain of urban radio. With hundreds of production credits that include Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson, West's brand has since sprawled out commercially into record label GOOD Music as well as a clothing line, both of which are often outshone by West's bold, noble stances on politics and policy. Most notably, West told America during a live 2005 Hurricane Katrina benefit that president George W. Bush didn't care about black people, outraging some while turning others into fans.


Kanye Omari West was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1977 to father Ray West - a former race rights activist turned photojournalist - and Dr. Donda West a Professor of English at Clark Atlanta University. His name is pronounced "Kahn-yay" and is Swahili for "the Only One". His parents divorced when West was three, and he moved to Chicago, Illinois with his mother, who would go on to chair the English Department at Chicago State University before retiring to serve as West's manager.


West's subsequent upbringing significantly differed from the accepted rap credentials of the time. He wasn't a drug dealer raised in the ghetto, rather he was raised in upper-middle-class South Shore, attending high school in suburban Oak Lawn, Illinois, receiving art and music lessons. At age ten, West spent a year in Nanjing, China, while his mother was a visiting professor.


Like many suburban consumers, West loved Hip Hop  from an early age, starting with acts like Run DMC then getting into more hard core rap like Wu-Tang Clan. Donda planned on her son getting at least one degree, if not many, but by age thirteen Kanye was making amateur raps about green eggs and ham. After high school, West attended art classes at the American Academy of Art, a Chicago art school, and enrolled at Chicago State University, but he soon dropped out to work on music, paying $200 rent while living with his mother.


His first major sale for $8,000 went to Chicago rapper Gravity, producing parts of Down To Earth (1996-Correct Records). It preceded a star-studded production rise to fame,beginning with credits on Jermaine Dupri's Life In 1472 (1998-Columbia, So So Def).


His first production for major label Def Jam came with Foxy Brown's Chyna Doll (1999-Def Jam) on the track "My Life". The album would also feature future collaborators Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel. In 1999, West gained more credibility with work on Goodie Mobb record World Party (1999-LaFace) followed in 2000 by credits on dead prez's Hip Hop (2000-Epic) track "It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop"  and Lil' Kim's Notorious K.I.M.(2000-Atlantic).


In 2000, West also saw his first production for the label on which he would become known, Roc-A-Fella. Jay-Z's The Dynasty Roc La Familia (2000-) (2000-Roc-A-Fella Records) credits West with "This Can't Be Life". West then became one of Roc-A-Fella's go-to producer's, going nova with his work on Jay-Z's successful album The Blueprint, (2001-Roc-A-Fella) with tracks "Izzo (H.O.V.A)" and "Takeover". West's contributions introduced the world to his rather fully formed production style, noted for its unique beats, instrumentals, and an oft-sped-up usage of vintage samples (learned from listening to Wu-Tang's RZA). "Izzo" uses snippets of The Doors' "Five to One," and "Takeover" uses The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."


West's name quickly rang out inside the world of Hip Hop production, but he was interested in rapping. Rather predictably, many industry executives including Jay-Z did not see Kanye fitting the popular mold of a gangster rapper. His sense of art, literature, fashion and politics were liabilities to labels. Numerous fruitless meeting reduced West to tears, but soon he'd prove them wrong.


Amid a year of excellent resume building including production for Talib Kweli's single "Get By" (2002-MCA), West crashed a Lexus on an early morning drive home. The near fatal accident broke his jaw in three places, but inspired him to create breakout debut solo track "Through the Wire" (2003-Roc-A-Fella). Just three weeks after his collision, with his jaw still wired, West cut "Through the Wire" around the sped-up chorus of Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire."  Humorous and full of pathos, the single persuaded Roc-A-Fella to sign West to an album deal, setting off his solo career.


Though he never finished college, West's solo debut LP The College Dropout, (2004-Roc-A-Fella) earned him more money than most college students would ever make. The album drew from West's six years in the industry, featuring an astonishing roster including Jay-Z, Common, Talib Kweli, Jamie Foxx, Ludacris and Mos Def over some of the best production of the period, overseen by executive producers Shawn Carter, Damon Dash & Kareem "Biggs" Burke.


Lyrically, West embodied the contradictions of more than just black America but the country itself. "All Falls Down" chastises female obsession with worldly possessions, before Kanye admits his own love of bling. "Jesus Walks" juxtaposes protestantism with street fantasies, and West proves both smart and juvenile, prideful and pitiful. His personal critiques challenged listeners to do the same, yet the album retains its pop danceability. Dropout hit store shelves in February and sold 441,000 copies in the first week, entering the Billboard's album chart at an astonishing number two behind Norah Jones. Presaging future outbursts, West soon called country singer Gretchen Wilson's work a slang term for bovine waste after he lost to her in the 'Best New Artist' category of the 2004 American Music Awards.


Amid the release, West produced hit singles "I Changed My Mind" by Keyshia Cole,  "Overnight Celebrity" by Twista and  "Talk About Our Love" by Brandy, then earning an extremely rare ten nominations for the 47th annual Grammy Awards, held in early 2005. The College Dropout won the Best Rap Album award, single "Jesus Walks" took Best Rap Song, while "You Don't Know My Name" gave Kanye yet another Grammy for Best R&B Song along with Alicia Keys and Harold Lilly.


Eighteen months after West's spectacular debut, the young producer proved his success wasn't a fluke by recording and releasing Late Registration (2005-Roc-A-Fella). Teaming up with Jon Brion of Fiona Apple fame, West said the album was a compromise between playing it too safe and innovating too much. Of course, he brought in a cadre of singers and rappers like his first album, including Lupe Fiasco, the Game, Paul Wall, Nas, and Keyshia Cole and his samples drew from fifty years of American pop including Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield.


Notably, Fiasco's appearance on "Gold Digger", (over a sample from the Ray Charles recording of "I Got a Woman") became a club smash, yet tackling the issue of marrying for wealth instead of love. "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" took on the taboo issue of blood diamonds amid rap's bling culture. The album sold over 860,000 copies in its first week and went to number one on the Billboard 200, winning three Grammys for Best Rap Song ("Diamonds from Sierra Leone [Remix]", Best Rap Solo Performance ("Gold Digger") and Best Rap Album.  Rolling Stone, Spin and the Village Voice also loved the triple-platinum album.


West's next album wouldn't appear for three years, but his production continued at this time with high profile work for Janet Jackson, Brandy, the Game, Common as well as international touring.


In July 2007, now a full-fledged international superstar on par with any other major figure in black culture, West moved up the release date of his third album, Graduation, to September 11, 2007, the same release date as 50 Cent's album Curtis. He downplayed any rivalry, however. With guest appearances including T-Pain, Mos Def, & Lil Wayne,  the album went double platinum, again topping the Billboard 200 at number one and garnering him eight Grammy nods and four wins including Best Rap Song ("Good Life"), Best Rap Album, and Best Rap Solo Performance ("Stronger"). Singles "Good Morning" featured Jay-Z, while "Good Life" saw the inclusion of Timbaland, and "Flashing Lights" featured breakout vocals from Dwele. This time, West's trademark sampling adventures took him to the work of Steely Dan and Laura Nyro and his Grammy performance of "Stronger" included a live collaboration with Daft Punk.


In 2008, Kanye brought his "Glow In The Dark" Tour to the public on April 16, ending it in June. West's numerous side projects include his Pastelle Clothing line beginning the spring of 2006. In 2007, he released Consequence's Don't Quit Your Day Job! (2007-GOOD) and Common's Finding Forever (2007-GOOD), on his label GOOD. West also had a longtime personal relationship with designer Alex Phifer that began in 2002 and ended in 2008 with their breakup after an eighteen-month engagement. Never one to shy away from stating his beliefs, Kanye has pilloried George W. Bush for the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Ronald Reagan for the crack epidemic, the classism of AIDS treatment, and homophobia in the black community. He was unusually silent however, after the November, 2007, death of his mother Donda due to complications from cosmetic surgery. In 2008 Kanye released 808s & Heartbreak, followed by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. 2011 saw a collaboration with Jay-Z, Watch The Thrones, become one of his most popular releases. In 2013 his finacee, Kim Kardashian, gave birth to a baby girl they named North "Nori" West, born just three days before the release of Kanye's latest CD, Yeezus.


In conclusion, America has long vacillated between love and rejection of its rebels and criminals, and that vacillation is readily apparent in the phases of popular rap and Hip Hop over its lifespan. Kanye West came in late in the game, during the waning of a particularly long and virulent American obsession with gangster rap. A conservative by rap's terms, West offered a literate, middle class analysis of the famed genre, and highjacked its credibility. Through his vast, star-studded productions, solo works, and collaborations- often juxtaposing the ethics of the street with the ethics of the heavens  that won over audiences white and black, literate and illiterate, poor and rich. Even if West never produced another piece of art, his work, fans, sales and awards would certify him a music icon. Luckily, more appears yet to come.


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