The Unraveling of Kanye West

Just when the enigmatic hip-hop artist had willed himself to pop-icon status, he broke down in the spotlight. Now West says he is done with music and he's ready to pour all his "superhero" energy into conquering fashion—just as soon as he gets his flower arrangements looking right

It's a packed early-January shopping Saturday in the heart of New York's SoHo neighborhood—despite an icy snowstorm that's frozen the Northeast in its tracks. A man in a tweed overcoat, leaving quick footprints on a snow-blanketed side street, pops out of the crowd, a half-block west of where I wait in front of a luxury loft building. In Swahili, Kanye means "the only one." Celebrity semi-disguise notwithstanding, there's no mistaking who this is.

"You look like a writer," he says warmly through the checkered scarf covering his face, as he guides me through a three-part power handshake.

"You look like a rapper."

"Then I failed," he says with a shrug, eyes, hand, and warmth dropping as he opens the front door, hustles in from the cold, and loses the scarf in the marble lobby. "I was trying to look like an old man."

The past 15 months have indeed put years on Kanye West's life. Even for the 31-year-old workaholic, a man who invented his megastardom by obsessively burning the candle at both ends, they've been long. West didn't just lose, as he puts it, "more than I could ever picture losing": his mother, Donda West, to complications from cosmetic surgery, and his fiancée, Alexis Phifer, to a breakup after six years of dating. He shouldered his loss center stage. In the minds of many, he's lost it completely with his fourth and latest album, 808s Heartbreak, and his announcement that his new goal is to intern for a designer like Louis Vuitton's Marc Jacobs or Jil Sander's Raf Simons.

The breakdown began a week after his mother's death, when the opening chords of his ballad "Hey Mama" reduced West to tears before 6,000 at Paris' Le Zénith. It hit full volume as 2008's pyrotechnic Glow in the Dark tour cut a mass-venue swath across the globe. Intended as hip-hop's answer to U2-style stadium rock, it was more Samuel Beckett meets Philip K. Dick: galactic backdrops, fireworks, cosmic eruptions, enough dry ice to freeze the Florida Panhandle, with West rapping and dancing alone onstage as an interstellar voyager who has crash-landed waaay out there. As West continued to break down when he performed "Hey Mama," then tearfully freestyled a plea "to be a real boy" now that "there is no Geppetto to guide me" on "Pinocchio Story" (808s' hidden live track), one began to suspect that the real journey and crash were happening waaay in there.

808s went platinum in just seven weeks and showed no signs of slowing two months later, but it polarized fans, critics, and fellow rappers. In 12 brooding, highly emotional, minimalist tracks, West abandoned everything that had taken him to the hip-hop summit. No more wit, wordplay, or skits. Not even any samples until seven tracks in. No more lust or profanity—it may be the first rap CD since Will Smith was the Fresh Prince to appear without a parental advisory.

And no more rapping. West now sang, mostly through the Auto-Tune pitch-correcting device popularized by Cher in 1998's "Believe." As many have noted—including those who speculated he lip-synched during his December SNL performance (for the record, he didn't)—Kanye West isn't really a singer.

The biggest about-face on 808s, however, was in how it was made. It was cut in three weeks in Hawaii, and the bulk of the beats were laid down on a drum machine that dated from the dawn of rap, a Roland TR-808 (hence the title).

All of these departures hint at West's evolution: Beneath his provocateur/control-freak/drama-queen persona, the one that led him to call himself "the voice of this generation," to go off-prompter at a Katrina fund-raiser to tell the world, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," to "spazz out" at awards shows when he failed to win, there was something more primal calling out for attention. Even as West agrees that 808s is his first album as a card-carrying adult and calls it a product of a midlife crisis, he says he's working from "the gut," trying to unleash "the little kid who doesn't have all these voices telling him he shouldn't like it because." For West, that little kid is the true artist.

"First beat I did," he recalls, "was in seventh grade, on my computer. I got into doing beats for the video games I used to try to make. My game was very sexual. The main character was, like, a giant penis. It was like Mario Brothers, but the ghosts were, like, vaginas. Mind you, I'm 12 years old, and this is stuff 30-year-olds are programming. You'd have to draw in and program every little step—it literally took me all night to do a step, 'cause the penis, y'know, had little feet and eyes."

Inspired by his preteen Super-Sexual Mario Brothers project, West makes a pop-Freudian self-analysis. "People ask me a lot about my drive. I think it comes from, like, having a sexual addiction at a really young age," he says. "Look at the drive that people have to get sex—to dress like this and get a haircut and be in the club in the freezing cold at 3 A.M., the places they go to pick up a girl. If you can focus the energy into something valuable, put that into work ethic . . . "

West soon channeled it all into music. Devoting a year after high school to hip-hop, he sold enough beats—many at $200, $250 per to local drug dealers who fancied themselves producers—to get seed money for a move to the Big Apple.

He made his name producing five pivotal tracks for Jay-Z's seminal 2001 album, The Blueprint, in New York's Baseline Studios, where he was an anomaly amid the street-hardened masters of the rap scene. A Chicago whiz-kid geek in jeans, a button-down shirt, and a baseball cap worn with the bill forward, he was "a real contradiction," says Lenny Santiago, an AR man for Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella label.

After West was signed as a Roc-A-Fella rapper, his trademark pink polos and pastel sweaters replaced the button-down shirts. When it came to his own records, he was still all about production and relentless creativity and diversity. He made music that was almost tapestry: West is one of those rare, synesthetic types who actually see sounds—as colors, shapes—and his hearing is freakish. At one point during our interview, he yells to a record-company flack in a distant room, "You might wanna take that out in the hallway. My whole crib is echoing." I hear nothing.

That acuity and attention to detail—and an accident that almost took his life—shaped his rapping style. Driving home from a 2002 recording session, West fell asleep at the wheel of his Lexus and crashed. In the 10 minutes before he was freed from the car, he watched his face bloat in the rearview mirror to almost twice its normal size. Two weeks later, with his jaw still wired, he rapped out his first hit, "Through the Wire."

"I had a style that was over-the-top, overly expressive, and it forced me to just lay back and be a little cooler," he says. "One of the problems with being a bubbling source of creativity—it's like I'm bubbling in a laboratory, and if you don't put a cap on it, at one point it will, like, break the glass. If I can hone that . . . then I have, like, nuclear power, like a superhero, like Cyclops when he puts his glasses on."

They say you can't please everybody, but West's opening trilogy (2004's The College Dropout, '05's Late Registration, and '07's Graduation) came close. Sharing works in progress with up to 30 people, West addressed every criticism, and over a meteoric four years essentially willed himself to cultural-icon status. On a single Graduation track, "Stronger," he went through 50 takes and eight engineers, and wove in everything from French acid house and Nietzsche to couture and mid-1990s anime. The song earned a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance and No. 1 spots on six charts (including the U.S. pop chart—still a rarity for a rapper), and spawned a craze for the Alain Mikli shutter-shades he wore in the video: If not Cyclops glasses, they're certainly West's equivalent of Michael Jackson's white glove.

Once we're upstairs, West invites me to sit at the white dining table that's the nucleus of his vast, sparsely furnished apartment. On his side of the table are a laptop he hops on and off all afternoon (mostly to update his blog, which he takes seriously), a cell phone, and a remote that seems to control everything in the crib. On my side is a scrap of paper with a phone number and the name MARC JACOBS, the creative director of Louis Vuitton, who will be introducing West's sneaker line at Men's Fashion Week in Paris in a few weeks.

Critics and interviewers have questioned West's haste in making 808s, calling the album a first draft, a mix tape. Now they're asking whether he is even still a rapper.

Kanye West is having none of it: "Oh my God, I'm one of the greatest rappers in the world," he says, rapping his words. "I'll get on a track and completely ee-nihilate that track, I'll eat it and rip it in half. I wouldn't have to think of it." Two nights ago, he and Mos Def spent half a red-eye from Los Angeles freestyling in first class. "'Yo, I was fuckin' the game./ You can call it statutory,/ But by the time I'm old/ You're building statues for me,'" West says. "I'm still catching up on sleep from that flight."

He couldn't care less whether the sea change costs him part of his fan base. "Don't matter," he yawns. "This game's pass or fail. There's no Bs, Cs, Ds. Either you bricked or you won, and this product's gonna be an A. Fans out there don't like it, 'cause of their own snobbery or instant rejection of Auto-Tune?"—West starts singing the refrain from "Heartbreak" much better than you'd expect—"But you can't reject the melody, you can't reject the story, you can't reject the subject. That hook is fucking Broadway, that hook is like . . . 1940s."

That's Kanye West in a nutshell: whimsical but dead serious. Take what he says and imagine it in comic-book speech bubbles and, shazam, you're on the same page.

For example, I ask about his infamous "I am the voice of this generation" quote: "If not me, then who?" he says. "Someone could be a better rapper, dance better. But culturally impacting? When you look back at these four and a half years, who's the icon at the end of the day? Who broke down color barriers? What other black guy would a white person use as a fashion reference?"

A question about the type of woman he'd settle down with elicits a classic hyperbolic yet self-evident response: "What I feel like—'cause I wanna be married, of course—I feel like the type of girl I would be with is a fellow superhero. So we get that 'already flying and now we're just flying together' thing."

Solaris, a four-foot comic-esque Colin Christian fiberglass bust of a helmeted futuristic aviatrix, hangs on the wall above the table. Her eyes are as huge and her nose is as diminutive as Betty Boop's; her puckered pink lips are unnervingly realistic.

West's crib itself is a work of art. Two lofts that he bought three years ago and reconfigured (with the help of Armani store designer Claudio Silvestrin), it looks less like an apartment than a hyper-masculine minimalist installation. An expanse of limestone flooring leads to the living-room area, where throughout the day the movie 300 plays without sound on a Bang Olufsen wide-screen. Across from it, two brown leather couches frame a four-foot-square limestone monolith of a coffee table, on which an oversize hardcover of black-and-white Helmut Newton nudes is carefully placed. The sounds of Dark Side of the Moon come from a far-off bedroom, where I notice later that the sheets, at 3 P.M., conspicuously hang every which way from the bed. Solaris, it's clear, is not the only female presence to grace this apartment.

The loft's massive windows are hung with solar blinds that let in most of the light but only fractions of the snow-covered cityscape. "If it were a blue sky it'd look like an Impressionist painting of the city," West says, gazing through the shades. Craving some visual stimulation, he reaches for the cell.

"I want some flower arrangements," he tells a woman at the other end of the line. "One on top of the kitchen thing, one sitting in the living room, in the bedroom, and both the bathrooms. Flowers that match themselves, so that it's just one idea in the pot. So either all white—I love cherry blossoms, I love roses—or just a shitload of peach roses so close to each other that you just see the buds. . . . And I want the pots to be very minimal, fit the vibe of the crib. . . . Frosted glass. Or a lacquer, or a matte lacquer, or stone."

Once off the phone, West takes care to specify that the woman given the task of realizing his hyperspecific horticultural vision is not his interior designer and not his gofer—but rather his apartment manager. "Titles are very important. I like to embody titles, y'know, or words that have negative connotations, and explain why that's good," he says. "Take the word gay—like, in hip-hop, that's a negative thing, right? But in the past two, three years, all the gay people I've encountered have been, like, really, really, extremely dope. Y'know, I haven't, like, gone to a gay bar, nor do I ever plan to. But where I would talk to a gay person—the conversation would be mostly around, like, art or design—it'd be really dope. From a design standpoint, kids'll say, 'Dude, those pants are gay.' But if it's, like, good, good, good fashion-level, design-level stuff, where it's on a higher level than the average commercial design stuff, it's, like, gay people that do that. I think that should be said as a compliment. Like, 'Dude, that's so good it's almost . . . gay.'"

West's friends and professional adjuncts, who quietly pass in and out of his loft throughout the day, start cracking up, and he leaves his chair for a bit of stand-up: "'Dude, that's so good it's almost gay!' 'Dude, you pay real attention to detail—that's almost, like, gay!' 'You had a whole conversation with that girl without bringing up sex? That was, like, gay!'"

Something besides floral arrangements is nagging at West today. But it's not his mom, or his ex. "I'm not feeling that overly emotional Oprah stuff," he says. "Dude, my life's actually better than it's ever been."

No. Kanye is just ready to move on. "Put this in the magazine: There's nothing more to be said about music. I'm the fucking end-all, be-all of music. I know what I'm doing. I did 808s in three weeks. I got it. It's on cruise control. . . . Man, we talked about music for God knows how long!" he yells. "Now let's talk about how my fucking sweater didn't come back right from Korea. That's what's interesting me."

West has long been a fixture in the front rows in Milan and Paris, but he's both anxious and cocky about his line of sneakers hitting the Paris runway. Anxious because he's the first to admit he's a fledgling designer. And cocky because he couldn't care less how clichéd the idea of a rapper taking over fashion with signature sneakers may seem. "I'm all about clichés now!" he says. "People base their opinions on cliché. There's a reason why they're clichés: 'I was gonna wear a coat today, but it would be so cliché.' How about some pants—if it's not too cliché?"

West has had his own clothing line, Pastelle, for three years, and the fashion world has exacted its pound of flesh from him much as he once did from drug dealers eager to make it as producers. "The big payback," he calls it. "I work with different designers and they'll see me coming, saying 'I wanna do this line,' and they're like, 'Cool, give me $150,000 for two weeks' work'! It's like, 'This dude is so eager to get in—he's a millionaire who doesn't know his ass from his face, and we're gonna charge him up the fucking ass for a sketch, for an idea, for a sample.' Every time I did a sample line—it was over a quarter-million."

Like the 12-year-old who lost nights to making a penis take a step, West is no dilettante playing at fashion design. He'll spend an hour in a Jil Sander store scrutinizing collars, devote days to freehand sketches. "I'm 31. I study now," he says, flipping through a designer's book, catching everything: the flow of material at the elbow crease of a jacket, the same face shape on different models. When Glow in the Dark hit Belgium, West went straight from the stage of Brussels' Forest National theater to the sea—a good hour-and-a-half drive—to make it to a party attended by Raf Simons, Jil Sander's chief designer, whom he texts almost every day.

"He talks to me a lot about fashion," Simons says. "He's very serious about it. I like him a lot as a person, but I'm not sure how an internship would work."

Despite his celebrity status, West insists he's sincere about starting from the ground up. "It's like pressing reset on my life," he says. "I moved from Chicago to New York and all I had was a bunch of ideas and a few DATs in my pocket and a relationship with an AR guy at Roc-A-Fella. Now I'm moving to Paris and I have a relationship with Louis Vuitton, and it's like, Look how far I took that relationship to the biggest record label, and look where I took it in music."

West nods toward the scrap of paper with Marc Jacobs' number. "That was put there for you to see," he says. "Marc Jacobs is my fashion idol because of the way he merges all worlds, the way he's big in the hood and the head of the No. 1 fashion house in the world. For me, Jay-Z's my big brother, but what he was to me in rap is what Marc Jacobs is to me in fashion—the feeling I get when I look at him is exactly what I got when I'd look at Jay-Z in the studio."

This isn't the first reset, of course, that West has engineered. "My story is so written, like God has a plan for me—an exact parallel, like I've seen this before, I'm back in Groundhog Day again," he says. "Like the Glow in the Dark tour—that was like going back and finally finishing up that video game. Except now it was me in the video game."

I start to remind him what the main character and the point of his game were, but Kanye West is way ahead of me.

"Oh, that happened," he says, flashing a smile, "but after the shows."

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