Hell Of A Life: Kanye West in 40 photos
Kanye West turns 40 today (8 June). Father, loving husband and polarising creative, there are so many ways in which we want to celebrate this occasion.
We considered going down to the local Boulangerie and demand they hurry up with our croissants. We floated around the idea of going to local business award ceremonies and arguing that we run the greatest independent free monthly music and culture magazine of all time. In the end we realised we were all a bit tired and didn’t want to upset anyone so we selected one photo for every year of Kanye’s life to tell the story, celebrate the life and bask in the glory.
Born 8 June 1977, Kanye Omari West grew up in the south side of Chicago. Here he is as a young child. Look at his face.
Obligatory yearbook shot. Biographies suggest that at around this point in his life, Kanye had dreams of being either a basketball player or a video game developer. He didn’t do either. Flop.
“Lock yourself in a room doing five beats a day for three summers” (Spaceship)
Circa 1996 breaking away from the lab and trying his hand at rap. Watch the footage here.
Signing to Roc-A-Fella
Jay-Z signed Kanye for his production skills in 2000. His breakout came when he handled the bulk of production on 2001 LP The Blueprint.
Signing as a rapper
Despite penning hits for the likes of Janet Jackson and Alicia Keys, Kanye’s dream was to be on the other side of the mixing desk. Label head Damon Dash eventually (and reluctantly) signed Kanye to Roc-A-Fella as a rapper. Dash’s main motivation was just to keep Kanye’s talents in-house.
Ye’s breakout as a rapper came after a near-fatal car accident in 2003. After falling asleep at the wheel having worked late at the studio, Kanye was left with a shattered jaw that required reconstructive surgery. In his own words, “I really apologize how I sound right now man. If it’s unclear at all, man, they got my mouth wired shut for, like I don’t know, the doctor said for like six weeks” (Through The Wire)
Get Well Soon
Kanye’s 2003 mixtape debut. Turning in a total of 36 tracks, this release perfectly introduced the hip-hop community to his hyperactive style as a rapper and producer. Physical copies of this are now practically impossible to track down – or afford.
The Louis Vuitton Don
Ahead of the release of The College Dropout, Kanye burst on to the scene with an aesthetic that rap hadn’t seen before. It was a look he reflected on during Yeezus: “Pink ass polo and a fucking backpack / But everybody knows I brought real rap back” (I Am A God)
The College Dropout
With Through The Wire at its centre, Kanye’s studio debut catapulted Kanye into the hearts of fans and critics. It was a chapter he looked back on at the record’s ten year anniversary in 2014. “Ten years ago today we finally released what had been my life’s work up to that point: The College Dropout.”
Portishead's Roseland NYC Live
Having seen half of the commercial hip-hop community attempt to imitate and emulate his sound and flow after Dropout, Kanye wanted to pin down something more singular for the follow-up. Inspired heavily by Portishead’s seminal 1998 live album, he used the dividends from his debut to hire a string section, juxtaposing the gorgeous instrumentation with the pounding drums of the rap world.
By collaborating with composer and producer Jon Brion, Kanye achieved a sound on this sophomore effort that captured his vision and his ambition perfectly. Triple platinum in the US, double platinum in the UK.
Backed by a seventeen-piece all-female string orchestra, Kanye performed to 100 (invite only) guests at Abbey Road studios for a sensational recital. Guest spots from John Legend, Lupe Fiasco and GLC. Season.
Hurricane Katrina Benefit
Just days after Late Registration dropped, Ye got into his first major spot of controversy when he proclaimed that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” whilst stood next to a befuddled Shrek.
Rolling Stone 2006 Cover
Urm, in 2006 Kanye appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns. Like, a bit like Jesus? So, yeah, there’s that.
Kanye vs 50
The promotional rally towards Graduation saw Kanye engage in boxing-style rivalry with one Curtis Jackson. 50 vowed to retire from music if Kanye sold more records than him. Kanye did. 50 didn’t retire.
Completing the education trilogy, Graduation brought forward Kanye’s most radio-ready material yet. The album also includes a highly underrated guest verse from Lil Wayne on Barry Bonds.
Post-graduation, Kanye got to grips with the Roland TR-808. He cooped himself up in the studio in Honolulu and began work on album number four.
808s and Heartbreak
With the help of the drum machine, Auto-Tune and a nasty breakup, Kanye returned a year after Graduation with this off-centre electropop LP. Countless people shunned the record as a sappy ego-project. Time has shown that his remodelling of rap blueprints has paved the way for a new sound in hip-hop. Again, there is a highly underrated Lil Wayne verse on See You In My Nightmares.
IMMA LET YOU FINISH
Whatever man. The Single Ladies video was way better.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
After his “self-imposed exile” following Swift-gate, Kanye returned with one of the most ornate and celebrated hip-hop records of all time. Those involved with the record speak about the recording process like it was some kind of beautiful nightmare. The measures taken to avoid leaks were insane, the cast of guests ranged from Bon Iver to Chris Rock and Rick Ross’ verse on Devil In A New Dress still stands at the biggest boss moment in history. Aside from Nicki’s verse on Monster.
Along with MBDTF came Kanye’s 35-minute visual opus which he worked on with Hype Williams. Inspired by everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Henri Matisse, Kanye told the story of his love affair with a half-phoenix who gets rejected by the community around her. One of her few lines acts like a maxim for Kanye’s deeply rooted frustrations: “Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything that is different you try to change.”
Hollywood Reporter called it the greatest hip-hop show of all time. Wearing a women’s shirt from Celine, he rattled off a 90-minute set that started with Dark Fantasy as he flew across the masses and ended with a poignant rendition of Hey Mama. Unmovable superstar status started here.
Watch The Throne
In 2011, Kanye paired up with his one-time mentor Jay Z for a collaborative record that raised the bar for high-scale releases. Everything from the gold-plated artwork to the Maybach 57 that was torn to pieces in the Otis video suggested this was conspicuous consumerism as rap opus. It is also worth noting that their live show climaxed in a repeated rendition of Niggas In Paris. Twelve times in Paris. Twelve.
Standing for “Getting Out Our Dreams”, Kanye’s imprint has been responsible for massive releases from artists like Big Sean, 2 Chainz and Pusha T. Their 2012 collaborative album Cruel Summer was a bonafide hit-making machine. Mercy, Clique, New God Flow and Cold all shot into the Billboard Hot 100.
Le Corbusier Lamp
Kanye said lamps (especially this one) helped him pin down the sound for Yeezus. The stark, minimalist industrialism of the album makes sense a little bit more when you look at this lamp. Look at this lovely lamp.
New Slaves Projections
To launch the sonic assault of Yeezus on to the world, Kanye announced a string of projections all over the globe with a mega-close-up on his face spitting that charged opening lyric, “My momma was raised in the era when/ Clean water was only served to the fairer skin”.
For his sixth full-length, Ye went full anti-establishment vandal. If MBDTF was his Godfather then Yeezus was his Taxi Driver. A swollen introspective assault that rattled the status quo.
Nike Air Yeezy Red October 2
Ye’s biggest blockbuster in the sneaker world. eBay is still listing them at around £7k. They look a bit like snakes.
MR and mrs WEST
“Bow on our arrival, the un-American idols”. A rap star and a reality star becoming one of the most talked about couples in popular culture means a lot to Kanye. They are lush.
Yeezus tour merch
On the tour that came with Yeezus, Kanye pulled in headlines once again for using the confederate flag as part of his gothically inspired merchandise. We spoke to GEO (part of Kanye’s DONDA design team) about the work and he said that “fucking with people” was all part of the fun.
New Year’s Day 2015 saw the arrival of Only One, Kanye’s collaboration with Paul McCartney. Channelling the words of his grandmother, his mother and his own words to his daughter North, the track is one of the warmest melodies in his output.
Another shoe. This time with Adidas. This one looks a bit like a cardboard polar bear. They cost loads again.
Kanye brought together Rihanna and Paul McCartney for this strange but addictive single that was performed live at the 2015 Grammys. It’s a truly off-centre pop song. Testament to Kanye’s commitment to bringing out fresh sounds from the artists he works with.
Yeezy Season One
Kanye’s unveiling of his full collection for Adidas was live beamed to cinemas all over the globe. The show broke down boundaries in a lot of ways. The rowed formation broke traditional catwalk trends and his seating plan had Kim Kardashian rubbing shoulders with Anna Wintour.
Wolves on SNL
For the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, Kanye took to the stage with Vic Mensa and Sia for a performance of Wolves from his then-upcoming LP The Life of Pablo.
Honorary Doctorate from School of Art Institute of Chicago
In 2015, Kanye received an honorary doctorate from the School of Art Institute of Chicago for his contributions through music, fashion and art. The school said West was “a leader in the music industry as a Grammy Award-winning recording artist and producer, as well as a fashion designer and interdisciplinary artist whose work provokes cultural discourse by reflecting a realism of the street.”
All Day at the BRITs
To launch single All Day, Kanye performed at the BRIT Awards in London with help from Skepta, Novelist, Stormzy, Jammer and an ensemble of London’s grime scene to unleash the expletive-laden ferocity of the track on the unsuspecting crowd. Lionel Richie looked rattled by the flame-throwers.
The Life of Pablo premiere at Madison Square Garden
The escalating buzz surrounding The Life of Pablo, fka Waves fka Swish fka So Help Me God, came to a head at New York’s prestigious Madison Square Gardens. Combining a full album playback with his Season 3 showcase, things took a turn for the surreal when, at the end, Kanya passed the aux to Young Thug and Vic Mensa like it was 2am at a house party rather than, say, an international spectacle beamed live around the world.
The Wyoming Mountains
In May this year it emerged that Kanye West had holed himself up in the Wyoming Mountains to work on the follow-up to The Life of Pablo. According to TMZ, he’s “trying to disconnect” and sure enough Ye’s social media accounts have been silenced.
Who knows what he’ll return with on the other side of the digital detox, but hey, it’s kinda exciting just thinking about it.