- 10 Feb 20
16 years ago today, Kanye West released his debut album, The College Dropout. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting our classic 2008 interview with the hip-hop icon.
This month sees the remarkably prolific Kanye West release his fourth album in as many years. Since the unleashing of his 2004 debut, The College Dropout, the rapper has become one of the biggest solo artists in the world, shifting millions of units and selling out shows wherever he goes. His latest outing, 808s And Heartbreak, is perhaps his most ambitious to date, a collection of addictive tracks (all sung with the aid of Auto Tune, the audio processor utilised on Cher’s ‘Believe’) which the singer describes as “pop art”.
Does West believe that 808s And Heartbreak is his most accessible record yet?
“The thing is, I didn’t have the ability to make it like this before,” replies the singer, sitting in his room at the Conrad Hotel. “I finally got to the point where I could do something that could potentially be this popular. I broke some ground with ‘Stronger’, and I was always attempting to make songs that would succeed on that level. And now I think I have. Like I was saying before, I feel I’ve created a new genre of music called pop art.”
Does he feel that it’s related to the artistic movement of the same name?
“That’s what I want to do,” responds West. “I do like pop art, and I do think that I’m a pop artist, but in the true sense of the phrase; I’m an artist and I’m truly popular. I always considered the albums to be pop music. Look how many albums I sold; it must have been somewhat popular. I just think that people always knew that, but it stayed under the title of hip-hop or whatever. Now it’s all outdoors, that it’s pop.”
Discussing 808s And Heartbreak in a previous interview, the 31-year-old stated that “people think pop is bad, but Michael Jackson was pop and who can compare to him?” There was speculation last year that West was working on some material for Jackson’s next album. Was there any truth to the rumours?
“We did a couple of things together, but that’s about it,” explains Kanye. “I did a remix of ‘Billie Jean’ for the anniversary version of Thriller. But, you know, I haven’t done a lot of them. That concept really interests people for some reason. People always ask me about working with Michael Jackson. Yeah, I’m working on Michael Jackson alright – I’m trying to work on making some music as good as his.”
Do you feel you’ve accomplished that yet?
“I don’t know. Let’s see where ‘Stronger’ is 10 years from now. It was funny to hear it in a club a couple of nights ago. It’s a year old, but people were reacting to it like it was brand new. It was like, ‘Wow, maybe this song will be around forever.’”
West has sought inspiration in some surprising places for 808s And Heartbreak. The video for the first single, ‘Love Lockdown’ (a top five hit in Ireland), draws heavily on Mary Harron’s film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel American Psycho, and the singer has previously stated that he was intrigued by the film’s central protagonist, yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman. What exactly interested him about the character?
“I just felt like it was me. I felt like I was the American Psycho, minus the actual killing. But everything about him – the technology, the fashion, the women – that was me.”
Has West read the novel?
“I don’t read,” he says. “I don’t read novels, ever. I’ll sit around and look at magazines all day, and rip out visual references. I’ll create stuff. Then I’ll sit and listen to music, and then I’ll watch TV. I’ll watch American Dad or Family Guy or The Office. Then I’ll sleep. In the midst of all that, I just really don’t have time to read.”
In the week prior to our interview, Kanye scooped the Ultimate Urban Act gong at the MTV Europe Music Awards. Did this finally lay to rest the ghost of two years ago, when he infamously invaded the stage at the MTV Europe Awards in Copenhagen, having lost out in the Best Video category to Justice and Simian?
“No, not at all, because a couple of years ago I won an award also.”
How does Kanye now feel about the 2006 incident?
“Man, that was detrimental to my career. It actually provided some of the inspiration for Graduation. Like, that which doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger. That moment at that awards show was on my mind. And it wasn’t losing the award. It was the fact that it was fixed, and nobody would stand up and say that. No one was like, ‘Yo, we did tell Kanye he was going to win, but he didn’t.’
“And the fact that when I went onstage, if you look at it, I’m smiling. But people were making me out to be this big beast and stuff. They were really putting me in this black hole that I had to dig myself out of.”
When he says the award was fixed, what does he mean?
“Meaning, ‘Come to the Awards show, you’re going to win this award.’ I don’t give a fuck about winning that award; I wish I didn’t win the award, as a matter of fact. I wish I wasn’t nominated for anything; that shit makes no sense. Like, look who won Artist of the Year. Britney Spears won over Rihanna. Britney Spears was more important than Rihanna this past year?
“But you’re telling me that if Rihanna wasn’t at work, on tour in Australia – which she had to do – and she had the time to come to the awards show, that she wouldn’t have won? You think she would have lost all the awards? What do you think?”
I think that he’s probably right. However, from this remove, it would appear that the singer does actually enjoy winning gongs. For instance, having been nominated for Album of the Year at the 2006 Grammys, West declared that he was very keen to triumph in the category (the rapper eventually lost out to U2, who he supported on the Vertigo tour).
“But the thing is, I’ve gotten over that,” counters Kanye. “That’s the only award that I wouldn’t mind winning at this point – Album of the Year at the Grammys. It’s like, I’ve lost everything. ‘Gold Digger’ lost Best Rap Video to ‘My Humps’ by Black Eyed Peas. The video for ‘My Humps’ is better than the video for ‘Gold Digger’? You’re telling me that Britney Spears is a bigger artist than Rihanna? Dixie Chicks’ album is bigger than Justin and Red Hot Chili Peppers? Awards show – fuck an award.
“Now, the show on the other hand is great; being at the show is such a great thing. But people believe those awards. Like, ‘Wow, you won this award.’ Okay, this year I won an award. Last year, I don’t even know if I was nominated for anything. But last year, I was like the biggest artist and shit. I had ‘Stronger’ and I had my album. I didn’t win anything, except Best International Male or whatever. Who was bigger then?
“The thing is, the American MTV Awards is sorta… I can’t say that they’re completely fixed or whatever. But I can definitely tell you that, over here, oh… ‘Whatever we wanna give you is what you gonna get.’ Life is too short for me to sit up here and bullshit.”
Moving on to other matters, in Alan Yentob’s recent Imagine documentary on Kanye’s label boss, Jay-Z (for whom West has recently been busy producing the upcoming Blueprint 3), the rapper spoke about his decision to branch out into other areas, such as fashion and business. West himself – showing the kind of entrepreneurial streak that’s increasingly common amongst rap artists – also has plenty of other interests outside music, including a clothing line and restaurants. Why does he feel that hip-hop stars are more drawn to this kind of diversification than musicians in other genres?
“I don’t know why. Maybe Puff Daddy has opened up those gates. Outside of fashion, any other business opportunities that happened – like a real estate investment – I was like, ‘Okay, cool.’ But anything to do with art and fashion, I really love. I really want to do it. I want to be involved and I want to do it every day for the rest of my life.”
Speaking of extracurricular activities, last year West was reported to be developing a sitcom with writer Larry Charles, who initially found fame penning scripts for Seinfeld, before latterly becoming a director of some note, helming episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as films such as Borat and the forthcoming Religulous.
“Larry Charles is a great friend,” he enthuses. “He’s a genius, and we did a show for HBO. I was into the idea of entertaining people with the dry humour, cos I like that kind of stuff. It didn’t get picked up at the time, because HBO was going through some different things. But they still want to do it. It could happen next year.”
Finally, as a noted supporter of Barack Obama, Kanye must have been mightily pleased with his victory in the US election.
“Yes I was,” he beams. “It’s an amazing time. This will go down in world history. People said that America would never have a black president. I couldn’t believe it, I thought that I was looking at a movie from the future. It was almost like something that was made up; we have iPods, and now we have Obama.”
Revisit Kanye's classic debut album below: