As one of the music industry’s most influential artists today, Kanye West, has taken his career as a hip hop recording star, producer, songwriter, fashion designer, and entrepreneur to a level that few ever attain. Recognized as a mogul within the entertainment industry, the provocative West has sold more than 32 million albums and over 100 digital downloads in his career. His marriage to reality star Kim Kardashian has expanded his household name status even more as one of the most photographed people in the world.
Born Kanye Omari West in Atlanta, Georgia, the future hip hop impresario was raised by his mother from the age of three, when his parents divorced. As a child, he split his time between his parents: in Chicago with his mother Dr. Donda West, an English professor at Clark Atlanta University and also during the summers with his father Ray West, a former Black Panther, noted photojournalist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and who later became a church counselor.
At 10 years of age, the young Kanye traveled with his mother to Nanjing, China as part of an exchange program where she taught English and Kanye enrolled in classes there as the only foreigner. Undeterred, the young West was an honor student and gravitated towards the arts. According to his mother, he began writing poetry as early as 5 years of age. By the third grade, West had begun to take up painting and rapping once he returned to Chicago. He even ended up selling his early compositions to other artists as early as the seventh grade. Encouraging her son’s artistic ambitions, Donda supported her son by paying for studio time for Kanye to record some of his material. At the age of 15, he met the person who would become his mentor, DJ No I.D. Under his tutelage, West learned the technique of sampling and programming beats after he was given his first sampler.
After graduating from Polaris High School, West attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago on a scholarship and began to concentrate on painting and other mixed media, but after a year, he transferred to Chicago State University and changed his major to English. The workload of school began to have a toll on his creative output, so he made the decision to leave school at the age of 20 to concentrate on his musical aspirations. The move was not well received by his mother, who was working as a professor at the university at the time.
With school behind him, Kanye was able to commit all of his time into his passion. He also expanded his creative sphere by collaborating with other local artists in the music field. By 1998, West’s skills as a music producer were already noted, and he was by this time making music with noted artists such as Jermaine Dupri and Foxy Brown.
The big break, however, came in 2001 when West decided to move to New York and concentrate on music full time. Hired by Jay-Z to produce music for his upcoming album at the time, The Blueprint, Kanye and Jay-Z went into the studio together and came out of it with what many consider his most important work. The Blueprint went on to sell nearly half a million copies in its first week and confirmed West’s status as a rising musical talent.
After such a huge success, West became one of the most wanted producers in the industry, going on to produce for a slew of other artists, including rapper Ludacris and pop superstar Beyonce. It was during this time that Kanye also made a demo that he began shopping around to labels in hopes of a record deal. In 2002 it was Jay-Z’s label, Roc-A-Fella, that ultimately signed the 20-something and he began working on what would become his most critically acclaimed album.
With the release of his debut album in 2004, The College Dropout, Kanye West made the leap from star producer to star performer, selling nearly 3 million copies of the album and becoming a major success within the music industry. Now recognized as an artist in his own right, West continued to work as a producer to the stars, including Janet Jackson, Brandy, Common, Twista, Syleena Johnson, and many more. Around this time, West added another title to his growing skill set with the launch of his own label, GOOD (Getting Out Our Dreams) Music as an imprint with Sony BMG. The label introduced the world to John Legend with his release Get Lifted and included Common’s album Be in 2005.
Kanye West’s success as a producer and recording artist was recognized a year after his debut release when the Grammys welcomed him into the fold with a staggering 10 nominations in 2005, including wins for Best Rap Song for ‘Jesus Walks’, Best Rap Album for The College Dropout, and another for the hit song “You Don’t Know’, which he shared with pop singer Alicia Keys.
As the music world pondered whether or not West could survive the sophomore slump, he returned with the release of his next two albums, Late Registration in 2005 and Graduation in 2007. He continued his streak of Grammy gold by winning for the hit song ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’ from Late Registration and the song ‘Good Life’ from Graduation. The song ‘Gold Digger’ became a radio smash and West took home the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance for his efforts. The song ‘Southside’, a collaboration with Common, earned West another Grammy in 2007 for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
Buoyed by these success, Kanye continued elevating his status in the industry with the release of 808s & Heartbreak in 2008. The album soared to #1 on the Billboard charts, featuring several hits, including the singles ‘Heartless’ and ‘Amazing’. He also continued collaborations with other artists, including a duet with British singer Estelle on ‘American Boy’, which won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and again the award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for his track with Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and T.I.
His next release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, came out in 2010 and debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. The album featured Kid Cudi and Nicki Minaj and was acclaimed by critics worldwide. In 2011, West and Jay-Z released the album Watch the Throne, which also shot to the top of the charts, confirming his status as one of the most important figures in pop music.
2013 saw the release of his next album, the critically lauded Yeezus. Singles from the album were featured when he hosted Saturday Night Live during the year:‘New Slaves’ and ‘Black Skinhead’. The controversial video to ‘New Slaves’ critiqued America’s criminal justice system and became a top topic of discussion around the world. In support of the album, West embarked on a worldwide solo tour.
2014 had West collaborating with pop music royalty, Paul McCartney, with the release of the track ‘FourFiveSeconds’, which featured pop singer Rihanna as well. His most recent album, The Life of Pablo, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and he began a tour to support the album later that same year.
Since becoming one of the most important figures in hip hop history, Kanye West has become known for several incidents that have painted him as a controversial public figure that is just as beloved as reviled. In 2002, he was involved in a car accident that almost cost him his life, ultimately inspiring his composition, ‘Through the Wire’, and providing inspiration for his critically acclaimed first album. In 2005, shortly after making a name for himself, West was a vocal critic against President George Bush for his handling of the Hurricane Katrina crisis, which adversely affected primarily African-Americans in the New Orleans region. His comments sparked national outrage on both sides and he later apologized to Bush for his comments.
In 2007, West suffered another personal loss with the death of his mother and manager Donda West, who died on the operating table from complications of plastic surgery. He dedicated his song ‘Hey Mama’ to her memory at her funeral. In 2009, during MTV’s Video Music Awards, West took to the stage during the middle of pop singer Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, grabbed the mic and proclaimed Beyonce as the more deserving recipient of the awards for her single ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It’. His comments sparked international criticism and he ultimately apologized to Swift. In 2013, West performed in Kazakhstan for President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s grandson for $3 million dollars, inciting rebukes by several human rights groups as the country holds one of the world’s poorest records on human rights. In 2016, he again courted controversy with remarks in support of entertainer Bill Cosby, who faced allegations by over 50 women for sexual misconduct. He also became fodder for the tabloids again later that year in a Twitter war against his ex-partner, Amber Rose, who he claimed was lesser than his wife Kim Kardashian. The two later reconciled, but not before involving her ex and father of her child, rapper Wiz Khalifa. In November of 2016, West was hospitalized at UCLA for bouts of hallucinations and paranoia, with the episode in part attributed to the robbery of his wife in Paris earlier a few weeks earlier.
West dated fashion designer Alexis Phifer in 2002, and proposed in August 2006, but called off the engagement a year and a half later. After their breakup, he dated Amber Rose from 2008 to 2010. After their split, he became romantically involved with reality star Kim Kardashian. On New Year’s Eve 2012, the couple announced the upcoming birth of their first child – a daughter named North West was born June 15, 2013. West proposed to Kim Kardashian on October 2013 and the two were married in a lavish ceremony in Italy in May 2014. In May of 2014, West and Kardashian announced another pregnancy, and this time a son, Saint West, was born in December 2015.
Through his marriage to Kim Kardashian, Kanye West is now directly linked to what many consider the biggest family in reality television, the Kardashians. From Kim Kardashian to her other famous siblings (Kourtney, Khloe, and Rob Kardashian, Kylie and Kendall Jenner, mother Kris Jenner, and stepmother Caitlyn Jenner), they are one of the highest paid stars in the genre.
- Kanye West: Glow in the Dark
- Kanye West Presents Thank You and You’re Welcome
- Through the Wire: Lyrics & Illuminations
- Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar
Written by: Triston Brewer