What goes on inside Kanye West's head?
"He was hot when he began, now he's wack. ... His new album is as bloated as West's ego. ... He can't rap."
West doesn't stay down for long; a minute later, he's back on his feet, tearing through one of the most confident tracks from his second album: "High off the ground, instead of a skyscraper / Too low, thinkin' we local / Come on, homie, we major."
This is no idle boast: At 28, West is one of the most powerful forces in popular music today. Two months after its release, "Late Registration" is certified double platinum; like its predecessor, his 2004 debut "The College Dropout," it premiered on the Billboard albums chart at No. 1. Meanwhile, "Golddigger" has held the No. 1 slot on the singles chart for seven weeks; West's "Touch the Sky Tour" is one of the year's most anticipated; his production resume includes hits for Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and fellow Chicagoans Common and Twista, and he has joined the rarified ranks of legendary performers such as Bruce Springsteen and Bono by appearing on the cover of Time magazine.
Last week, three hours before showtime at the University of Illinois' Assembly Hall, West had just spent half an hour with three MTV producers who flew in from New York to plan an upcoming special, and he was working with his DJ, A-Track, to tweak the incidental music for a segment of the live show.
West was dressed in casual chic, sporting a velvet sweat jacket, one of his own concert T-shirts, jeans, sneakers and a huge gold pendant of the face of Christ, with diamonds studding his crown of thorns and emeralds for his eyes.
"Hey, what was the biggest song of the '80s?" West asked as I entered his dressing room. The live scene he was tinkering with flashes back to his late teens, when he was a clerk at the Gap who barely earned enough to pay his bus fare. In the scene, the alarm goes off, he hops out of bed and reluctantly dons his uniform, but he draws energy from cycling through the stations on his radio.
"Um, 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes?" I offered. West and A-Track both stared blankly. "You know: The song with the bad Syndrum handclaps and the woman who sounded like Rod Stewart?" Still nothing. "Hey, fellas, it won the record and song of the year Grammys in 1981, but she lost best new artist to Sheena Easton."
"Yeah, well, that happens," West said with a laugh. Honored with 10 nominations for his debut, West claimed three Grammys last February. He lost best new artist honors to marshmallow popsters Maroon 5, but he harbors no resentment -- he invited vocalist Adam Levine to make a cameo on "Late Registration." (Later that night, West skipped "Bette Davis Eyes" and grooved along to Michael Jackson and Modern English.)
"I always thought the biggest thing in music was to win a Grammy, even though there are how many hundred Grammys given out," West said. "I think [Grammy sponsors the Recording Academy] were a little offended by my whole swagger, but I think it made it more exciting. I called myself the face of the Grammys, and they were up in arms about it. But at the end of the day, I was right."
While West realized the significance of his Grammy nods, the Time cover story branding him "the smartest man in pop" didn't make much of an impact at first. "It's just like that ghetto mentality where you only care about being on the cover of [hip-hop magazine] The Source," he said. "Being a 15-year-old wanting to be a rapper, you don't even think about Time; it's like that's off-limits. But when a person like Steve Jobs is talking to you about the cover of Time, you realize, 'Hey, maybe this is something.' I'm still just soaking it in."
Though he continues to flash the unflagging self-assurance that some deride as unfounded cockiness, West gave the impression that the chaotic swirl of success has left him struggling to soak in a lot of what has happened over the last two years. The scene in the show that finds him confronting his critics is significant because, with one notable exception, he's received nothing but rave reviews from the mainstream press. But that vignette is aimed at the hip-hop world, and within the genre that spawned him the debate continues between fans of hard-core rap who consider him "soft" or "too pop," and listeners who praise him for trying to move the music in a new direction, with ultra-melodic grooves based on well-chosen samples of soul classics and heartfelt lyrics about personal experiences and increasingly, politics.
The exception to the mainstream accolades came as a result of his burgeoning political consciousness. In early September, West appeared beside comic Mike Myers during the live "Concert for Hurricane Relief" to plead for donations. Deviating from the script, West lashed out at the media ("If you see a black family, it says they're looting. See a white family, it says they're looking for food") and President Bush. "George Bush doesn't care about black people," he sputtered before the network cut away.
NBC quickly issued an apology and deleted his comments from its West Coast feed. West's statement drew angry responses from First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and dozens of political commentators, but there was also some support. In an interview with the Sun-Times, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) agreed with West, though he substituted "poor people" for "black people."
"Really, I just had the adrenaline going," West said, making his first significant comments about the incident since the broadcast. "I had no plans to say that the way it came out, but I did set up a couple of bullet points that I wanted to touch on about how the media were portraying people and enforcing martial law. My first run-through was really good; I hit four or five points back to back to back, but they didn't show up [on air]. I just wanted to do that because what was on the TelePrompTer wasn't heartfelt enough, and I wanted to take the opportunity to speak from the heart, because I thought it would touch more people that way."
Overlooked by many who criticized West as just another pop star running at the mouth was the fact that he comes from a family of activists: His father, Ray, a former Black Panther, now serves as a Christian marriage counselor in the South Shore neighborhood, while his mother Donda recently retired as chair of the English department at Chicago State University.
In the '60s, outspoken activists such as the Black Panthers sometimes paid for their radical positions by getting imprisoned or shot. But West insisted that he isn't concerned about being labeled as an activist or as a "socially conscious" rapper.
"I'm not afraid of labels because if you really break down what it means -- what does it mean to be a college dropout? People have negative conceptions of that. But sometimes college stay-ins are worse off. It's about making the decision that maybe right now, I don't need to be in college. Maybe I need to get a job. It doesn't mean drop out of high school. People try to push it and say something else, but I'm about saying exactly what I mean and approaching things that people are afraid of. The homophobia in hip-hop comments were something that could've been more detrimental to my career than the George Bush comment, because it wasn't popular opinion. Most black people hate George Bush -- and it's not just black people, either."
For the record, the president's approval rating hit a low of 45 percent in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, though a new Zogby America poll released Monday shows that the number has rebounded to 52 percent. In any case, enough people agree with West that his comments had little impact on his record sales. And he's correct that within the hip-hop world, his defense of gay rights is a riskier position.
During an interview with MTV in late August, West said that when he was young, he was sometimes mocked as a "mama's boy." This mocking fueled a dislike of gay people, but his opinions changed when he learned one of his cousins is gay.
"It was kind of like a turning point when I was like, 'Yo, this is my cousin. I love him, and I've been discriminating against gays,'" West told MTV. He added that hip-hop is about "speaking your mind and about breaking down barriers, but everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people. I just want to come on TV and tell my rappers, just tell my friends, 'Yo, stop it.'"
"I speak from my heart," West told me. "I don't want to say I rise to the moment, but I adjust myself and try to make the most of it and have the most impact by saying something that can help the most people. I feel like a natural-born teacher and a natural-born leader, and it's my responsibility to say something that might change people. When I was talking about the homophobia issue, that was something where I was really putting it out there to change the mindset of the average black male, because we are very homophobic, and for rappers, it's like you can't even bring it up. They're homophobic, and they'll think you're homosexual, so they'll look down on you and wonder why you brought it up.
"Both of my parents are teachers; I can't help but want to tell somebody something they didn't know. And there's something about this moment in time that I have to take advantage of: When I talk, people really listen."
West doesn't claim to have all the answers. "I give you surface information, and that's all I can give you," he said. Like any earnest young artist struggling to make sense of the world, he sometimes scores a bull's eye, as with his comments about homophobia or in his song "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," which questions the exploitation of workers in Africa's diamond mines.
But other times, he is way off target.
"I know the government administers AIDS," West raps in "Heard 'Em Say," and in several interviews he has repeated the conspiracy theory that white men "planted" AIDS in Africa. The notion is scientifically unfounded, and gay activists criticize it for fueling confusion about an already misunderstood disease. But West is unapologetic.
"I wrote ['Heard 'Em Say'] in like 20 minutes, so what was coming out of me was everything that was taught to me by my parents. It just flows out of me, just like if someone on the street is rapping. But I really do believe that. I believe that's it's connected to the diamonds thing, too: Africa has all these resources, so just like [white settlers] sent smallpox to the Indians, they sent AIDS to Africa. That's just one of those things I believe, and I also believe that Jesus died for our sins. There's no point in throwing out facts that I can prove."
To West's credit, he knows this defense is a weak one, and he vows to dig deeper as he finds himself in the position of a role model ("and I hate to use that word"). "I found out when I dropped 'Jesus Walks' and 'All Falls Down' that it was like, 'Whoa, I've been anointed. People are listening to me.' So I want to surround myself with people who have taken the time to study these things, and people who know what they are talking about, instead of just spouting [nonsense]."
In other words, the college dropout is aware that he still has a lot to learn. Meanwhile, he faces the challenge of delivering the wisdom he has gleaned in an entertaining fashion. And too often, what naysayers deride as arrogance is really just his sense of humor or his pumping himself up to offset his own self-doubts.
"It's like church: More people go to the churches that are more entertaining," West said. "At the end of the day, I want people to listen to the message, but it has to be delivered in an entertaining way."