Taken from the May 2004 issue of Dazed & Confused:
If Outkast were undisputed owners of 2003’s hip hop throne, this year the crown was claimed just one month and 16 days in. That was the day when Kanye West officially graduated from hit record rap producer into rap superstar, and Dazed was right there with him when it happened.
In an alleyway by the corner of West 44th Street and Broadway, a stone's throw from the flickering plasma screened ravine that is Times Square, a small crowd is huddled expectantly by an unmarked door, placards aloft, pens at the ready. Despite the freezing cold, the big burly cop keeping guard is remarkably chipper, exchanging playful banter with the young girls vying for the best positions. "Okay people, he'll be down in two minutes. I wanna see you all in line, you'll all get your turn. Hey princess, how come you haven't got an autograph book?" "All I care is he hears me sing," says a mixed race teen smiling through her braces. "So long as he hears me sing he'll know I got it."
This has got to be one of the most momentous days of Kanye West's young life so far. His debut album went on sale this morning. It's 15 years of skill-refining, months of studio work, weeks and weeks of industry buzz and millions of dollars worth of Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/Universal promotional spend, coming together in a publicity crescendo on a perishing Saturday afternoon in Manhattan. And boy is it working. It 's like National Kanye Day. Every TV station, every newspaper, magazine and every lamppost urges you to divert your attention to The College Dropout, in stores today! Right now he is doing Total Request Live, the long-in-the-tooth MTV institution broadcast daily from a studio overlooking the square. Kanye gives good TRL, graciously return-volleying the inane banter and caller shout-outs with the cocksure charm of someone who's done it a thousand times before. Except this smartly attired 26-year-old Chicagoan is actually pretty new to all this. A few short months ago his name was known only to those outside the industry who scan the production credits on every essential new hip hop or R&B purchase, to see which studio wiz whipped up their favourite beats.
“Woah, she's hot man. What's your name, girl? You can sing for real. Make sure you give my man your number and we'll see what we can make happen for you, okay?”
Like Pharrell Williams before him, Kanye is a beatmaker-for-hire with an extraordinary hit-rate, who has chosen, not lightly, to raise his head above the anonymity-shielding parapet of the mixing desk in return for even greater rewards, or, just possibly, rejection. And like Pharrell, Kanye is no media-trained Disney Club clown, but a regular guy with exceptional talents and a closet nerd who exudes quiet confidence. As artists (or in Pharrell's case, with his band NERD) both men have also demonstrated a fondness for highfalutin concepts, but stylistically and lyrically Kanye's record is far more ambitious and already more successful. Before today's much delayed official release, The College Dropout was already thought to be rattling up to half a million car stereos, iPods and boomboxes in various incomplete bootlegged versions, courtesy of word of mouth alone. Which goes a long way to explain his apparent overnight stardom.
"Here he is! Kanye! Kanye!" Stepping out from the studio door, West and his entourage head straight for the cluster of fans. Above the shouting, a powerful gospel soul voice rings out. "Woah, she's hot man. What's your name girl? You can sing for real. Make sure you give my man your number and we'll see what we can make happen for you, okay?"
"Hmmm? Well, okay then," says the teen, acting all cool and casual. Seconds later, in the back of a huge blacked-out SUV, en route to the soundcheck for his album launch party at the grand old Webster Hall, Kanye is savouring a rare moment of quiet in what has already been an epic day. But swerving in and out of city traffic is not exactly the most relaxing environment for Kanye. Prior to today, the previous most significant day in Kanye West's life so far was probably the one in 2002 when his Lexus wrapped around another vehicle and burst into flames. The crash very nearly ended everything for Kanye, but perversely, if that day hadn't been so momentous for all the wrong reasons, i t 's unlikely that today would be so momentous for all the right reasons. It was his brush with death that spurred him to take his life and work by the horns and make the leap of faith into making music for himself rather than just to suit the needs of Jay Z, Talib Kweli, Ms Keys or whoever else it might be. It was also the car crash that gave direct rise to his breakthrough solo hit, "Through the Wire", a cathartic, hubris-heavy rhyme tied to a pitched-up Chaka Khan chorus, recorded while his smashed jaw was still being held together with surgical steel sutures. Despite the agonising circumstances, the track was the first introduction to the sharp lyrical wit that more than makes up for a less-than-masterful rapping technique... "I'm in the same hospital that Biggie Smalls died in / Doctor says I got blood clots but I ain't Jamaican, man."
"There've been times when I've wanted to quit trying to rap because I'd be doubting myself. I'd be like, damn, maybe my shit just isn't as good as what's already out there. I know I'm doing something different, but maybe people just won't get it. Maybe I should just stick to being a producer. It's worked for me up until this point."
But, it seems, cheating death has a remarkable ability to make people stop giving a shit what others might think and inspiring them to just get on and do it.
"Now I do it because I actually want to get a rise out of people," says Kanye, soundcheck complete, back in transit to his next TV appearance - NBC's Last Call with Carson Daly. "I rap to show off. If I rap and I'm not saying anything new then I'm not showing off that well. Besides, I had been battling for years. I battled Common back when I was 16 in Chicago. In fact I battled someone on the radio this morning. Ate him alive of course."
“There've been times when I've wanted to quit trying to rap because I'd be doubting myself. I'd be like, damn, maybe my shit just isn't as good as what's already out there”
Despite creating arguably the most inventive and complete hip hop album since The Chronic or Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde, Kanye is unlikely to let the solo superstar sideline interfere too much with the lucrative super-producer day job. You've still gotta pay the bills, so shiny new hits for Janet Jackson, Jadakiss, Dilated Peoples, Consequence, Common and Scarface are already sealed and delivered.
"I can make a track from scratch in 15 minutes if I want to," he says with pride more than arrogance. At the moment he rates 50, Andre 3000, Pharrell, Lil Jon, Jadakiss and Jay Z, "but there's nobody I really wanna work with. If there's anybody that I'm a really big fan of then I wanna just sit back and enjoy their music, I don't wanna have anything to do with it."
So perhaps he will be saving more of his ideas and stashing the cream of his trademark sweet soul samples for his own next album? "Well they say that artists' first albums have all their life experiences up till that point put on it, and the second one is never as good because it only has on it what ever comes in the year or two since the first one. But I don't think you can fit a lifetime's experience into even a whole career's worth of albums. Except maybe when you get up to Prince's range, but still, I can make a whole song out of one single sentence that you say to me, there is infinite inspiration when you're making songs from real life."
With that, Kanye is off to freshen up before blowing away the audience at his launch party with a live spectacle, the likes of which hip hop very rarely achieves. A week later he'll find out he was just kept from debuting at No.1 in the Billboard album chart by the second serving of anodyne dinner jazz from Norah Jones. Still, not bad for a college dropout.