Kanye West: Master blaster

The notorious outbursts of Chicago's second-most famous son offend presidents and peers alike. But with his latest album hailed as a modern masterpiece, it's no wonder he gets away with it.

Can Kanye save music? It's the sort of challenge that would appeal to a rapper who is launching his latest album and acclaimed single "Runaway" with a 35-minute video, infused with biblical references and featuring himself as the great creator in the drama. "I really feel that I am the tree and the people are the branches," recently observed the man who once appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone as Jesus wearing a thorn of crowns.

Kanye West, 33, would be regarded as preposterous if he wasn't such a talent. Perhaps this was why George W Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, declared that the "all-time low" of his eight years in the White House was not the attack on the twin towers but a seven-word comment from the Chicago rapper. When West spoke out at a televised concert for victims of Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, saying that "George Bush doesn't care about black people", the president winced. In his recently released memoirs, Mr Bush recalled how he told his wife Laura that being called a racist by West was "the worst moment of my presidency".

The president's pain was due more to the nature of the accusation than the identity of his accuser, but the fact remains that West has a rare if dubious gift for provoking a reaction. Twice he has invaded stages at major awards ceremonies to seize the microphone and challenge the result. In the latest such incident, in 2009, he humiliated the country singer Taylor Swift by saying she was an undeserving winner. In the ensuing uproar, Barack Obama, taking West less seriously than his predecessor, was overheard referring to the rapper as a "jackass".

West gave credence to that theory when, after the Bush memoirs were made public, he claimed to empathise with the former president because he too – following his Taylor Swift comments – had been caught up in a media storm. "The poetic justice that I feel, to have went through the same thing ... now I really more connect with him on just a humanitarian level." (In response, Bush mispronounced his name, telling Matt Lauer, host of NBC's Today Show, "I appreciate it. I don't hate Conway West.")

Yet "Ye", as he is known in rap circles, can get away with all of this because his music is special. He has won a dozen Grammys and his last three albums have been American No.1s. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his latest production, was recorded in Hawaii and made at a cost of $3m. It has been greeted with rare adulation by the critics. Giving the album a full five stars, The Independent's Andy Gill described the release as "one of pop's gaudiest, most grandiose efforts of recent years, a no-holds-barred musical extravaganza, in which any notion of good taste is abandoned at the door". The album, West's fifth, features a host of names from rap's royalty, with Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz and Mos Def among those happy to climb on to Kanye's "branches".

Clearly, the music industry needs success stories. "Are we witnessing the death throes of pop music? Take a look around you and the signs are everywhere," claimed a piece by the veteran critic Paul Morley in The Observer this month. For those who are convinced that music is in a parlous state of creative inertia, West could be the saviour they are looking for and that he believes he is. Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph seems to think so. "At once demented and utterly inspired, in this critic's opinion, West is so far ahead of the field, he might as well be in a different field altogether," he wrote this week.

Whether West appreciates such praise is doubtful. If Bush seemed easily wounded by the Katrina barb, West bleeds like a haemophiliac from the merest critical pinprick. At the conclusion to the stunning live show that accompanied his 2005 album Late Registration, during which he thrilled fans with a succession of hits performed alongside a string orchestra to the backdrop of video films of remarkable quality and originality, West indulged himself in a roll-call of obscure bloggers and journalists who had, at various stages of his early career, seen fit to find flaws in his output.

On his Twitter account last week, West was enthusiastically "retweeting" the observation that his "media 'inappropriateness' is refreshing" and comparable to the contrary attitudes displayed by Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Madonna. Kanye has embraced Twitter, on which he is followed by 1.6 million people but follows no one himself, and Facebook. The social networks give him the opportunity to bypass the news media and communicate directly with his fans. In response he receives the kind of unconditional love that parents bestow on tiny children.

He has been quick to embrace victimhood but at times it has been for very genuine reasons. Through the Wire, his first hit as a rapper (having already established himself as a highly skilled producer), was about surviving a serious car crash. When West lost his mother, Donda, following complications in cosmetic surgery, the tragedy drove him to even greater heights in the performance of shows based on his highly acclaimed third album, Graduation.

That title referred to his debut album The College Dropout, a reference to his curtailed study at Chicago State University, where his mother, a professor, had been chair of the English department. West grew up in the middle-class Chicago suburb Oak Lawn – but was born in Atlanta, where his father, Ray, a former Black Panther, was a pioneering photojournalist. The musician's parents divorced when he was three and his mother took him north.

For a rapper, he had an unusual upbringing. He is porous to diverse musical influences, something he demonstrated most clearly on his fourth album 808s & Heartbreak, in which he experimented with electronica and synth-pop. But the roots of West's tree are firmly in hip-hop, as demonstrated by the presence on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of such rap stalwarts as Q-Tip, Pete Rock and Jay-Z, for whom West once worked as a producer.

West sees himself at an intersection of music and art, comparing his creativity with that of Picasso and Matisse and name-checking Mark Rothko on his Twitter stream.

Despite his humanitarian connection with George W Bush, West hasn't buried his political axe. "I treat the cash like the government treats Aids, I won't be satisfied till all my niggas get it, get it?" he raps on new album track "Gorgeous". On another tune, "Power", he refers to "this white man's world" and in the epic video for "Runaway" he cheekily positions himself at the centre of an all-black dinner party, where the evening wear is white and so are the waiting staff. At a screening of the video in London, he referred to hip-hop as "like black semen – anything it connects with becomes black".

Kanye West can't help himself. His self-righteous and often provocative outbursts seem to be a by-product of his belief in his destiny and his frustration at the slowness of others to see his grand vision. But music needs him. As West self-deprecatingly puts it in "Runaway": "Let's have a toast for the douchebags."

A life in brief

Born: Kanye Omari West, 8 June 1977, Atlanta, Georgia.

Early life: Suburban, middle-class upbringing. Attended the American Academy of Art. Enrolled at Chicago State University, but dropped out. Was soon producing tracks for Jay-Z, Janet Jackson and Eminem.

Family: Father was a former Black Panther, and his mother, Donda, an academic. Moved to Chicago with his mother after his parents' divorce when he was three.

Career: Worked as a producer for Roc-A-Fella Records. Released debut album The College Dropout in 2004. His four albums have received numerous awards, including 12 Grammys in total. New album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is receiving rave reviews.

He says: "My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live."

They say "He's a jackass." President Obama on hearing West had interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Awards

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future