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Demented Genius

Understanding Kanye West. Or trying to, anyway.


“Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music …”

Consider those lyrics a salvo. They appear in a defiant song called “Power,” which debuted in May, nine months after Kanye West almost derailed his career with a bratty, very public stunt. On September 13, 2009, in a drunken act of misguided gallantry, West rushed the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards and grabbed the microphone from then-19-year-old country-pop singer Taylor Swift, who was about to accept the award for Best Female Video. In an instantly YouTubed moment, West proclaimed, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!

The moment was debated on blogs, Twitter, and cable news for days, months—it’s still being debated. Seemingly everyone weighed in, including President Obama, who called West a “jackass.” Others accused him of being a bully and a racist. West said his friend Mos Def told him, “You can’t make it in America right now. You have to move.”

“They said I was the abomination of Obama’s nation / Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation …”

This week, West, 33, releases his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It is in many ways pop’s event of the year, a stunning comeback for an artist whom many people had started to think of as more of a clown. It reveals West in all his complicated splendor: the bully, the innovator, the polymath genius, the diamond-studded blowhard. Most of all, it showcases the undeniable singularity of his talent, which has gotten lost in months of extraordinarily bizarre behavior. But it also complements that behavior: “Power,” the first single off the album, is not its only anthem of defiance. The entire angry album is a flipped bird to the preprogrammed narratives of celebrity culture. It’s not self-defense; it’s a premeditated attack on West’s haters and a rough exultation of his ego, his impulsiveness, his mess. “Immature adult? Uh-huh,” West raps. “Insecure asshole? What else?”

By the age of 24, West was already famous, at least in hip-hop circles, for producing huge, soul-sampling hits for Jay-Z. He had ambitions for himself, but it took a brutal car crash in 2002 to launch the Kanye we have come to know. West emerged from the hospital, jaw wired shut, with a lot to say. Between 2004 and 2007, he released the albums The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation—commercial successes that also pushed hip-hop’s center away from gangsta posing and booty-shaking toward something brighter, bigger, more pop. West had the arrogance, but no street cred; at first, he dressed like a preppy. (He’s since developed a more serious interest in fashion, collaborating with Phillip Lim and Louis Vuitton, and art.) His mother, Donda West—an English professor who raised her son alone in Chicago—got shout-outs on every album. In 2007, she co-wrote the book Raising Kanye, which praised her son’s fetish for appearances: As a child, he offered to give up his allowance if she’d go to Jenny Craig. In November 2007, she died from complications following plastic surgery.

A devastated Kanye and designer Alexis Phifer ended their engagement in early 2008. Later that year, he released the introspective, melancholic, and synth-heavy 808s & Heartbreak, on which he abandoned rap and sang the entire album, through Auto-Tune. Many critics raved, but its first-week sales were half that of Graduation.

To make My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West spent six months in Hawaii, assembling a Justice League of producers, rappers, and voices (from Beyoncé to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon). According to many of the musicians there, West spent most nights in the strip-mall studio he’d rented, letting his pals stay in his beachfront mansion. “We started out with basketball every morning, to get that blood pumping,” says Dwele, who’s featured on “Power.” In the studio, West would “let the song play on repeat, be checking out fashion on the Internet—then rattle a whole other verse off the top of his brain.”

Rapper Ryan Leslie says “everyone checked their egos” at the door in Hawaii, even West, who talked often about his failings, though in the most Westian of manners: The album would be honest about the way men knowingly blunder into mistakes and then try to fix them afterward. “Instead of being preventive … that’s just the asshole way of being,” says rapper Pusha T. “I had to write my verse four times, He kept asking for more douchebag. That was his chant: I need more douchebag!”

That song, “Runaway,” was unveiled at this year’s VMAs, with West surrounded by ballet dancers. Its unlikely chant—“Let’s have a toast for the douchebags! Let’s have a toast for the assholes!”—was partially inspired by a party where, West has said, he found himself surrounded by “Margiela snobs” and “douchebags” and realized, “I’d much rather be a douchebag, sensitive as I am. I’d much rather live my life to the fullest.”

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