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Entertainer of the Year: Kanye West

Kanye West is not pissed; he’s just in problem-solving mode. Rightnow, the problem is production costs. “I want to be the No. 1 artist,”he says to a member of his crew. “How am I gonna do that withmuthafuckin’ bad lighting?”

It’s a different backstage scene from the one that has haunted West since September, when a secretly taped tirade he threw at MTV’s Video Music Awardslit up YouTube and deepened his rep as a sour-grapes hothead. In hisdressing room at Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden arena, West forgoesscenery chewing for a bag of chips — fuel for tonight’s show. He’stopping an all-star lineup at Monster Jam, a radio station event that,the night after the Red Sox win the World Series, brings 17,000 fans toa fever pitch without a single note of “Sweet Caroline.”

Not that West would be above biting that Neil Diamond hit. On Graduation,the 30-year-old producer turned rapper has sampled nearly a dozensuperstar and indie-chic acts — including Elton John, Michael Jackson,kraut rockers Can, and French disco giants Daft Punk— and spliced them into one of the year’s best-selling albums, a lean,genre-leveling tour de force of hard beats and whopping pop hooks. It’sa calculated departure from West’s more sprawling The College Dropout (2004) and Late Registration (2005), a blatant move to go mass.

And it seems to have worked. West came out on the winning end of his release-date showdown with 50 Cent when Graduation debuted at the top of Billboard‘s pop chart with sales of 957,000. That same week, Graduation‘sfirst three singles — “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Stronger,” and “GoodLife” — were dominating the Hot 100, with “Stronger,” West’s muscularremake of Daft Punk’s 2001 “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” in thepeak position (see sidebar on page 65). An international smash,”Stronger” is the triumph West hopes will help fulfill hisexcruciatingly earnest dream to be “the No. 1 artist.” The pouty flipside of that yearning gets exposed every time he is denied anothercareer-validating moment on TV. His fantasy of pop glory, it seems, andhis underdog’s craving for respect won’t be complete until he hoists anAlbum of the Year Grammy in front of his peers and a viewing audienceof millions. He has lost in that category twice.

But even lesscoveted prizes have eluded him. At the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards,West’s ambitious “Touch the Sky” video lost top honors to a scruffyclip for Justice Vs Simian’s “We Are Your Friends.” In reaction, Westdrifted onto the stage and began his now infamous “Oh, hell no” rant — a public embarrassment he partly exorcised by parodying it this past September on Saturday Night Live.

Alittle too late, it turned out. Three weeks earlier, his backstageoutburst at the VMAs (ten F-bombs in a minute and eight seconds) mayhave irreversibly damaged his relationship with the network. It wasmotivated, he says, not by an ongoing denial of VMA love but by MTV’sdecision to relegate his on-air performance to a suite far removed fromthe show’s main stage.

Getting his fix of high fashion andfine art on Boston’s Newbury Street the day of Monster Jam, the “LouisVuitton don” is anything but crazed — even though we first meet at theMartin Lawrence Gallery. In fact, he’s unaffected enough that virtuallyno one on the sidewalk recognizes him, despite the five-strong posseand trailing black Suburban. He’s perusing some of his favorite artiststoday — Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Andy Warhol, and Takashi Murakami,the Japanese visionary who did Graduation‘s cover.

Inthe Polo store, West slips into a $700 wool-and-suede sweater. “Yo,don’t buy that; you can have mine,” says his perpetually textingco-manager, Don C. At a gallery up the block, West seriously considersa stunner from Warhol’s Marilyn series. Price: $185,000. He’s rocked, too, by Jules, an eerily familiar Robert Longo piece. “Is that the picture they used in American Psycho?! Damn!”

It’s a rare few hours of relaxation in what has been a frantic week of globetrotting (a Spinphoto shoot and Murakami opening in L.A. the night before, a concert inDubai three days before that). Frantic will turn to tragic less thantwo weeks later, when West — in London preparing for a series of U.K.shows — will receive the devastating news that his 58-year-old mother,Donda West, has died, reportedly of complications from cosmeticsurgery. Even casual fans know the story of Kanye’s upbringing in hisbeloved Chicago under the care of his single-parent mom, a careeracademic whose dreams of success for her son got gently teased butultimately fulfilled with the release of his three pointedly titledalbums. Given the closeness of their relationship and the emotionallynaked way in which West, an only child, lives every day and everything, it’s difficult to imagine how he’ll get through — except tobecome, well, stronger.

We talked backstage at the Gardenbefore his world got turned upside down — or, more accurately, when itwas just a whirl of the usual Kanye-isms: enthusiasm and ambition,candor and combustibility, and a mix of bluster and uncertainty thatmakes him the award-show irritant most worth rooting for.

What’s been your proudest accomplishment this year? The breadth of music on Graduation. It’s my favorite album to date.

Why?I applied a lot of the things I learned on tour [in 2006] with U2 andthe Rolling Stones, about songs that rock stadiums. And they worked!

Was touring with them a perspective-shifting experience? Life-changing. I thought, “Oh, this is the real thing.”

How did playing to those crowds change your approach to making Graduation? I way simplified my rap style on this record. [Those crowds] were looking at me like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

By simplified, do you mean fewer words or leaner rhyme schemes? Everything. Fewer words. If you come in the room and say one thing, it better be the most powerful thing.

What else changed in your approach? Before, the music was more self-indulgent, and now it’s more about everyone.

You’re talking about the lyrics? I’m talking lyrics andchorus-wise — giving them something to sing along with. Even a songlike “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” that’s a rock chorus over straight ghettodrums.

So your goal was to make the choruses bigger? “Jesus Walks” is no slouch. And Late Registration was loaded with hooks.I wouldn’t say loaded. “Gold Digger” was the biggest song on therecord, and no other track had anywhere near the potential to be thatbig.

You made a conscious effort to shape Graduation for the next level of mainstream success? A conscious effort to take it to the next level in every form of success. More black people bought this album than any I’ve made.

Does that make sense to you? Uh-huh. Because I made the album blacker.

You think Graduation is blacker than The College Dropout?Way blacker. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” — how hood is that record? “GoodLife” is straight Steve Harvey, all day long. “Flashing Lights”? Inever had a record that was that black. But it’s white at thesame time. Certain things are so good it doesn’t have to be white orblack. That’s what Graduation is. Take “Harder, Better, Faster,Stronger.” It’s a white sample, but everything I do to it is to make itas black as possible. So I’ma make the bass as black as possible; I’mamake the lyrics as intense as possible.

Are these choices strictly artistic, or are you thinking as a marketer, too? Can you separate those roles? I can’t. I’m a pop enigma. I live and breathe every element in life. I rock a bespoke suit andI go to Harold’s for fried chicken. It’s all these things at once,because, as a tastemaker, I find the best of everything. There’scertain things that black people are the best at and certain thingsthat white people are the best at. Whatever we as black people are thebest at, I’ma go get that. Like, on Christmas I don’t want any foodthat tastes white. And when I go to purchase a house, I don’t want mycredit to look black. [Laughs]

And what foods would fall into that category?White-people food? You know what it is. You never ate fried chicken andsaid, “This tastes white.” It’s America. People know the stereotypes. Iplay to the stereotypes. I believe in the stereotypes. And I submit to them. [Affects a black, Southern accent] “Man, black people sure can cook some chicken! And I’ma get some black chicken.”

I’m trying to gauge if you’re being sincere or facetious.It is what it is. A lot of things that are funny have truth in them. Somy music is a mix between some good Harold’s Chicken and…

A bespoke suit? A bespoke suit!

How do you find your samples — for example, the sample of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” on “Champion”?One of my producers, Brian “All Day” Miller, made that track. I heardit and was overwhelmed. Me and my father’s relationship is a littlestrained. So when I started writing on [the track], something came outof me to speak on that, but to say, in the end, that my father was achampion in my eyes, even with our ups and downs.

Yourparents divorced when you were three. But in the past, you’ve portrayedyour relationship with your father as harmonious. Where were the roughpatches? I ain’t gonna speak on that. But I will say that that iswhat got the sample cleared. I wrote a letter to [Steely Dan’s] DonaldFagen and explained to him the importance of this song to me, and ofexpressing these feelings to my father. I think it’s what made thedifference in getting the sample cleared. All of these living artists– I think they’ve learned to trust the Kanye brand. They know theirsample is not gonna be placed with some quote-unquote booty video.

Someof the samples — Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” MichaelJackson’s “P.Y.T.” — must not have been cheap. Could you have affordedthem on the first two albums? I’ll tell you one thing, as a black person: We have noproblem breaking ourselves for what we want. But it’s not justaffording it; it’s getting people to want to clear something for you.

You were only seven when Thriller peaked. Was Michael Jackson on your radar when — [Stares incredulously] Was Michael Jackson on my radar?! I’m black. Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, and Mike Tyson.Michael Jackson is my favorite artist of all time. Every time I hit thestage, every time I write a song, every time I write a rap, everyperformance I do, every time I pick out an outfit, I think about Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson is synonymous with the greatest that you could possibly do in music.

Manyartists would say that maintaining a healthy relationship with MTV iskey to that kind of goal. Your backstage meltdown at this year’s VMAscannot have helped. I didn’t have a meltdown. They call it ameltdown, but I don’t know why. Somebody caught me on tape backstage. Isaid exactly the kind of thing that goes on backstage all the time. Itwas a real moment. But, I guess, as a pop star you have aresponsibility to not be real anymore.

The backlash probably wouldn’t have been as harsh if you hadn’t erupted the year before at the MTV Europe Music Awards. The European thing is ridiculous. I was joking around. I was like, “Oh, hell no. Man, they doing it to me again. Fuck it.” And it came off as if I was extremely upset.

In the YouTube clip of the incident, you do look like you’re having fun with it. Duh. MSN had clips that made it look like I was bitin’ this baby’s head off. But backstage at the VMAs, I wasupset. Not just because of the ridiculous [snubs year after year]; itwas more because they made me perform in that suite and told me Ididn’t want to perform on the main stage. They told me Justin[Timberlake] wasn’t performing on the main stage, either.

Which turned out not to be the truth. The thing is, the people at MTV knowwhere I’m trying to go. And I feel like, “Why do you not want me toreach my full potential?” If I’ve got a record like “Stronger,” whichis blowing up all across the world, call an audible! It’s like, “Yo,let’s let him take over the fuckin’ world the way we helped Justin takeover the world.” Because, at the end of the day, if Justin can charge,like, two million for a private event, I think, partially, it’s becauseMTV helped make him the No. 1 artist. Okay, now I work my fuckin’ assoff — first to fight back from all the award-show backlashes, then tohave the No. 1 song in the world. And a [hard-rocking] song like thatas a black man? That is next to impossible. Yet you’re gonna open theshow with Britney and close with Justin?! To me, you’re saying, “We don’t want another Michael Jackson, we want Elvis!”

Have you talked to MTV?I tried. I had a meeting with them and we were supposed to squash it,but they never played “Good Life.” I had “Good Life” as Video of theWeek, and halfway into the week, they took it off and put up 50 Centand Robin Thicke. How credible is that? I apologized to them for myspazzes. But I think it’s fucked-up that I had a meeting with them andthey still didn’t play my video. My thing is, you gotta let meknow, “Yo, by the way, Justin is performing on the main stage.” Andthis is the thing: I love Justin. To me, he is the pinnacle. Blackpeople like him, white people like him, girls like him, gay people likehim. Do you know how hard it would be as a black artist to get to thatpoint? [Sanguinely] I know that the right thing to do would havebeen to not say anything to MTV, because that’s just made it harder forme. And I honestly think they felt that they were giving me a [quality]moment. But it’s just so — my biggest thing is impatience. Maybe Godis saying, “It’s not your time yet.”

[Ed. note:According to an MTV rep, the network offered West the choice ofperforming in a suite or on the main stage, denies conferring with Weston Timberlake’s performance, and points to main-stage appearances byRihanna and Chris Brown as evidence of MTV’s color blindness.]

You’ve been through a lot this year. Do you have a sense of how you’ve changed as a person?Every year I learn more. Times are still scary, but I got to sit downwith Daft Punk and Madonna, and with a lot of incredible individuals,and learn from them. I’m gonna keep making music so that ten, 20 yearsfrom now, I’ll be able to be where Mick is. Where Bono is.

The2008 Grammy nominations will have been announced by the time this storycomes out. What would you like to have happen this year? Um, I wantto have the most nominations of all time? I was always the kid who,when asked how much money do you want, said, “Thirty trillion dollars!”

So your mind has been on the awards. Yeah, I’mthinkin’ about it. I’m thinkin’ about what I would say in a speech if Idid win. Because, at this point, I know there’s a lot of people whoknow I should win.

Who do you think your Album of the Year competition is? That’s what I’m saying: There is no competition! [Laughs]

And what will you do if, God forbid, you don’t get nominated in the major categories? [Long pause, then a look of total vulnerability] Man! Do you think I should be worrying? I mean, really, do you think that’s even possible?