Kanye's mid-life crisis

He was a shining light amid the gangsta rappers. But Kanye West's arrest in Los Angeles is the latest incident to tarnish his image, says Guy Adams
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For a man who styles himself as the good guy of hip-hop, and whose best known affectation, in a world of drugs, guns and attitude, is to wear a pair of quaintly ludicrous sunglasses, Kanye West's reaction to the photographers who interrupted his journey through LAX Airport in Los Angeles seemed out of character, to say the least.

Yards from the security screening area, the singer and his road manager, Don Crowley, had a heated altercation with two paparazzi who'd interrupted their attempt to check in for a flight to Hawaii on the morning of Thursday 11 September – a day when travellers really should be on best behaviour.

Details of what occurred remain sketchy. But video footage showed Crowley and West, wearing a grey hooded top, rush at one of the snappers, and grab his camera. As he called for police assistance, Crowley threw the camera to the floor, smashing it into several pieces. West then did the same to the man's flash and viewfinder. Shortly afterwards, airport security guards arrived on the scene.

The incident was posted, in glorious Technicolour, on the showbusiness website TMZ. It was accompanied by a report revealing that West and Crowley had been arrested and released on $20,000 bail, and naming one of their alleged victims as a TMZ employee called Erik.

"This is when it gets crazy," read the report. "The cops asked Erik if he videotaped the incident and Erik said he had... That's when Kanye lunged toward him and said, 'Give me the fucking videotape.' Cops had to restrain Kanye as he tried coming at Erik."

That temper tantrum could cost West dear. This week, he was charged with battery, vandalism and grand theft in relation to the incident, and told to appear in court next month, in advance of a trial later in the year. If found guilty, the 31-year-old star, who has won 12 Grammys and released four of the most influential albums of the past five years, faces up to 30 months in prison.

It was the latest, and most serious, in a series of public incidents that have left fans wondering if all is exactly well in the once-fabulous world of Kanye Omari West. The singer, who achieved fame as the bourgeois face of suburban hip-hop, has recently suffered a string of personal setbacks. He lost his mother, in tragic circumstances, and split up with a long-standing fiancée, Alexis Pfifer. He's had a bad haircut, released a mildly disappointing "experimental" album, and begun spending inordinate quantities of time on the party circuit.

Lately, say cynics, West has become more accustomed to the front row of fashion shows than on the front line of the music business, gaining both a new girlfriend – a prominent model called Amber Rose – and a reputation for public crankiness. He's also become almost obsessively hostile towards the paparazzi who, for better or worse, are a constant presence in the particular circles he now chooses to frequent. Some wonder if he's suffering a hip-hop version of the mid-life crisis.

Thing weren't supposed to turn out like this. When West first emerged on the scene, with the extraordinary 2004 album The College Dropout, he was billed as the thinking man's rap star. Polite, educated and intelligent, with a middle-class upbringing in Atlanta where his mother Donda was a university lecturer, he made a very suburban rap star, famed for peppering his music with poppy samples and smart wordplay.

West dressed like an Ivy League student, hung out with Barack Obama, and acquired crossover fans from every racial and social background. As a former producer, who had quit Chicago State University in 2001 to pursue his career in music (his talent was "spotted" by Jay Z), he understood the commercial and the artistic possibilities of his trade.

He soon won tens of millions of fans, and a reputation as a cultural icon. His tours sold out, and he became one of America's most influential young artists. In 2005, he achieved a place in history, becoming the first ever rap musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

Yet for all his extravagant ability, modest understatement was never West's strongest suit. In 2006, to mark the release of his second album Late Registration, he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone dressed as Jesus at the crucifixion (with barely a touch of irony). At that year's MTV awards, when he lost out on a gong, he interrupted the winner's speech to say, "That award should have gone to me."

He also became a political live wire, using a Hurricane Katrina benefit in 2005 to declare: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." He courageously spoke out against homophobia in the hip-hop community, upsetting several of his grittier peers, and once sang about the theory that Ronald Reagan deliberately introduced crack cocaine to kill off the leaders of the Black Panther movement, of which his father (now a Christian counsellor) was briefly a member.

But West did make startlingly good records, which seemed to top the charts effortlessly. His 2007 album Graduation won four Grammy awards, and sold almost half a million copies in its first day, beating a rival record released on the same date by Fifty Cent. He announced plans to launch a fashion label, began buying up burger restaurants and was given cameo roles in shows such as Entourage and Family Guy.

Things, however, took a turn for the worse in November 2007, when Donda West died suddenly from complications related to cosmetic surgery (a tummy tuck and breast augmentation). Kanye, who had been largely brought up by her, and had in later years employed her as his manager and biographer, was devastated. He may even have blamed himself. "The manner of her death was so shallow, for someone he considered to be a deep person," says a friend who has worked with West. "It was so out of character for her, too. He's not been beating himself up per se, but he has been asking did his fame have a role in what happened."

West later told reporters that the death was "like losing an arm and a leg and trying to walk through that". He responded by ending his engagement and knuckling down to work and flying to Hawaii to produce a new album, 808s & Heartbreak. Characterised by synthesiser notes and 1980s style electronic distortion, and made in just three weeks, it prompted a mixed response from critics and met with bewilderment from fans.

West has never been one to take criticism easily. "He's one of those people who always has a chip on his shoulder. He's always upset by something. In fact, he feeds off that," says one acquaintance. "He waits until people count him out and, like all good workaholics, uses that as motivation. The last album I would liken to Tom Cruise doing an art-house movie. It was an experiment, which upset the industry, and left his fans a little cold."

West's publicist, Louise Mayne, yesterday denied reports that he was taking a break from music to finally get a long-awaited fashion label off the ground. (It was first announced in 2006.) Hattie Collins, the founder of the urban lifestyle magazine RWD, meanwhile downplayed his strained relationship with the paparazzi.

"The paps are just over the top, ridiculous and would drive a sane person insane," she said. "Sure, the death of his mother would have affected him like it would any one, but I don't think his interest in fashion is indicative of anything wrong. I think he's just a very creative person who's really into fashion, art, architecture, music and so on."

That, at least, is the sympathetic reading, which West hopes will be shared by the Los Angeles judge who hears his case later this year. Whatever the outcome of that trial, he could in future be forgiven, like most fellow stars, for giving LAX a miss – and flying via private jet.