Kanye West: a conversation

By Jonah Weiner/ SLATE 8/25/10


“Fur pillows are hard to actually sleep on,” Kanye West tells me. It’s just before noon on an overcast Sunday in late July, and West has invited me into his Manhattan apartment. Three years ago, the rapper hired an interior designer to renovate the place into a stark configuration of right angles and polished stone surfaces. But these days, West’s aesthetic has taken a turn for the maximal. “Versailles is the shit,” he says. He’s in the process, as he puts it, of “turning the crib real Kingish.” The pillows are part of the plan.

Interviews with Kanye West have become increasingly rare over the past few years. For a time, the Chicago rapper was unavoidable—on the cover of Time in a blazer and jeans, on the cover of Rolling Stone in a crown of thorns—but the late 2007 death of his mother Donda knocked him off the radar. There are only a small handful of print interviews West has given since her passing.* His silence was presumably—at least in part—a function of grief, but West has also communicated his general ambivalence about journalists. “This is my problem with interviews, you know? What if you did music, and someone else could come in and change your words around and then release it to the radio? And you ain’t even get a chance to listen to it before they dropped it to radio? That’s how interviews are! You say what you say and then you get paraphrased,” he’s said. “I wanna get approval over the shit.”

So, as West begins the run-up to the release of his fifth album—it’s set to come out in November and is currently titled Dark Twisted Fantasy—he has launched a new-media-heavy promo offensive, in which his words go straight from his mouth to the public record. So far, this tour has involved impromptu, video-recorded performances at the Silicon Valley offices of Facebook and Twitter, an account opened at the latter site and immediately put to near-constant use, and a real-time interview with fans on a Web site called UStream. There was a visit to the offices of Rolling Stone, too, where he monologued at some editors and allowed them to post a video clip of the visit. An interview on New York’s Hot 97 last Wednesday has been the sole old-media throwback.

This way, West’s thinking goes, if someone’s going to quote him out of context and make him sound like an asshole, it will be him, thank you very much. The strategy brings to mind M.I.A.’s online retaliations in the wake of Lynn Hirschberg’s New York Times Magazine hit piece, but refigured—far more cannily—as a pre-emptive strike.

That’s one way of looking at it, anyway. Here’s another: West has agreed to speak candidly to me on a wide variety of subjects, to run his mouth but remain pithy at the same time, and to grant me virtually round-the-clock access to his life—no publicist popping his head in and telling me there’s five minutes left. As conditions go for writing a profile, these are extremely favorable. No, I don’t get to ask any questions, but I do get a constantly updating record of West’s thoughts, whereabouts, cravings, jokes, meals, flirtations, bon mots, and on and on. In the face of a mountainous info dump like West’s, isn’t the basic work of profiling—building from the raw material of everything someone says and does toward a more focused sense of who they are—as relevant as ever?

Several days before he invited me into his home, West brought me aboard a small plane he referred to as a “babymama” jet (because, he elaborated, like a purse dog, it’s the sort of cute, undersized thing a rich guy gets for his mistress). West wore a slim dark suit, unbuttoned rakishly at the cuffs, with a tuxedo collar. “Everything’s the right backdrop for a suit,” he says. He’s been talking a lot about suits recently, presenting them as a sign of some next-level classiness, getting his Glenn O’Brien on. He mentioned a girl who’d recently asked him why he was so dressed up. “I told her, ’cause I’m not headed to the gym right now,’ ” he said. As we boarded the plane, a couple other guys dressed in their own suits accompanied West, mugging on the tarmac Reservoir Dogs-style. (West never saw fit to introduce them.)

Flying back from Silicon Valley to New York, West wanted to show me images of some recent kingish purchases he’d made, along with various treasures he had his eye on. It was a giddy tour of ancien régime-looking finery that didn’t end until well after the plane had landed. There were two golden goblets—thin-stemmed and etched with an intricate floral pattern—that West said he planned to use for drinking water. He was particularly excited about a bowl that squats regally on a gold base. The bowl is made of milky, hand-painted porcelain, with two grippable gold lions curling up its sides. “I copped this to eat cereal out of,” he said, adding that he’s been fantasizing about buying a horse. It’s hard to say exactly how much, if at all, he was joking.

It’s similarly unclear, three days later at his apartment, whether he regrets buying the fur pillows, which cost him god knows how much, or if he regards their impracticality as central to their appeal. Uncomfortable fur pillows represent the kind of problem a plebe would kill to have, after all, and in West’s acquisition value-system, form left function lying bruised, beaten, and bloody on the mat long ago. At one point West tells me, apropos of nothing, “I jog in Lanvin.”

But when West complains about the pillows, it’s not just an underhanded brag. It also speaks to a deeper sense that, as life has gotten ever more luxuriously comfortable for him, he has become that much more restive and incapable of truly enjoying it. He fancies himself a king these days, but throughout his career he has frequently come across like a princess tossing and turning atop a pea. It’s as though an irritating little voice nags at him from down below, telling him that he still hasn’t achieved everything he can, that he still doesn’t have all the success he deserves, and that he never will. Sometimes he says he doesn’t want to be “limited by the art form of rap,” and sometimes he sets his sights higher and says he doesn’t want to be limited by the 21st century: “When I think of competition it’s like I try to create against the past. I think about Michelangelo and Picasso, you know, the pyramids,” he says.

Last September, when he interrupted Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards, West’s nagging inner voice enjoyed its biggest platform to date—and suffered its biggest rebuke. As Swift accepted her award for best female video, West stormed the stage, grabbed her mic—and the spotlight—to mount a protest on behalf of Beyonce Knowles, whose “Single Ladies” video was up for the same award.

West had risen to national prominence with a stammering, justice-seeking outburst in 2005, when he interrupted Mike Myers and Chris Tucker on a Katrina telethon and excoriated George W. Bush. Here was a stammering, sort-of-justice-seeking outburst of a different kind—and where the first had been roundly celebrated, this one was decried. “Fuck you Kanye, it’s like you stepped on a kitten,” Katy Perry said, neatly encapsulating the majority response. Last week, on Hot 97, West—who apologized to Swift then fell into a long, self-imposed exile—likened himself to “a modern day Emmett Till,” the 14-year-old boy murdered in Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Although it’d be naive to say that there had been no racial component to the event or its fallout, the Till comparison proved that West’s sense of persecution is alive and well.

At his apartment today, West says he’s “working on being a doper person,” but he seems to be feeling pretty dope as it is. “This is gonna be a dope ass day,” he says. “Life is awesome,” he says. “I love me,” he says.

West’s struggle between self-love and self-doubt has been career-long. He made his 2004 debut as a Louis Vuitton backpack of contradictions, casting himself as a principled “conscious” rapper with a weakness for womanizing and conspicuous consumption. “Always said if I rapped I’d say something significant,” a rhyme on one early song went, “but now I’m rapping ’bout money, hoes, and rims again.” On another track, West observed, mournfully, “We buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need ‘em/ Things we buy to cover up what’s inside/ Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth.” He identified his materialism—and, by extension, that of the upwardly mobile underclass at large—as the symptom of an inherited, deeply ingrained self-loathing and insecurity.

West has yet to cure himself of that affliction—quite the contrary, as the kingish splurges attest. But he hasn’t swept it under the rug, either. (The rug in question is a Persian “with cherub imagery,” in case you’re wondering). His tendency, in fact, is to inflate his cockiness to the point of grotesquerie, to type it out in ALL CAPS, to render it obscenely over-compensatory, and maybe even to inscribe its plush trappings with a faint tinge of penitent masochism, from the uncomfortable fur-pillows to a new song that revolves around a refrain—”My chain heavy, my chain too heavy”—that turns a boast into a statement of suffering.

When West says something like “I love me,” the words carry some irony. One of his favorite fictional characters is Ron Burgundy, from Anchormanan arrogant, preening blowhard who exults in his stupidity, blissfully unaware of how ridiculous he is. When West raps, “I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal,” quoting from Anchorman, it’s both a boast and a parody of one.

In other words, West has always been an interesting braggart because he lets a brag function as its opposite—he likes to have his cake and poison it, too. “Thoughts is Napoleon,” West says, and you wonder if he’s comparing his mind-state to the emperor or the complex.

When West spoke to me last spring, there was more poison in the cake mix than usual. “I never feel like I’m not the underdog. I never felt completely comfortable,” he said in March, still reeling, it seemed, from the VMA fallout. As West went on, it became clear that the death of the designer Alexander McQueen had shaken him and added to his funk. Mainstream rappers aren’t really supposed to parade their vulnerabilities—at least they weren’t until West came along, clearing the way for marquee emoters like Kid Cudi and Drake—but he readily admitted that he empathized with the designer’s suicidal torment. (In the video-of-sorts for “See You in My Nightmares,” he drives a blade into his stomach, loosing a flurry of confetti and a little claymation beast in a fantastical act of hari-kari.)

“I know how it feels when the night demons come,” West told me. “Sometimes when it hurts so bad we have to just lay in the bed. Just lay in bed and don’t move.” He added that he had begun work on new music, and described the process as gruelingly cathartic: “Sometimes I turn the music up and drink and cry.”

Cut to a Thursday in July and West seemed to have banished the night demons, at least for the moment, with the raw force of 10,000 lumens. We were at his apartment and he was showing off his brand-new projection-screen television. At about 13 feet wide, it takes up a huge chunk of wall space. The image on the screen was a breathtaking overhead view of some vaguely familiar metropolis. It looked like we were peering through a window. “Watching Dark Knight in the day!” West said proudly.

By Friday night, the charms of the screen had yet to wear off—he’d hardly had a chance to use the thing between an editing session for the music video for his new single, “Power,” and a dinner with Jay-Z. Now he had an audience he seemed especially interested in impressing: some girls visiting him from Stockholm named Helena and Carolina. “Why girls from Stockholm be so fresh?” West asked. He was mixing Grey Goose with Ruby Red grapefruit juice, pouring the cocktails into vintage Versace glassware and hitting them pretty hard. One of girls—I never found out who they were, exactly, or how he knew them—showed West some photos of her mom. The alcohol was making him cheeky. “Hey, I don’t know what to say about this,” West said. “Let me see more of you!”

The girls were drinking, too, and one of them spoke to me briefly in a garble of English and her native tongue. “Hey, Kayne’s nya album ar magiskt…. that shit is crazy… det basta som gjorts pa lange….lyssna pa det and get back to me!” she said. He’d been playing her some beats that RZA had produced for the upcoming record, and she loved them.

The new album promises a marked change in tone from the last one, 808s and Heartbreak, a set of brooding electro-dirges written in the aftermath of West’s mother’s death and his breakup with a longtime girlfriend. On early songs and rhymes he’s shared so far, West has restored the uptempo swing and goofball punch-lines he deep-sixed last time out. “I’m Socrates but my skin more chocolatey,” West raps on “See Me Now,” a relentlessly buoyant track he dedicated to “the summer, the BBQs,” to fun.

Even “Mama’s Boyfriend,” an Oedipal stew of jealousy and anger, contains a viciously funny tirade, delivered from the adolescent West’s perspective, against the “ol’ Old Spice wearin’, short-chain wearin’, dress-shoes-and-jogging-pants wearin'” new guy his mom’s brought home. The song ends with a Nashville-worthy narrative twist when West finds himself caring for a boy whose mom he’s dating.

Drinking vodka with the Swedes, West was exultant. He bopped his head hard to his own music, rapped along a little bit. The Avatar Blu-ray was playing. West yelled, at no one and everyone, “Nigga my screen is 13 feeeeeet! Don’t talk to me!” He raised a toast – “Skal!”—then announced that he was headed off to a club.

I wasn’t invited—even an all-access pass has its limits —but from the headache West was nursing the next morning, it seemed like he’d had fun. “Hangovers ain’t good man,” he said around 10 a.m. on Saturday. It was unclear how much, if any, sleep he’d gotten. He made his way to a closet and began trying on suits again.

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