Made it in America: The story behind Kanye West and Jay-Z’s unique relationship

As fans pray for a reunion between two of the world’s greatest hip-hop stars, Sam Moore delves into a timeline of friendship, fallouts and feuds

Friday 13 August 2021 14:14
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My little brother is Kanye [West],” Jay-Z told David Letterman in 2018. Two years ago, he and his one-time protégé had gone through a very public falling out over his decision to skip West’s marriage to Kim Kardashian.

By this point, the duo had known each other for almost two decades. They first met in 2000, after West produced a track for Beanie Sigel, a signee to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records. Label boss Damon Dash was impressed with the young Chicagoan’s flair for beat-making. He pencilled him in for Jay’s next project.

These days, it’s hard to imagine Kanye West being nervous about anything. He’s one of the most outlandish stars of his time, brash and overconfident to a fault. Certainly not someone you could accuse of lacking in self-belief. Remember, this is the man who once said his greatest pain was that he would never be able to see himself perform live. The one who has compared himself over the years to Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, Andy Warhol, Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso and Socrates. But coming face-to-face with Jay-Z in the studio, where they created the beat for “This is the Life”, the 23-year-old was apparently so intimidated that he struggled to say “hello” to the man who would soon become his mentor and label boss. Their early collaboration marked the beginnings of a bond that would not only spawn the opulent collaborative album Watch the Throne, but also “Monster”, “Run This Town”, and many other tracks that have helped shape the last 20 years in hip-hop.

Their early days were marked by all-night studio sessions, where they would play beats and lay down rhymes until exhaustion kicked in. One of their very first big successes came when Jay started to assemble his influential album The Blueprint, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The first beat West played was “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” and the second was “Never Change”, two affecting standouts from a classic album. West recalled the session years later, saying Jay-Z simply took off his baseball cap and said: “Yo, put them joints on CD.”

Along with being widely regarded as the architect of The Blueprint’s sound, West was now quickly developing a reputation as one of the best young producers in the business, thanks to his work with other artists including Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, and Scarface. But he wanted more. A lot more. He wanted to be a rapper.

In the early Noughties, the hip-hop landscape was dominated by hardcore gangster rappers such as Jay-Z, DMX, Eminem, Ja Rule and The LOX: men who spat hard and aggressively about the streets, crime, poverty, and violence. Suffice to say West – the middle-class son of a photojournalist and an English professor, who used to work in Gap and dreamt of being a video-game designer – did not fit in.

Jay and Damon Dash balked at the idea of West joining the competition. “We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there’s Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life.” Jay-Z said in 2005. Yet West was so determined he was ready to defect; he began courting other labels, including Capitol, who came close to signing him in 2002. “Kanye was never down on himself,” Capitol A&R Joe “3H” Weinberger told MTV in 2009. “He’d be ready to rap on the spot, ready to tell his story on the spot, ready to make a record on the spot. He was probably the hungriest dude I ever saw.”

West had all-but signed to Capitol when the label’s president was persuaded that his records would never sell, and the deal fell through. By now, Dash had seen just how much West wanted this, and finally signed him to Roc-A-Fella as a rapper. “People were on me like, ‘What you gonna do after this?’ I personally signed Kanye, and I wanna take credit for that because I feel good that I believed in him and I saw his vision,” he told MTV. “What I didn’t see was how big his vision was and how he was going to attack it himself. He’s like me and Jay put into one. He’s a businessman, he’s an artist, he’s a producer.”

Jay-Z had yet to be convinced. “I didn’t see how it could work,” he told Time in 2005. But West made it work. He didn’t try to be a gangster – for better and worse – he was himself. Upfront about his faith and unflinching in his observations of racism in America, West changed the face of hip-hop by moving it away from ostentatious depictions of violence in favour of a more introspective lyricism. As a result, he helped pave the way for soulful artists such as his own protégé, Kid Cudi, and Canadian artist Drake. West made vulnerability in hip hop cool, expanding the genre beyond what most believed it could be. Music critic Craig Jenkins called West’s emergence “a watershed moment in 2000s rap history where the nerds stormed the school to seize control from the jocks.”

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‘The nerds seized control from the jocks’ – Kanye West and Jay-Z in 2004

By 2007, West was on album number three, Graduation, which incorporated an arena-sized pop aesthetic inspired by his support slot for U2’s 2005 Vertigo tour. Meanwhile Jay-Z – struggling for inspiration and relevance in the everchanging hip-hop scene – had recently returned from retirement with the poorly received Kingdom Come. West had now surpassed Jay in cultural relevance, critical acclaim, and album sales. Graduation sold almost a million copies in its first week of release. The student had become the master. Yet West was still grateful for the lessons Jay had taught him. His track “Big Brother” was a stark declaration of West’s love (but also some resentment) for the man who gave him the chance to conquer the world. “He got me out my momma crib/ Then he help me get my momma a crib,” West raps, before: “I guess big brother was thinkin’ a little different/ And kept little brother at bay, at a distance.”’ It was the most glaring example yet of how West’s competitive nature was tussling with his wish to show his gratitude for Jay’s guidance.

The highpoint of their creative relationship is still, undoubtedly, Watch the Throne. This landmark collaborative album brought the two titans together for 16 lavish tracks that celebrated being rich and Black in America. With West steering the production with his irrepressible flair, Jay-Z was given free rein to spit over some truly unconventional beats about success, capitalism, and the burden of greatness. To outsiders, the album proved the duo were a match made in heaven. But trouble was brewing behind the scenes. West’s leadership of the project, while described by former Complex editor Noah Callahan-Bever as “the most spectacular moment of creativity I’ve ever witnessed”, apparently sparked tensions between him and his “big brother”. The duo engaged in heated arguments over the direction of the album and fought over individual beats, some of which Jay-Z pilfered for his 12th album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. They were able to tolerate each other’s company enough to hit the road for their storied Watch the Throne tour, where their Grammy-winning single “N****s in Paris” was performed up to 12 times each night. But by the time the tour concluded, something had shifted. Hov and West’s relationship – brotherly, inspirational, and seemingly the envy of the fickle, backstabbing entertainment world – had begun to deteriorate.

The public were first alerted to this around the time of West’s marriage to Kim Kardashian in 2014. Fans were shocked – and headlines were made – when Jay and his wife, Beyonce, shunned the lavish ceremony in Italy, having previously been under the belief that the two couples remained close. At the time, the reason for Jay and Beyonce skipping the nuptials were unclear, but the event did take place just weeks after the now-infamous elevator incident involving Beyonce’s sister, Solange, after that year’s Met Gala. Yet it seemed West was not satisfied with whatever excuse Jay offered, as the rapper later went on national radio to vent. “I was hurt about them not coming to the wedding,” he told Charlamagne tha God on iHeartRadio’s The Breakfast Club, four years later. “I understand they were going through some things, but if it’s family, you’re not going to miss a wedding.”

A feud was sparked after Jay-Z failed to attend Kanye West’s wedding to Kim Kardashian

The “things” West alluded to were marital problems of Jay and Beyonce’s own, which would only become apparent when the latter released her surprise album, Lemonade, in 2016. Fans scrambled to unmask “Becky with the good hair”, convinced that the “Formation” singer was announcing Jay’s infidelity to the world. “Uh, this is your final warning/ You know I give you life/ If you try this s*** again/ You gon’ lose your wife,” she warned over Jack White’s wailing guitar solos on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”. Two years later, Jay seemed to address the couple’s decision to prioritise their relationship over the wedding on his and Beyonce’s joint album, Everything is Love: “I ain’t going to nobody for nothin’ when me and my wife beefin/ I don’t care if the house on fire/ I’m dyin’, n***a, I ain’t leavin’.” They were the words of a man putting his family first.

While Jay’s personal life was hanging by a thread, in 2016 West had the world wrapped around his little finger. Millions of fans watched him create, unveil, and then edit The Life of Pablo in real time. There were Twitter rants and references to mental illness, as West appeared to buckle under the pressure of being one of the most famous men on the planet. Then all hell broke loose, when his wife, Kim Kardashian, was robbed at gunpoint in a luxury Paris hotel while West was performing in New York. The thieves made off with a combined haul of around $10.8m worth of jewellery and other items, including a gold Rolex. Hundreds of the couple’s closest friends and family reached out to offer their support. Jay-Z was not one of them.

West’s feelings about this became clear a month later, during his on-stage rant at a concert in Sacramento for his Saint Pablo tour. “Don’t call me after the robbery and say, ‘How you feelin?’ You wanna know how I’m feelin?” he demanded. “Come by the house. Bring the kids by the house. Like we’re brothers. Let’s sit down.” Clearly distraught, West made several paranoid allegations against his former mentor. The next day, he was admitted to hospital, reportedly suffering from hallucinations. He later revealed he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was battling depression and suicidal thoughts. As he continued to criticise Jay-Z’s creative choices, to most it seemed the friendship was over for good. Yet in 2017, Jay referred to West as his “brother” and someone he had “love and respect for”, while acknowledging that their relationship was “complicated”. Fans were then delighted when a photo emerged of the pair embracing at Sean Combs’s 50th birthday party in 2019. Was this the reconciliation they’d been hoping for?

Happier times: Jay-Z and Kanye West at a party in Las Vegas, 2010

Today, it certainly seems as though Jay and West have managed to heal some of their old wounds. West has always been one for surprises, but there was none greater than at his recent listening party for the much-delayed 10th album, Donda. On what appeared to be the record’s final track, Jay-Z was heard spitting a few quick bars, even hinting at a potential sequel to Watch the Throne. It was a brief glimpse at their former chemistry: shocking, special, immeasurable.

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