It’s a time-honoured courtesy practiced by record companies welcoming American artists over to these shores. Cleverly-placed billboards line the route from Heathrow to the West End. Their purpose? To massage egos and reassure the talent that no expense is being spared in the promotion of their music. In the case of Kanye West though, unprecedented success calls for gestures of unprecedented enormity. Hence the colossal three-dimensional bear’s head complete with light-up eyes – a replica of the one donned by West on last year’s College Dropout debut and its successor Late Registration – which presides surreally over the rush-hour traffic on Talgarth Rd. It’s just the kind of thing you would do if your artist’s new album had shifted three million copies in just under a month and you wanted to welcome him to London.
And yet, Kanye West, 28, is swift to point out that things could be so much better. Take, for instance, the impudence of all those journalists who begrudged him that fifth star in their otherwise positive reviews of his album. “Critics, they just wanna dole shit out there, but what makes it a four star album?” he begins. “If you really wanted to, couldn’t you find something wrong with a Marvin Gaye album? It’s made by a human being! At the end of the day, I refuse to take the criticism because it’s a gift to the world. And if it really hurts you that much, then don’t listen to it. Because the music is a gift, you know?”
In one sense of course, he’s right. Music is a gift. Yet in another sense – the sense that his new album costs £11.99 from all good record stores – he’s not. Which is surely where the reviews come in. If you’re about to spend money on a CD, then might it not be useful to read what someone has to say about it? “Not if you download,” says West, without missing a beat. “If you can’t afford it, download it. Just listen to the music. If nothing else, I’m sure [illegal] downloading probably helps my concert sales.” West’s reaction seems surprising given that it was precisely the fear of the album leaking out onto the net that made his record label refuse to send out copies of the album.
But then, perhaps not that surprising. This, after all, is an artist whose tendency to veer off the script has sent his profile skyrocketing several times before. Last year, he walked out of the Grammies when Gretchen Wilson pipped him to the Best New Album award. Prior to this interview, I’m told by West’s US publicist that the rapper doesn’t want to discuss the recent telethon in which he sensationally veered off autocue in order to lambast the Government’s slow reaction to the havoc wrought by hurricane Katrina, and declare that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Beside him, a terrified Mike Myers was on hand to accidentally deliver the funniest performance of his life – in the words of The Washington Post, “looking like a guy who stopped on the tarmac to tie his shoe and got hit in the back with the 8:30 to La Guardia.”
It’s not, continues the PR, that he doesn’t want to talk about it – but these things leak back to the US press. “And we don’t want to upset an already delicate situation. If you’re going to bring it up, it’s at your own risk.”
Quite what’s at risk is unclear, but when the matter of West’s televised outburst comes up, the rapper makes it plain that he has walked out of interviews in which this has arisen – the subtext presumably being that he could do the same here. He doesn’t though. “The whole thing really is super-controversial over there,” he explains. “It got censored along the whole of the West Coast. But [in the initial live broadcast] one of the things [that happened] was beating the five second delay.” The reason, he says, that it slipped out is that studio staff were instructed to activate the delay in the event of “curse words”. But West didn’t swear. “I just wanted to speak from my heart, because the teleprompter is so scripted and this [the hurricane] was not a scripted event.”
He wouldn’t be quite so crass as to say it himself, but the negative reaction from sections of the US media, will only serve to increase West’s standing in the eyes of millions of voiceless black Americans. The Chicago-raised son of an English literature professor and Black panther-turned-pastoral counselor, West lacks the drug-dealing background that launched 50 Cent and Jay-Z into constant MTV rotation. Perhaps more important though, is West’s ability to supply a product that everyone wants. “In one way,” he adds, “I’m just as much of a hustler.” This is no understatement. After years spent trying to persuade Roc-A-Fella label boss Damon Dash that he could cut it as a rapper, 2002 saw West – then a producer on the label – crashing his Lexus, shattering his jaw in the process. When Dash came to see him in hospital, West asked the label mogul to bring him in a drum machine. The resulting track Through The Wire – which West recorded with his mouth wired shut – finally persuaded Dash to put his music out.
If The College Dropout saw West using his sure pop instinct as a Trojan horse for a range of topics his peers wouldn’t touch with a diamond-encrusted bargepole (religion, education, the complex self-image of black Americans), Late Registration even features turns from some of those rappers. On the incendiary Crack Music, The Game unleashes a few lines of hackneyed braggadocio, seemingly unaware that his contribution is to be placed on a track in which West declares, “Now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammies/This dark diction has become America’s addiction.” Asked if The Game knew what he was contributing to, West explains that he was interested in using the rapper’s voice merely as “an instrument”. It’s a typically disingenuous answer from an artist whose ability to deconstruct his contemporaries makes him no less eager to muscle in on their audience.
That might also account for new single. Featuring Jamie Foxx, Gold Digger is the latest in a long line of rap tunes which deal with the subject of the acquisitive girlfriend: “I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger/But she ain’t messing with no broke niggers.” Tell West that this sounds like an artist eager not to alienate his core fanbase, and he leans forward in a manner that suggests I’ve missed something obvious – perhaps that if, on some songs, he wants to slip into an idiom that certain other songs would seem to critique, then it’s his prerogative. “Gold Digger is outright nigger music. You know, the average black person doesn’t really like underground hip-hop. That’s more of a white thing.” For rappers such as West, Common and Mos Def, the ongoing challenge is to step beyond gangsta rhetoric whilst retaining a black audience. You know you’ve failed, says West, when you’ve become a “backpack rapper” – term coined by Mos Def for artists such as Common and Madvillain whose attempts to take hip-hop back into more rarefied pastures have saddled them with an audience of white listeners.
Does this anxiety also explain why, according to recent reports, four tracks on Late Registration were shelved after they met with a lukewarm response from a cross-section of black listeners? When I raise the subject with him today, West seems bamboozled by the insinuation. “Black people like all my songs,” he laughs, “How can I make songs that black people don’t like? I’m black!”
I remind him that Late Registration contains one song (“My Way Home”) which is based around a sample by Gil Scott-Heron – an artist whose concerts are almost exclusively attended by well-meaning white audiences seeking to empathise with the social travails of black Americans. West says he understands why it happens, but also that he’s aware enough of the pitfalls to avoid it happening to him. And just to make sure, he adds, “I hate music where white people are trying to sound black. The white music I like is white, white music. I like Franz Ferdinand. That’s the shit I like.” As for his own shit: “Everyone likes it!” If those sales figures are anything to go by, he might have a point. Not for nothing is Kanye West the proud owner of a colossal three-dimensional head.