Superproducer Kanye West is now the hottest rapper in the world. Just ask him.

Western Expansion 

Superproducer Kanye West is now the hottest rapper in the world. Just ask him.

T he fine line between confidence and arrogance just got a bit thinner. Meet Kanye West, America's latest -- and if you were to believe him, greatest -- rap phenomenon. During the last 12 months, the career of the Chicago-bred rapper and superproducer has taken off, hitting stratospheric heights with a number of platinum wall decorations, a BET award for Best New Artist -- and a growing reputation as a prickly pear.

Or maybe just a prick.

The once-scrappy wunderkind now possesses a superstar's lazy confidence. Forget Kool Keith -- West is the real black Elvis. He bristles at questions that doubt his growing legacy and scoffs when asked if there's anyone left he'd like to work with.

Excited about his current tour with Usher?

"Yeah, definitely," West deadpans with an almost palpable eye roll. "That's my answer."

Get this man some cheesecake.

West's career began behind the scenes -- he was the studio wizard responsible for such smashes as Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name" -- but it was his solo one-two combo of "Slow Jamz" and "Through the Wire" that cemented his status as rap's hottest new arrival.

"Jamz" was an improbable collaboration with fellow Windy City motormouth Twista and funnyman Jamie Foxx, which topped the pop charts earlier this year. West's laconic verses and breezy production tics made for one of 2004's most irresistible sonic treats. Around this time, West also dropped his first solo single, "Through the Wire," which recounted a brutal -- and heavily hyped -- car accident that left the rapper's jaw wired shut for weeks.

"Wire" set the stage for West's full-length debut, College Dropout, which has sold 2 million copies and remains on the charts 6 months after its release.

"Things have gotten way busier," West admits. "I ain't even have time to watch TV, I'm so busy. I'm way more famous. I can go way less places by myself. My next album has way more anticipation than this one has."

West fields production and remix offers from just about everyone in the business, but the 26-year-old musicmaker prefers to work on his own material these days. The five best songs he's ever produced? You guessed it, his own.

West also claims that he single-handedly created what some pundits are calling the Chicago Sound, described by West as "very melody-heavy, drum- and bass-heavy, soulful." But he also says that the secret to capturing a good song is all in the eardrums.

"You just gotta have a good ear, a good ear across the board -- picking samples, choruses, and just being creative," he explains. "It could start with a statement that one of my friends said. Somebody could say, 'Man, ain't it funny how when you go to the grocery store, they don't never have this.' I'll make a whole song out of it and do a beat behind it. But I don't want to break down the whole mentality of why I come up with what I come up with and have people start trying to think exactly like me and end up putting out my songs before I can get to 'em."

One of Dropout's standout moments is "All Falls Down," a critique of the blatant materialism found in popular hip-hop. It seems we living the American Dream/But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem, West raps over a sublime acoustic sample. The prettiest people do the ugliest things/For the road to riches and diamond rings.

And yet West dismisses any notion that rap music is more problematic than other forms of art. Moreover, he says, if a track packs the dance floor, then its underlying message is irrelevant.

"If a song was hot and it said, 'You go spend your whole life in a day/Spend everything that you got/Spend like you just got paid,' and it was over a hot beat and the rhymes was crazy and it made me feel good when I heard it, that's hot," West declares. "If somebody was to have a song that said, 'Look man, you need to save your money and be very conscientious of everything that you're spending because you don't know what will happen in the future,' and the song was wack? That would be more of a problem."

West has been lauded for his ability to chop obscure samples into chart-busting gold -- The Doors' "Five to One" for Jay-Z's "Takeover," Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire" on "Through the Wire." But searching for the cream of the audio crop can be a tedious task.

"I listen to records to sample when I make tracks, and there's so much bullshit that you have to listen to, it's just depressing," West says. "And they're all saying the same thing. Back in the '70s, how many people had a song called 'Young, Gifted and Black'? Damn! Everybody had the same songs. How many songs is about love? And about 90 percent of 'em is complete garbage."

In order to help increase the quality-to-garbage ratio, West recently started the label Good Music. He already has signed fellow Chicago luminary Common and has a number of projects in the works. He is all but a shoe-in for a Best New Artist Grammy. His career is in overdrive. But although he once looked to Dr. Dre and Pharrell Williams as role models, West now seeks a higher calling -- the college dropout has mogul-sized ambitions.

"As you grow, your role models change," he says. "If I was playing basketball, I might look to the best player on the team or the coach as a role model. No ID was my mentor coming out of Chicago. Now Damon Dash or Jimmy Iovine would be my mentor."

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