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Kanye West’s Quest

How the Hip-Hop Superstar Aims to Become “Uncriticizable”

Kanye WestKanye West wants to be loved. Not just by his mama, not just by lady friends, not just by his fellow rappers, not just by critics, but by everyone. In a perfect world for the hip-hop superstar, life itself would be soundtracked by his music, and everyone would be happy.

Having produced hits for the likes of Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Ludacris and Talib Kweli, and having sold three million copies of his 2004 solo debut The College Dropout, the 28-year-old would seem to be well on his way to achieving his dream. Late Registration, his sophomore effort, is an impressively effective attempt to be all things to all people. Its 14 songs (and a few skits), co-produced by West and Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple), are genre-bending, sound-warping wonders. "We had every option in the world," he says. "This album had access to whoever was alive, dead or living, to sing. Any type of instruments; the illest strings at our fingertips, horn sections, harpsichords, Chamberlins and — at any given time — a Kanye West rap to top it off."

West has never been one to hide his 1,000-walt bulb under a bushel, and in person, he’s disarmingly unselfconscious. At a listening session for journalists and industry employees at a studio in downtown Toronto, he saunters in quietly, wearing a preppy pink checked shirt and minimum bling — just the trademark diamond- encrusted, golden, head-of-Jesus pendant beaming from around his neck. He sits down, his legs dangling on an elevated chair, dims the lights, turns up the bass and proceeds to rap and gesticulate along to Late Registration, bobbing up and down with his eyes closed and occasionally reaching up to touch the sky. He’s not so much feeling the music as living it, and before long, even the scribes are gawkily nodding their heads.

When the Post catches up to him early the next morning for an interview in a boutique hotel, he’s bleary-eyed from promotion duties and incongruously sipping a bottle of Mike’s Hard Cranberry Lemonade. The pink concoction of vodka and sugar is doing little for his energy levels, but he perks up somewhat at the memory of yesterday’s session.

"I feel like music is a gift," he says. "So, how do your parents feel on Christmas to see you open your gifts, to see how excited you are? That’s how I feel when I play something for you guys. I’ve got a love/hate thing with the press, but I make my shit for the fans and the critics. I want to make myself uncriticizable."

Putting oneself beyond criticism is the tallest of orders. Considering no one has yet achieved it, from whom can one take advice? "As I was playing the album for you all," West recalls, "I was talking to God about how I could push myself lyrically, how to push the tracks. Certain tracks, they are what they are. They’re sweet, beautiful, pure, simple — of course you want more of that, but I’m just thinking of ways you can push it further."

While the Man Above is no doubt a never-ending source of inspiration for the man who wrote “Jesus Walks,” chances are He’s short on specifics, such as how to balance volume levels between strings and horns. This is where Brion comes in. West was initially inspired by the producer, multi-instrumentalist and film composer’s sonic inventiveness; he ended up being surprised at how Brion pushed Late Registration‘s "soul element to another level." What’s more, Brion enabled West to fatten up his sound without adding clutter. Other producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes may continue to artfully exploit a stripped-down sound, but for West, the ostentatious displays of wealth he eschews personally appear in his music: The last third of Late Registration is positively dripping with sonic opulence.

"Brion said that strings are the ultimate form of bling," West says, admiringly — "string bling." However, the rapper’s ultimate demonstration of sonic wealth on this album, which cost US$2-million to make, is the fact that he could afford to clear samples from the likes of the late Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding.

"We had this old soul sitting there, speaking," says West, of Redding’s appearance on the huge-sounding album closer, “Gone.” "The way his voice connected with people, it’s doing that job again, helping me out. It’s like I’m on stage with him."

But what of West’s production for other artists — does he put the same divinely inspired, deceased star-resurrecting dedication into them as into his own oeuvre?

"I put the initial energy towards it," claims West, "but they always stop me. They’ll never reach the level of [sumptuous Late Registration track] ‘Celebration.’ They don’t want to take the time to take it that far."

West, however, suffers no such qualms. His explains his main preoccupation thus: "What can you do to make your shit across the board? I always want to make my songs like the movie The Incredibles. It’s so flawless. It takes time — time and money. Anything is possible with time and money."

— Originally published in The National Post, August 17, 2005


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