Inside the World of Kanye West: 27 Ways the Rapper Achieved Global Recognition, Attention and Infamy
Kanye West is one of the most controversial and successful musicians of all time, as well as one of the most fascinating. With 21 Grammy Awards and 69 Grammy nominations, a seemingly endless number of projects ranging from fashion to architecture, and a plethora of bewildering tweets, there’s no one else quite like Kanye.
But how did Kanye Omari West become Yeezy? Let’s take a look at the rise of Kanye West’s meteoric rise to fame, his personal life and what he’s accomplished since rising to the top.
Kanye West was born on June 8, 1977, in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago after his parents divorced when he was three. His father, Ray West, is a former Black Panther who worked as a photojournalist and as aChristian marriage counselor. He now owns the Good Water Store and Café in Lexington Park, Maryland.
West’s mother, Donda West, was an English professor at Chicago State University. She took Kanye with her to China while she lectured at Nanjing University for one year in 1987 as part of her Fulbright Scholarship.
Kanye and his mother were extremely close. She died in November 2007 due to post-surgery complications following an operation for a breast reduction and a liposuction procedure.
As a Child, He Saw Jesus
In her autobiography “Raising Kanye,” Donda says that Kanye saw Jesus in their Chicago apartment. She doesn’t say exactly when this happened, but Kanye was young enough to be “playing in the dining room.” Here’s what she wrote:
“All of a sudden, he looked toward the door and the staircase leading down. He pointed and said, ‘Look, there goes Jesus!’ My heart raced. I saw energy. To this day, I believe it was Christ giving us just a little extra protection that day. Neither Kanye nor I have spoken of it since. But it was very real to me and just one of the reasons I think Kanye is connected in a special way or for a special purpose. God has chosen him to not only reach but also touch millions.”
Whether it’s to be believed that Jesus wandered around Kanye’s childhood home or that Kanye had an overactive imagination, or the first hint of something worse, depends on whether you ask a priest or a psychologist.
Green Eggs and Ham
Kanye first stepped into a recording studio at age 13, when he convinced his mother to pay $25 for an hour of studio time. “Green Eggs and Ham” was his first song, which he co-wrote.
"We went to the place, and it was just this little basement studio," Donda West (pictured, right) told RedEye. "The microphone was hanging from the ceiling by a wire hanger. But he was so excited, I couldn't say no."
By the time he was in high school, he would doodle in class and was easily distracted. He told his gym teacher that he “was going to be the best rapper in the world,” recalled Marilyn Gannon. She replied, “Ok, Kanye, now you can get in line,” according to CBS Chicago.
In her autobiography, Donda recalls catching Kanye “primping” himself in a mirror when he was 12 or 13 years old. He turned to her and said, “Mom, look at me! I could be a teenage sex symbol!”
But Kanye had another interest: art.
From a Scholarship to Dropping Out
Kanye graduated from Polaris High School in Oak Lawn, Illinois in 1995. He received many art scholarships, as he likes to tell it.
“Well, I’m a trained fine artist. I went to art school from the time I was 5 years old,” Kanye told Interview in 2014. “I was, like, a prodigy out of Chicago. I’d been in national competitions from the age of 14. I got three scholarships to art schools — to St. Xavier, to the American Academy of Art, and to the Art Institute of Chicago — and I went to the American Academy of Art.”
Of course, this is Kanye, so he might just be talking about how great Kanye is, without being entirely factual. Kanye had received a partial scholarship to the American Academy of Art and commuted to the school while still living with his mom. He studied painting but only lasted one semester before telling his mother, “I don’t want to be an artist.”
Donda pushed him to enroll in the English department at Chicago State University, where she taught. He lasted two semesters but was mostly off in music rooms or at the student union. He dropped out after two semesters.
Ye: The Telemarketer
After dropping out, Donda charged him $200 a month for rent, according to her autobiography. Kanye got a job working as a busboy in a Bob Evans restaurant, but quit on the first day. He refused to work at restaurants, so he got a job as a telemarketer, but eventually quit for another telemarketing job because his supervisor wouldn’t pronounce his name correctly.
His First Sale
While still working as a telemarketer, Kanye was making music in his mom’s house. He made his first sale in 1998, when he was 20 years old, by selling some beats to Chicago rapper Gravity for $8,000 (about $12,600 today). He moved out of his mom’s house after that — mostly because the constant music was driving Donda crazy — and rented a pad in the Beverly area of Chicago for $1,000 a month.
Foot in Mouth: The Beginning
It was around this time that Kanye attracted the attention of Sony, who flew him out to New York for a meeting. He met with several executives who asked him why they should sign him to their label. What made him different?
Kanye wasn’t prepared to answer. So he just said he was going to be a sex symbol and bigger than Jermaine Dupri.
Except the person he said that to was Michael Mauldin, father of Jermaine Dupri Mauldlin.
Kanye did not get the deal.
Kanye Goes to NYC
Kanye didn’t last too long at his Chicago apartment. He worked with artists like Common and No I.D.. and produced music for various artists, including Foxy Brown. Apparently, enough of this work was done at his apartment to raise the ire of the landlord, who evicted Kanye sometime in 2000. Kanye set his eyes on New York City, and Donda set him up with an $850-a-month one-bedroom apartment in Newark, New Jersey.
Soon, Kanye West would show the world what he had to offer — but he wouldn’t be getting the credit he deserved just yet.
Joining Roc-A-Fella Records
In 2000, Kanye caught his break by signing with Roc-A-Fella, Jay-Z’s record company. By then he had been turned down by numerous recording studios, including Sony and Capitol Records. Roc-A-Fella cut him a $150,000 advance. He used $100,000 of that money to get out of a previous management contract. With what was left over, he bought himself a watch from Jakob the Jeweler and his mom a Mercedes SUV and a Rolex.
From Producer to Rapper
Kanye was signed as just a producer. During this time, he helped make the track “This Can’t be Life” from Jay-Z’s fifth album “The Dynasty: Roc La Familia.” He then produced “The Blueprint,” which would become Jay-Z’s breakout record; it sold over 427,000 units in its first week despite releasing on the same day as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
While Jay-Z’s album was a monumental success, Kanye was still just an in-house producer at Roc-A-Fella. They wanted him outside the booth, not behind it.
“Man, people told me that I couldn't rap, that I couldn't sell a record, that I didn't have a chance. And it hurt me. Nobody believed in me,” West told MTV.
So he shopped around.Eventually Damon Dash, co-founder of Roc-A-Fella, decided to put some money behind Yeesus and allow him to walk, so to speak.
While driving home in 2002, after recording sessions in Los Angeles that had crawled on into the early morning, Kanye fell asleep at the wheel of his rental Lexus. He crashed into an oncoming car; the airbag didn’t go off, and his face smashed into the wheel, breaking it in three places. The other driver broke both his legs.
According to her autobiography, Donda says the insurance adjusters told Kanye to say that he had been cut off and had to swerve into the oncoming lane. He kept up the lie for five months before the guilt forced him to come clean.
Kanye had to get reconstructive surgery for his face and had his jaw wired shut. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He recounted his experience in “Through the Wire,” Kanye’s debut single, which dropped in September 2003, one year after the crash. The track went platinum in the United States.
In 2003, ‘Yeezy’ became Kanye’s official nickname when Jay-Z called him “Kanyeezy” on “Lucifer.” The name stuck, and Kanye shortened it to Yeezy.
In February 2004, Kanye dropped “The College Dropout,” which catapulted him to critical and commercial success. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, sold 441,000 copies during its first week, won the 2005 Grammy for Best Rap Album and went triple platinum in the United States.
During this time, Kanye founded G.O.O.D. Music, an acronym for Getting Out Our Dreams. Kanye signed John Legend and Common as his first artists.
The Media’s First Brush With Kanye Being Kanye
While telling Dupri’s father that he was going to be bigger than Dupri was bad, at least it wasn’t public. But shortly after gaining some fame, Kanye West was making headlines for his comments made at the 32nd annual American Music Awards, where he was nominated in three categories, including Best New Artist of the Year. The award went to country music singer Gretchen Wilson. Kanye went home empty-handed.
“I feel I was definitely robbed, and I refuse to give any politically correct bull****-ass comment,” he told the Associated Press. “I was best new artist this year.”
It was pretty controversial, but tame in comparison for what was to come 10 months later.
The Biggest Kanye Controversy Arrived in 2005
Days after Hurricane Katrina left a devastated Gulf Coast in its wake, the Red Cross set up a fundraising drive for its victims, which was televised on NBC. You know where this is going.
Standing next to actor Mike Myers, who desperately seemed to wish that Kanye would keep reading the teleprompter, Kanye ranted about the treatment of the media portraying black people as looters, before dropping this legendary bomb: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Relive it in all its infamy.
While Kanye will continually cause controversy — whether because it gets him attention or because he’s speaking from the heart will become a chicken-or-the-egg question long after this, although he was speaking from the heart here — none of his other comments would stir up this much trouble.
The Award Show Interruptions Started in 2006
Kanye West’s next album, “Late Registration,” dropped in 2005 and was met with critical and universal acclaim. He spent around $1 million on the music video for “Touch the Sky,” a 5:30 parody/tribute to Evel Knievel’s failed 1974 jump across the Snake River Canyon.
Weirdly, Evel Knievel, perhaps still pissed about not completing that jump in his makeshift rocket, sued him a few months later for trademark infringement. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2007, just days before his death.
At the 2006 MTV European Music Awards, Kanye lost Best Music Video to Justice vs. Simian’s “We Are Your Friends,” which prompted Kanye to interrupt their acceptance speech and express his dismay that any and all awards ever conceived did not go to Kanye.
“This video cost a million dollars! I had Pam Anderson! I'm jumping across canyons and ****! ... Ay, if I don’t win, the award show loses credibility.”
Here’s the video.
2007 Was a Dark Year
In 2007, Kanye and 50 Cent went head to head, both releasing albums. Kanye easily beat 50 Cent with “Graduation,” which sold 957,000 in its first week, versus 50’s “Curtis,” which sold 691,000. It was a good year for Kanye. But then his mother died on November 10, 2007. She was only 58. Kanye was devastated.
Months later he broke up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend and then-fiancée, Alex Phifer. He blamed himself for her death, saying “If I had never moved to L.A. she’d be alive.” His next album, “808s and Heartbreak,” was a manifestation of Kanye’s demolished state at the time.
'I’mma let you finish…'
Two years later, Kanye made international headlines and meme templates at the 2009 MTV VMAs, when he stormed the stage after Taylor Swift won the Best Female Video Award for “You Belong With Me.”
“Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you!” said Kanye, wearing a short-sleeved leather jacket and sunglasses, and sporting a crop circle head shave. “Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!”
It was one of the most memorable moments of the year.
The Talk Show Apology
A few days later, Kanye appeared on Jay Leno’s talk show for a tearful apology and said that he never processed his mother’s death. When asked how his mother would have reacted to his behavior, he becomes choked up and takes a long pause, before proceeding.
“It was rude, period,” West told Leno. “So many celebrities, they never take the time off. I’ve never taken the time off to really — you know, just music after music and tour after tour. I’m just ashamed that my hurt caused someone else’s hurt… I was just in the wrong.”
His First Shoes
In 2007. Kanye collaborated with A Bathing Ape, a Japanese fashion company, to release his first shoe. The shoes featured the teddy bear logo he used as artwork for “The College Dropout.” The limited release sold out immediately, and they can now sell for around $7,000.
Collaborating with Nike
In 2009, Kanye released his first collaboration with Nike with the Air Yeezy I, which retailed for $215 and then sold out immediately. But it wouldn’t be until two years after his next album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which debuted at no. 1 in 2010, that his sneakers would start to become one of his main sources of income.
Nike No More
By 2012, Kanye had released another sneaker, the Nike Air Yeezy II. But West wasn’t feeling like Nike loved Kanye as much as Kanye loves Kanye. Nike wasn’t allowing him full control over his brand, nor were they letting him do exactly what he wanted.
“It was the first shoe to have the same level of impact as an Air Jordan, and I wanted to do more,” Kanye told Forbes. Plus, Nike wasn’t paying him royalties.
Adidas, learning that the rapper was looking for another partner, reached out. In 2013 Kanye managed to snag a contract with Nike’s rival that allowed him to maintain full ownership and would net him 15 percent wholesale royalties for every sneaker sold, plus a marketing fee. Michael Jordan’s sneakers were closer to 5 percent.
In 2014, Kanye married Kim Kardashian after two years of dating. “Yeesus,” which released in 2013, was inspired by the socialite and reality television star.
For his proposal, Kanye rented out San Francisco’s Oracle Park (although it was free; the San Francisco Giants owner let him do it as a gift), hired a 50-piece orchestra, lit the scoreboard up with “PLEASE MARRY MEEE!!!” and presented her with a 15-carat Lorraine Schwartz ring estimated to cost around $3 million.
The two married in Italy that same year. Jay-Z and Beyoncé skipped the wedding, which sparked the beginning of a feud between Jay-Z and Yeezy. In 2018, Jay-Z claimed he and his wife didn’t attend due to marriage problems — something that Beyoncé would bring front-and-center with “Lemonade” in 2016.
In a very strange tweet sent in early 2016, Kanye claimed to be “53 million dollars in personal debt” and went on to beg Mark Zuckerberg to “invest 1 billion dollars in Kanye West ideas.”
Why? His follow up tweet: “after realizing he is the greatest living artist and greatest artist of all time.”
He then criticized the tech industry: “All you dudes in San Fran play rap music in your homes but never help the real artists….[next tweet] you’d rather open up one school in Africa like you really helped the country…[next tweet] if you want to help…help me…”
Yeah, no one invested $1 billion in Kanye West’s ideas. It was ridiculous to ask anyway.
His Sneakers Make Tons of Cash
Kanye’s sneakers are expensive (around $200), and they drop at selective times in limited editions. The manufactured rarity drives up demand. While Adidas has never revealed sales numbers, Kanye said on Twitter in 2018 that he was “the single highest paid person in footwear. That means I make more money on shoes than Michael Jordan.” Jordan himself is said to take in upwards of $100 million per year.
He’s An Architect. Kind of.
In 2018, Kanye announced his plans for an architecture firm called Yeezy Home, and sent out a tweet looking for “architects and industrial designers who want to make the world better.” But he may have jumped the gun, because he started building some houses shortly thereafter.
The houses were inspired by the “Star Wars” domed houses on Luke Skywalker’s home planet, and were designed to be some kind of housing for the homeless. He had several of these 50-foot-high, geodesic-dome like structures built on his vast Calabasas property as prototypes.
However, a building inspector said these things were not prototypes and ordered Yeezy to get proper permits or pull an Alderaan and have them demolished. Kanye chose the latter and had them razed.
The ‘Christian Genius Billionaire Kanye West’
With the release of “Jesus Is King” in October 2019, Kanye West made chart-topping history. He is the only artist to ever simultaneously top the charts of Top Christian Albums, Top Gospel Albums, the Billboard 200, Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and Top Albums charts, according to Billboard.
While Kanye’s Christian faith has always been a part of his life, he has grown increasingly religious, even dogmatic, in recent years. On “Jesus is King,” he disavows his past secular music, rapping that “the devil had my soul.” He’s reportedly re-recording his older music without any swear words and that he is now “in service to Christ, my job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me.” He and Kim named their second son Psalm.
He joked that he’s considering a name change to “Christian Genius Billionaire Kanye West” because Forbes didn’t list him as a billionaire.
“When people say it’s crass to call yourself a billionaire, I say I might legally change my name to Christian Genius Billionaire Kanye West for a year until y’all understand exactly what it is,” he said during a Fast Company Innovation Festival event (he said he showed Forbes “a $890 million receipt.”).
He may have made that comment in jest, but this is Kanye we’re talking about. Nothing is too ridiculous or far-fetched.