Kanye West: King of rap

Ian Burrell
Saturday 22 September 2007 00:00

It was a sight that lives long in the memory, the rapper Kanye West, standing centre stage at London's Hammersmith Apollo, jerkily kicking out his legs in the style beloved of those Eighties teenagers who wore big back-combed hair, eyeliner and fingerless gloves, as he encouraged mystified hip-hop fans among his audience to sing along to A-ha's 1985 pop hit "Take on Me".

Kanye West, 30, is not any kind of rapper. His backing band for the show, 18 months ago, was a 10-piece female string orchestra, including what is believed to be rap's first live harpist.

While other hip-hop MCs wear their jeans low slung and lace their lyrics with boasts of nefarious pasts on ghetto streets, Kanye has rhymed about the dubious benefits of material wealth and the dirty secrets of the diamond trade. He has a teddy bear for his motif, dresses in a style that is heavily influenced by the preppy look of the Ivy League and has named his clothing line Pastelle, reflecting his taste for soft colours. He has publicly condemned rap music's deeply ingrained homophobia.

Masterfully, he has built a musical reputation that somehow keeps happy both a core hip-hop audience and a much wider following, a talent recognised at Wednesday night's Mobo awards in London, when he was given the prizes for best hip-hop artist and best video.

Rap aficionados recognise that he served his time as a producer, constructing beats for artists such as Jay-Z, Mobb Deep and Eminem. And since emerging as a rapper in his own right he has won over many of those who doubted his microphone skills, making classics from his 2004 breakthrough hit "Through the Wire" to the street anthem "Can't Tell Me Nothing" from his third and latest album, Graduation. At the same time, he has broken down rap conventions, sampling French electronica duo Daft Punk, to create "Stronger", a British No 1, and deploying the services of London pop singer Lily Allen when producing the latest album of his fellow Chicagoan rapper, Common.

Somehow West has retained the admiration of the streets in spite of the fact that his music, and particularly songs such as the Shirley Bassey-sampling "Diamonds from Sierra Leone", would not be out of place in Mahiki or Boujis, the kind of clubs patronised by Princes Harry and William, who are now among his global army of fans.

So what's not to like? Well, in an era when gratuitous self-promotion has become not so much commonplace as near compulsory, it seems unreasonable to criticise someone for being overconfident of their abilities, particularly someone working in a musical genre where braggadocio is a pre-requisite. Yet almost everyone who has spent any time in the presence of West, including many with long experience of accommodating the demands of musical prima donnas, seems to feel the need to comment on his unbounded arrogance.

Born in Atlanta, the son of Ray West, a Black Panther and talented photojournalist, and Donda West, an academic, he moved to Chicago with his mother at the age of three, after his parents divorced. They settled in the comfortable suburb of Oak Lawn and Mrs West became chair of the English department at Chicago State University, eventually becoming the rapper's manager. Donda doted on her son (the name "Kanye" is supposed to have an East African meaning of "The Only One") and drove home to him the importance of what he now refers to as his self-belief.

Sports fans might recognise in Kanye West similar characteristics to those of the recently departed Chelsea manager Jose "The Special One" Mourinho. Both are possessed of strong personality, relentless ambition, unquestionable talent and an eye for some natty threads, but neither has the least capacity for coping with criticism.

At the end of the Hammersmith Apollo show, at which he used extravagant lighting and video of the highest production values to raise the bar of live rap performance to a new level, he concluded with a ridiculous affectation of victimhood. As the rapper stood silently, sulkily, on stage, a giant screen was used to scroll the critical words of a handful of negative reviews, mostly from obscure American websites that his British audience would never have heard of.

Such behaviour reached a new low point in November of last year at the MTV Europe Music Awards, when his admittedly stunning video for "Touch the Sky", a million-dollar production that featured Pamela Anderson as the rapper's love interest, failed to win the prize. A furious West stormed the stage to ridicule the decision, complaining bitterly that his video was more expensive and should have won.

Yet this is the same individual who has also spoken out thoughtfully and caringly about inequality and prejudice in American society. In September 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, West appeared on a networked NBC benefit show and said: "I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it [the media] says, 'they're looting'. You see a white family, it says, 'they're looking for food'."

As his co-presenter squirmed uncomfortably beside him, West looked into the camera and said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." A month earlier, West had stunned the rap world with a televised renunciation of its anti-gay culture, saying, "Not just hip-hop but America just discriminates against gay people... I want to just come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, 'Yo, stop it'."

But it would be wrong to see this son of a Black Panther as a revolutionary in the political sense. His track "Diamonds from Sierra Leone", highlighting the human cost of the fashion for expensive jewellery, is widely believed to have started out as a straightforward endorsement of the pleasures of "bling" culture, a tune which the rapper, who has an obsession with Louis Vuitton designer products, re-worked only on the advice of friends.

Perhaps the constant analysis of Kanye West's personality is unfair. Yes, he has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine wearing a crown of thorns and, yes, he has suggested that if a modern-day bible were to be written then Kanye West would have his place in it. But Wayne Rooney has been photographed as if on the cross, advertising sportswear, and he is still judged as a footballer. Similarly West's legacy will be his music.

An art student, he dropped out of his mother's university, Chicago State, to pursue his musical dream, and carved a reputation as a producer by developing a style that involved speeding up vocal samples from classic soul records. His first big break came with the release of Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z's classic album The Blueprint, which featured examples of West's work, including the hit single "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)".

West, then 24, had aspirations as a rapper himself but Jay-Z – one of America's most successful black entrepreneurs – was convinced that the Chicagoan's talents were in producing. Then a year later, West fell asleep at the wheel while driving home and was involved in a crash that changed his life. In hospital with a wired-up jaw, he continued to work, using the near-death experience as his inspiration for his composition "Through The Wire", which made his name as a rapper. In February 2004, Jay-Z, now a convert to his protégé's microphone skills, released West's album The College Dropout on his Roc-A-Fella label. Packed with infectious joints such as the stirring "Jesus Walks" and "All Falls Down", it's an anti-consumerist tale of a "single black female, addicted to retail".

When in May of that year West came to Britain to promote the album, his appearance at the Forum in north London was to an audience of dedicated rap fans whom he angered by delaying his appearance on stage but then won round with an exemplary performance, spelling out his credentials with a long medley of the many hits he had already produced for other artists.

Though it was a stripped-down version of the Kanye West shows of years to come, there were already signs afoot that he stood apart from the rap pack. His teddy bear cartoon character from the cover of the album was being marketed on T-shirts and sweatshirts and the rapper's musical accompaniment was a pianist called John Legend, later to become a singing star himself. West heads a coterie of African-American artists which includes Legend, Common and New York rhymers Talib Kweli and Mos Def, providing a positive lyrical alternative to gangsta rap.

When he returned to London in July this year, it was to Wembley Stadium and the Concert for Diana, where he stole the show and met the princes afterwards. The princess would, no doubt, have loved his infectious music, his energy and his preppy wardrobe. As do millions of others, all around the world.

West's album Graduation shifted an extraordinary 957,000 sales in its first week, propelling it to the top of the Billboard Top 100 chart and giving him a British No 1. It trounced Curtis, the new album from gangsta rapper 50 Cent, which was released on the same day.

In an attempt to drive sales, 50 Cent (or "Fiddy"), who has been the dominant force in rap music for the past four years, had said that he would retire if his album sold less than Graduation. In spite of the blatantly commercial agenda behind this grudge match, West's triumph clearly meant a great deal to him. "It feels overwhelming," he said. Everyone is coming up to me and telling me how proud they are of me. To be a champion, you've got to take out a champion."

Hip-hop's future, it seems, is embodied not by the muscle-bound, tattooed form of a former New York drug slinger but also by the crew-necked sweaters and popped collars of the son of a university professor. Wake up to Mr West!

A Life in Brief

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

Early life Father was a former Black Panther, but West had a suburban, middle-class upbringing. Parents divorced when he was three. West moved to Chicago with his mother, an academic. Dropped out of Chicago State University to pursue music production career. Was soon producing tracks for Jay-Z, Janet Jackson and Eminem.

CAREER Became a highly successful hip-hop artist in his own right. His 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, included three US Top 20 singles, won him two Grammys, and was named in the Top 100 best albums of all time by Time magazine. Second album Late Registration, released 2005, went straight to the top of the US charts and sold three million copies. Latest release, Graduation, sold almost a million copies in its first week. Recently won Mobo for best hip-hop artist.

HE SAYS "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

THEY SAY "If Kanye West sells more records than 50 Cent on September 11, I'll no longer write music." New York rapper 50 Cent

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