True story: I interviewed Kanye once. It was a release party for a Consequence album, held at the downtown offices of a hip lifestyle magazine, and ‘Ye showed up unannounced. I think they did “Grammy Family.” Afterward, as everyone moved to a back room, a publicist held the door open for me and I weaseled in, tape recorder already in hand. I don’t remember if he was a little boozed up, or just understandably more interested in the girls, but either way he was barely paying attention to me. Still, he gave me the time of day, and I froze. The magazine I was working for at the time was doing a U.K. issue, and trying to pile up little celebrity tidbits and factoids. And so what I asked Kanye West, during the first and definitely only time I’ll ever get to talk to him, is what … he likes to do … when he’s in London.
I don’t bring this up just to share a semi-relevant, almost entirely uneventful anecdote (although that is a thing I do often, and if you’d like more, please do ask). I bring it up to point out how odd it is now to imagine a time when Kanye was anywhere near that casually accessible. But that was Old Kanye: primary colors, chipmunk soul, the Bape, the backpack, the bear. This is New Kanye: The Nucleus. Old Kanye was hungry to the point of starvation, yes, but he had, in retrospect, relatively sane delusions of grandeur. He wanted to be a star. New Kanye wants to live forever.
That divide is one of the defining elements of his career. We’d never have gotten Yeezus if something hadn’t broken loose in ‘Ye, pushing him away from perfectly classic broad brushstrokes into something more astringent, more raw, more insane. And that divide can be traced back to the events of September 13, 2009: the Taylor Swift bum-rush.
Amid the backlash, Kanye went underground. Rumors flew fast: that he’d checked into rehab, that he’d escaped to an Indian ashram, that he was hiding in my basement drinking all the Dr. Pepper. (I may have been the only one spreading that last rumor.) For roughly half a year, Kanye was gone. But when he did come back it was with “Power,” a goddamn Louisville slugger to the cranium of anyone who’d think he’d been cowed into submission: “He knows, he so fuckin’ gifted.” That absence — like the lava pits of Mustafar that ended Anakin Skywalker’s life and birthed Darth Vader — was the fire that forged what Kanye West is today. How did he get there? And how did he get through?
September 11, 2007
Before they’d ever be released, the titles of Kanye’s first four albums were considered public information: The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, and A Good Ass Job. 2007’s Graduation, though, ended up as the last of the would-be tetralogy. After defining his sound on Dropout and inflating it on Registration, Kanye felt confident enough to hone down its essence: Again and again, he let the silences sit. There was boldness in other flavors: the queasily candid “Big Brother,” the gonzo “Drunk and Hot Girls” (supposedly birthed after ‘Ye and Mos misheard the refrain on Can’s “Sing Swan Song” as the title lyrics). It was the Daft Punk–sampling “Stronger,” though (a song I’ve never been able to much stand), which would turn out to be the future-auguring event. So it’s possible that ‘Ye would have eventually ended up at the harder, better, faster place either way. But events on the ground accelerated the process.
November 12, 2007
Two months after Graduation is released, Kanye’s mother, English professor Donda West, dies of complications from plastic surgery. Soon after, a semipermeable media blackout begins. At some point over the next few months, Kanye and his fiancée Alexis Phifer, a fashion designer whom he’d dated on and off for six years, break up. In April 2008, Phifer confirms the rumors in a statement to People: “It’s always sad when things like this end, and we remain friends. I wish him the best in his future and all of his endeavors. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met.” (Also: “The couple … got engaged over a lobster and pasta dinner during a vacation on the island of Capri in August 2006.”)
September 7, 2008
According to Kanye, he premiered “Love Lockdown” at the VMAs “a week and a half” after writing it. “It’s my favorite song 2 date!! Go where your heart takes you …”
The sharpest deviation in his catalog to date, it was a real mindfuck for anyone who thought they had a hold on who Kanye West was. What was nuttier, though, was when we realized the whole album was going to sound like this. At a listening party at the Ace Gallery on La Brea, ‘Ye got artist Vanessa Beecroft and a whole bunch of naked models, and laid out his Auto-Tune opus. “If I wanna rap, I’ll rap,” he said. “If I wanna sing, I’ll sing. I told Jay, L.A. Reid, and everyone at my label that I needed to put this out right now. I’ll have another album in June, but this has to come out right now.” And, more cryptically: “The irony for me, someone who has talked about so many labels — Louis Vuitton this, Benz that, this girl look good, I’m not going out with you if you don’t look good — the irony, for me to lose the most important person to Hollywood …”
November 24, 2008
808s & Heartbreak is released, and the polarization of Kanye begins in earnest. Despite at-times brilliant sounds — “Street Lights” is still the best haircut-emo R&B song ever written — the album circles around one indisputable fact: Kanye West can’t sing. So, is he fucking nuts now? The “Yes, he’s fucking nuts now!” camp is bolstered by the Amber Rose relationship, and photos of Kanye traipsing around Paris Fashion Week like this.
And while, in retrospect, he actually looks perfectly dope himself, the general aura of aspirational seediness gets caught in the throats of anyone who still wishes they had cuddly scrapper little-brother ‘Ye on hand.
The Kanye disciples who felt lost looked for palliatives, and were able to find them. On the remix to DJ Class’s “I’m the Shit,” Kanye displayed a comforting level of self-awareness: “I got them Yeezys on my feet, I got them Louis in the store / and I dropped another album before we finished up the tour / and it’s still top 10 ’bout 15 weeks later / so that’s a middle finger for you 808s haters.”
Then, after South Park’s infamous “Fishsticks” takedown, Kanye responded with a beautifully even-keeled touch: South Park murdered me last night, and it’s pretty funny. It hurts my feelings, but what can you expect from South Park? I actually have been working on my ego. … Having the crazy ego is played out at this point in my life and career. I used to use it to build up my esteem when nobody believed in me. Now that people do believe and support my music, the best response is ‘Thank you’ instead of ‘I told you so!’ … I just wanna be a doper person, which starts with me not always telling people how dope I think I am. I need to just get past myself. Drop the bravado and just make dope product … I’m sure the writers at South Park are really nice people in real life. Thanks for taking the time to draw my crew. That was pretty funny also.”
And then …
September 13, 2009
Have you seen in it in a while? It’s actually pretty funny. Swift’s just about getting done talking about how this is all a dream come true when ‘Ye pops up out of nowhere, elegantly snatches the mic out of her hands, and says just a few words: “Taylor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish … but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. Of all time!” *Kanye shrug* and he’s out. And boom, his whole life changed.
The most analogous precedent is the 2006 EMAs, when he jumped on stage to complain about being robbed of a statuette by Justice and Simian Mobile Disco. But it makes more sense to look back at “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” a truly unbelievable moment that should forever be the first line of this man’s obituary.
As Mike Myers insists on robotically reading off the teleprompter, ‘Ye gets increasingly more vulnerable; by the end of his outpour, he appears to be almost on the verge of tears. And when it circles back around for his turn to talk, he drops that bomb.
It’s completely callow to compare the weight of the two events, but the intent behind them is identical: Kanye, nearly an emotional wreck, unable to contain himself.
The response was immediate, but so was the parsing of the response. As Vulture wrote at the time of the VMAs, “considering that his interruption will probably be as good for Swift’s career as it will eventually be for his (now he gets to make an album about how hated he is!), it’s difficult not to find the backlash totally overblown.”
Later, Kanye would explain, “it was, like, a neo–Emmett Till. A media massacre. I was neo–Emmett Till’d.” Again, a preposterous thing to say, but not without merit. Inside that massacre, that’s how Kanye felt.
As it turned out, he never did end up at that ashram. He told XXL:
I knew I wasn’t in a great spot publicly after the incident, but I would just block it out and work as hard as possible and let my work be my saving grace. In a way, I had thrown a Molotov cocktail at my own career, and it gave me an opportunity, for the first time, to go away and find out who I was. Because I felt very alone. The only person that came to visit me the night it happened was Mos Def. He came to my house right afterward and said, “Move. You’re not going to be able to make it out here. You can’t make it in America right now. You have to move.”
And that’s what I did. I went to Japan for three weeks, then moved to Rome for the rest of the year. I worked as an intern at Fendi. On weekends, I would fly to Paris and sometimes take off four days just to be in Stockholm, Sweden, just to meet with Johnny who runs Acne, or the Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair, to find the perfect pair of jeans. …
I spent the last year improving every element of myself as a person. By default, my raps are way better now, because I’m at a point where I don’t have to come up with lines — I just think of what I’m really doing and make it rhyme. January first of this year, I started back in the studio.
That was the beginning of the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions in Hawaii.
March 2, 2010
At this point, the general assumption was still that Kanye would return contrite. Then, in response to the death of Alexander McQueen, ‘Ye let a long blog post fly, and it might still be one of my favorite things he’s ever done. Really, just this phrase alone: “Who’s that African in the background Mom? Oh, he created the original layouts for the pyramids, but he was written out of the history books and his MTV award was given to ‘Aliens.’” Again and again, he’d explain. He’s sorry for causing Taylor Swift anxiety, but the facts are the facts, and if they aren’t to be acknowledged by the powers that be, then he himself must shout them from the rafters.
A few months later, when we still thought the album was going to be called A Good Ass Job, Kanye dropped “Power,” and it was on. There was the immediate relief that he was back to rapping. There was the dramatizing aspect of The Return, an immediate legacy-burnishing arc. But there was something else, too: It wasn’t hard to see it was a flintier, meaner artist that had come back to us. Running away could have been seen as throwing in the towel. But ‘Ye was just out there, stacking ammunition. Around that time I interviewed Marco Brambilla, the director of the “Power” video, and he summed it up well. “That’s exactly what I like about his music,” Brambilla said. “It’s the anti–Tiger Woods moment, you know?
Kanye has offered various versions of Taylor Swift apologies. Most recently, though, speaking with the New York Times, he said this of the incident:
It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.
So no regrets?
I don’t have one regret.
That what he had to apologize or make amends for was ultimately so innocuous only made it resound that much louder. Wait a minute, ‘Ye must have thought while he was gone. You’re ready to crucify me for this? Well, fuck you then. Go ahead and crucify me.