Kanye West: Hip-Hop's 'Creative Genius'

The hip-hop star discusses his new album, his ego and problems with the media.

February 12, 2009, 11:43 AM

Sept. 23, 2007 — -- Since the days of Tupac versus the Notorious B.I.G., or Jay-Z versus Nas, disputes between rappers have been a sure fire way to generate lots of headlines.

The media attention didn't cease when industry bad boy 50 Cent challenged the middle-class rap superstar Kanye West. 50 Cent announced that he would retire if West's album "Graduation" beat his album "Curtis" for sales in their first week.

In the end, West won, selling almost 1 million albums in the first week. 50 later recanted his statement about retirement.

But now that this battle has ended, West admits that he and 50 accomplished their intended results -- winning the publicity war.

"Because that's what they want," West tells "Nightline." "They want the black guys to be up against each other, about to shoot each other. And that's not what they got. What they got is two black guys sellin' a lot of records."

And while West is elated for such a grand showing on his third album, in the end, he said, his music is about connecting with his audience.

"'Cuz it isn't about the record sales," he said. "I'd rather sell, you know, 500,000 records to people who listen to them every single day of their life than a million records to people who didn't listen at all."

The rapper ignores the idea of having a "target audience." He compares his music to McDonald's. He's trying to reach everyone. All ages. All walks of life.

"'Cuz I don't care if you got $1 in your pocket or if you're super rich, you might have that urge to go by and get some McDonald fries," he said. "And that's the way it is. I don't care if you're super down on your luck [or] at the Hamptons, you need the Kanye CD. That's my goal."

West's musical career started at the age of 14, not in a dance hall or in a music class, but rather with computer software.

"I wanted to originally program video games, like back in seventh grade," he said. "And I forget the name of the program, but it was this music program ... and I found myself having more fun just doing the music part. And I kind of, like, just gave up on the idea of like programming the entire game and stuff. And I just found myself running home to program the music."

He slowly started to produce rap beats for amateur talent shows at his middle school, and soon he saved up enough allowance to buy a sampler, a piece of hardware that influences his unique style to this day.

"Sometimes I'll take a sample out and replay things, or sometimes I'll have a chorus idea, but usually I start from a sample," he said. "It's a collage of different ideas. And one thing about hip-hop -- hip-hop can take any form."

The "sampling" technique alters the vocal sections from other music, usually soul and R&B, and then incorporates other instruments.

"Software" and '"programming" aren't usually the terms that come to mind when describing a successful rap star. And West admits he didn't have the poor, deprived upbringing claimed by many other rappers.

He grew up in an upper-middle-class background in Chicago.

West's mother and manager, Dr. Donda West, was formerly the chairwoman of the English department at Chicago State University, where the rapper attended briefly before dropping out to pursue a career in music.

His mother calls her son a "creative genius" and she continues to be awestruck at how he can recite a fresh rap lyric without a pen and paper.

"I think the paper is just a middle man," he said. "You know, because at the end of the day it's like your concept, and you're trying to get the purest form to the fans, and it's like you don't want to read it wrong and forget the pattern that you had. ... Half of it is what you say and half of it is how you say it."

Despite West's gift for writing and producing music, his street credibility, or lack thereof, has been questioned by many in the industry.

"What makes you credible?" Kanye asked. "That you supposedly had shot someone? Rap music is about hardships. That's what it's fueled by. And I think it's all different forms of going through hardships."

"You know, people just dealing with their boss, that's hard," he said. "Going to work everyday, sitting in traffic and it's 45 minutes. That's hard. Commuting, taking the train sometimes, that's hard ... and I figure out how to rap about those hardships. And that's the reason why I connected to so many more people than the average rapper."

West has also had his share of hardships. In the fall of 2002, he was driving and fell asleep behind the wheel. He nearly died and broke his mouth in three different places.

"I mean, a lot of the best music comes from pain, it comes from life experiences," he said. "And I had been rapping, but nothing interesting has really happened to me. As you can see in the rap game, one of the best things that can happen to a rapper is for them to almost die."

This was a defining moment for West, and affected not only his music but his faith. He views the accident as a blessing. After the crash, he was forced to have his mouth wired shut, and chose that time to write and record a hit single, "Through the Wire."

"Even though the steering wheel, you know, broke my mouth in three different places, it was like ... He made it happen for a reason," West said. "I think God was like 'Yo, I need to use you. And you're going to have a big voice, but nobody cares about you. So, let me do something to make people care a little bit.'"

Despite his religion and his role as a mainstream rapper, West shares some social views that are not mainstream within those groups. The recently engaged rapper has been outspoken in accepting homosexuals, while many in the rap community remain critical of that lifestyle.

He was prepared for the critics.

"Well, a lotta people did exactly what I thought they would do: [They said] 'Oh, you must be gay,'" he said. "So, what you're tellin' me is ... you can't understand or accept someone for who they are unless you are that, which is the stupidest statement ever."

"I can't let my message be deterred by someone's ignorance," he continued. "Gay people ... all of my friends been dissing the hell outta you. And most of us wouldn't even know about the culture, the lifestyle, you know?"

West also notices a double standard in how African-Americans can use race as a weapon.

"Like how black people can do the 'white words,'" he said, in reference to how African-Americans can imitate whites. "But you can't do the black words. I look at it from both sides. I know when we're usin' the black card."

However, one area where West doesn't differ with other popular rappers is his large ego. West is very competitive and he doesn't like losing at award shows, a topic that came to light at last week's Emmy awards.

West "surprised" the audience by battling "The Office's" Rainn Wilson in a mock game of "Don't Forget the Lyrics."

The chosen song was "Stronger," the hit single off West's most recent album, "Graduation." In the end, when West lost the faux-competition, he smiled. "I always lose," he told the celebrity audience, to thunderous applause and laughs.

But it's not always smiles and self-effacing humor for the 30-year-old. Despite West's achievements -- critical acclaim, commercial success, and six Grammys -- he is still not content.

He recently vowed to boycott MTV after walking away empty-handed at this year's Video Music Awards. And last year, when West lost the best video category at the MTV Europe Video Music Awards, he stormed onstage during the presentation and argued that he should have won. He later apologized.

He has been called a sore loser, cocky and arrogant.

"A lot of times, my arrogance comes from a person's lack of self-esteem," he said. "You know, what I do good reminds them of what they do bad."

West also points a finger at the media for portraying him in a negative light.

"People are always like, 'We like his music, but we don't like him.' And I'm like, 'Well, duh, I get to edit my music,'" he said.

"The press," he continued, "is editing me. So they'll make you think I'm one way and they're not showing you I'm a well-rounded person."

He said the criticism only feeds his music.

"It gives me something to write about," he said. "Because if my life was ... always perfect and if I never had problems, then I wouldn't have any inspiration."

In a sense, West's most recent effort, "Graduation," symbolizes his maturity within the hip-hop industry.

He samples music from music legends like Elton John and Michael Jackson, and collaborates with artists ranging from the rapper Mos Def to John Mayer and Coldplay's Chris Martin.

He's also looking beyond rap. West wants to break into the fashion industry with a line of new-age clothing. He's also been taking acting classes and has even got a television show in the works -- a comedy.

But right now, Kanye's focus is on producing great music, and at this point, he said, he's on the top of his game.

"It's like, easy flowing now," he said. "Like when I go into the studio right now, I know something incredible is going to come out. I'm just in that zone right now."

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