Kanye West, “Harder Than You Think” (Originally Published October 2007)
Super Tuesday is officially over. On June 18, four big hip-hop albums—Yeezus, Born Sinner, Watching Movies With The Sound Off, Extended Play—impacted retailers and online outlets everywhere. The sales race is officially on, with projections predicting West is leading the pack. We interacted with a poll for readers, as well as debated the winner in our recent piece “Showdown! Kanye West vs. J. Cole Who Will Be The King Of June 18.”
Six years ago, ‘Ye was in a similar battle with 50 Cent. We revisit our October 2007 cover story where West was prepping the release of Graduation. Here, ‘Ye sounds just as determined to be an iconic figure in music. He speaks on his competitors in the rap game, why he wanted to be like Michael Jackson, and how he managed to brush off shots on his flamboyant style.
Written By Bonsu Thompson
Bad versus G.O.O.D.
That’s the invisible marketing pump for 2007’s fight of the year. In one corner, weighing in at 21 million worldwide sales, hailing from Southside, Queens—the man you love to see hated—50 Cent. Diametrically across the ring, weighing in at six Grammys (including Rap Album of the Year for each of his two previous LPs), representing the South Side of Chicago—the man you hate to love—Kanye West.
The contest will begin on the historically heavy date of Sept. 11, concluding eight days later, Sept. 19, when the victor will be crowned the top-selling recording artist in America.
Styles make fights. While 50’s robe reads, Give me riches or give me death, Kanye focuses on something more coveted than currency in certain circles: acknowledgment. He named his record company G.O.O.D. Music. You can imagine the flowing script stitched on terry cloth: I’m God with an extra O.
See, ’Ye isn’t just battling to win over the average rap fan. He’s fighting for hip-hop’s rights—rights to have options in a genre that’s lulling itself to sleep with formula. In fact, Kanye thinks many of those likely to buy his album don’t really want to be his fans. They simply don’t have many options. Released as it was in the gangsta saturated climate of 2005—alongside the likes of Young Jeezy, The Game and that 50 guy—Kanye’s last album, the XXL-rated Late Registration, was a choice that wasn’t even a choice for 2.8 million consumers thirsting for a different perspective.
Unfortunately, that alternative perspective—even as it expresses itself in something as superficial as fashion sense—tips certain scales against him. That hardcore rap fan base the G-Unit general reps so thoroughly lashes back at ’Ye for replacing oversized baseball caps, T-shirts and pistols with snug-fitting pastel-shaded knits, Christian Dior jeans and venetian blinds–style eyewear. To them, the Louis Vuitton Don is simply too “gay.” And gay isn’t hip-hop. (In a recent interview with QD3.com that circulated on the Internet, Kanye’s own Roc-A-Fella Records stable mate Beanie Sigel turned on him, saying, “You might as well come all the way out the closet, homeboy.”)
So Kanye’s ready to rumble. This past spring, against his label’s protests, he leaked the irresistible and appropriately titled “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”—potent, confessional braggadocio deliberately delivered over DJ Toomp’s cathedral keys. In the summer, he followed with “Stronger”—techno-tinged hip-hop futurism accentuated by a Japanimation-inspired sci-fi video. By August, his third full-length work, Graduation, stood as iTunes’ most preordered album.
On a gorgeous August night, inside Los Angeles’ Chalice Studios, with less than a week to turn the final, mastered product into label brass, Kanye is hard at work. Somehow, though, he manages to sway his attention away from editing his next single, “Good Life”—a celebratory gem featuring a nibble of M.J.’s “P.Y.T.,” vocoderist of the moment T-Pain and, as if irony struck the lotto, a borrowed lyric from 50 Cent—to talk to XXL. Openly, honestly, at times excessively, he discusses going head-to-head with 50, which rappers are better than him, being called gay, the engagement to his longtime girlfriend (fashion designer Alexis Phifer), and why he thinks he has the hardest job in hip-hop. Consider this Kanye’s prefight trip to the podium. The G.O.O.D. guy’s about to weigh in.
With The College Dropout, you had to prove yourself. On Late Registration, you were solidifying your spot among the upper echelon of contemporary artists. What statement did you set out to make with Graduation?
I set out to make songs, first and foremost, that work in a stadium. Every song I pick is a career choice for me, because I’m gonna have to perform this song for the rest of my life. So I wanted songs that could tear down stadiums. Like, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is anthemic. The chorus is equal to a rock chorus, like it could’ve been a Black Sabbath record or something. I randomly threw that out, like I listen to Black Sabbath. [Laughs] But from what I know about it, it sounds like they could use that melody: [sings] Laaa, la la la…
Do you use the fear of failing as fuel for your creativity?
Definitely. I feel like a lot of people dropped albums this year like people were gonna ride with them regardless. It’s like when somebody spends money on some bullshit. You can tell they had extra money in their account. People who don’t have a lot of money may be some of the freshest people, because they know they need to do this specifically. I felt like I was in a position, musically, where I didn’t have money to waste. So I was like, Bam! “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” Or “Throw Some D’s (Remix).” I really feel like niggas be like, “We don’t wanna fuck with you.” So I made music that way. I make albums like people wanna turn on me at any given chance, and I gotta make it so that they can’t.
Who are the five best MCs today?
I think the hottest rappers in the game right now are Wayne, T.I., then me. I feel like Fab is definitely in the top five. Then I’ma put Jeezy. I said Andre 3000 before, but Jeezy definitely has more presence right now.
It’s interesting that your top five includes a rapper like Jeezy, who not only isn’t a lyrical rapper, but doesn’t care about being one. Everybody else on your list, yourself included, clearly takes pride in lyrics.
Well, I say my music is inspirational and his music is motivational. People are inspired when they hear me, while he’s more of a motivator. We have different techniques, but both have voices that can move people. That’s a necessity to being one of the hottest MCs.
You put Lil Wayne at No. 1. Do you consider him your stiffest competition?
Yeah. But I have to bow to Wayne, because I have to put in so much more work to make raps that’s on that caliber. He’s doin’ that shit like this [snaps fingers]. I wouldn’t doubt that, if all I did was rap, I could be on that caliber, but the body of work is overwhelming. My favorite Jay story is, we were in the studio doin’ “Heart of the City,” and the “Fiesta” video with him and R. Kelly came on. He walks over to the booth, puts the headphones on, starts rapping, does the first verse, second verse—“Take ’em to church…”—third verse, takes the headphones off, walks out of the booth, and the video was still playing. That was like one of the most amazing things. So Wayne records at a higher volume than everybody, but then it’s the type of killer punch lines… Like, I had the “Devil wears Prada” line a month before I recorded “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” So I wonder if he’s walking around with all of these lines in his head. Wayne baffles me.
Lil Wayne is the only other MC appearing on Graduation. It’s been said that you could possibly executive produce his next album, Tha Carter 3. Will you?
I definitely want to. I’ma just do enough songs where if it’s like six or seven beats, then I think I would deserve that title. But if I’m too busy, then I wouldn’t deserve it. I’m almost finished with my album, so I think I really can go in and get more work done. Plus, I got some official joints that didn’t make [Graduation] that I think might fit Wayne better.
On Sept. 19, SoundScan’s sales numbers for the Sept. 11 releases will be announced. How badly do you wanna be No. 1 against Curtis?
I never cared about being No. 1. Never cared about having the No. 1 record on Billboard or anything like that. As many raps as I’ve written, and as much shit as I talk, have I ever mentioned that I sold 850,000 copies of Late Registration the first week? I never mentioned that, because—I appreciate the fans going out and buying, I would hope to sell a million the first week—but my whole thing is not about the numbers, but more [about] people saying, “That song ‘Roses’ really helped me out when my grandma died.” So even if “Stronger” can’t move past Sean Kingston [on radio-play charts], it doesn’t matter, because in five years it will be important to people… When [J-Kwon’s] “Tipsy” was out, I couldn’t compete with that record’s spins, but now it’s not gonna show up against “Through the Wire,” because “Through the Wire” connected with the people… I can name so many albums that were No. 1 this year, but once people found out that me and 50’s records were coming out on the same date, it doesn’t matter how much they sold—they don’t compare to the energy that me and 50 are getting.
But you’re the same dude that’s thrown public fits over not winning music awards, because you felt you deserved them more than the actual winners? Do you feel like you deserve it over 50?
I mean, there are so many factors that play into it. That first week is definitely the new gold record, but it doesn’t really tell how it connected with the people. I think “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is the most important rap song of the last year. Maybe since T.I.’s “What You Know.” As an example, let’s use a Busta record. “I Know What You Want,” with Mariah Carey, was probably bigger at radio than “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.” But rappers wasn’t like, “I wish I had that record.” They were like, “I wish I had ‘Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.’” Jay-Z was like, “Man, I wish I had that shit.” That’s what I want, for other niggas to be like: “Damn, I want that record. I wish my album sounded like that.” You can’t say who has the No. 1 record until a year later.
But you can’t beat the video game without passing level one. 50 even said he’d retire if he didn’t get that No. 1 SoundScan spot come Sept. 19. What’s your priority?
If you have the best album, musically, shouldn’t you get the No. 1 spot? I just feel like the key is to keep selling more… My biggest inspiration and biggest competition is Justin Timberlake. He’s the only other person that gets an across the-board response and respect level—Black radio, White radio. If Justin hadn’t come out and killed the game, I can’t say that my album, singles and videos would be on the same level that they’re on. We push each other. I look at me and Justin like Prince and Michael Jackson in their day. Prince had to be watching Michael, and Michael had to be watching Prince. Mike ended up being bigger, but Prince was iller.
So do you wanna be Prince or Michael?
Ummm… I would wanna be Mike. Who wouldn’t wanna be Mike? I wanna be Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson.
So you’d prefer to be the bigger artist, Michael Jackson, and you wanna compete with Justin Timberlake, but you say you’re not concerned with having the No. 1 album. It’s not adding up. Justin had a No. 1 album.
I wanna be Mike. But, realistically, I might end up being Prince. I mean, you saw how I dropped “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” as my first single, instead of “Good Life,” because I wanna be so ill. Again, I release songs that I wanna perform. I never drop songs for radio. That’s why I think my life [as an artist] is way harder. Because, say, if Justin drops “My Love,” he’s got Paul Hunter, Timbaland and himself. I’m trying to compete with all three by myself. But with the skills that I’ve developed, to compete with Justin, as well as a Timbaland, is the same way I came up as a producer. I was competing with Bad Boy, but Bad Boy had seven or eight producers. I’m in my bedroom at my mother’s house trying to play strings like I’m Stevie J and then trying to find loops, like Nashiem [Myrick] or Deric [“D-Dot”Angeliette] or Young Lord. I’m trying to do what all these guys do, as one producer. I didn’t know the Bad Boy beats would be rough ideas, and then Deric would come in and do this, and Ron [“Amen-Ra”] Lawrence would come in and do that, then Puff comes in and says, “Do that.” It’s the same way I’m trying to compete with Paul Hunter, Justin and Timbaland.
All right. Switching gears from professional to personal, what made you want to get engaged?
Because I was in love. Not was—am.
What makes Alexis Phifer qualified to be Mrs. West?
She challenges me as much as working on a song does. It’s very hard for successful people to have someone who inspires them to want to put in that constant work.She makes me feel like it’s worth
it. It’s so many pretty girls that you have to find someone who you try to not call back, but four days later you have to call ’em.
So how does Kanye West stay faithful in a room full of hoes?
Man, my boy Sakiya had this old technique back when we used to have girls come to the studio. He’s married, so when girls walk in lookin’ too good, he has to leave. It be that one joint that would walk in, and he’d be like, “Aight, fam, I gotta go.” [Laughs] It’s just not putting yourself in certain situations, or removing yourself from certain situations. Just focus on the bigger picture.
Did you really say, “I don’t normally dress like this,” when you first met her?
You know that’s probably one of the most insecure lines you could say to a stylish woman, right?
[Laughs] Yeah, you didn’t hear “All Falls Down”?
You say you’re hated on a lot, but how do you feel when a rapper like Beanie Sigel throws shots at you because of your flamboyant style?
When I heard it on the radio, it messed me up. Like, “Damn, Beanie.” But I was like, how do I approach this? It’s not like I can come at Beanie like, “Man, I’m about to see you for that.” Beanie ain’t no studio gangsta. But I’m really happy that he brought it up, because I would read blogs sayin’, “Kanye’s gay.” But it’s just the constant battle with Black people and being gay. Like, we’ll call something gay to diss it to the highest extent. It’s a hood mentality—that’s the way we think. So, in hindsight, I’m glad he spoke on it, so I could speak on it. But maybe that was a little too grown for hip-hop, to say we shouldn’t gay-bash. ’Cause hip-hop has a young, don’t-give-a fuck mentality, anyway.
It’s the most homophobic genre of music.
Extremely homophobic. But niggas ain’t gonna be callin’ me gay, and I’m not gay. Don’t disrespect me. I don’t have a problem with gays, but I don’t be lookin’ at niggas. I’m not accepting that shit. That goes for everybody that’s writing a blog or anybody that said it in a barbershop. Don’t fuckin’ call me gay. And if a nigga really feel like they wanna disrespect me like that, come speak to me face-to-face, and whatever it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be. And this ain’t no threat. This is just how serious I’m takin’ it. Ain’t no once you-reach-the-10-million-mark Eddie Murphy shit with me. Shit, look at the “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” video. I got the No. 1 record in the streets, and my pants is tighter than a muthafucka in that.
Obviously, you like to go against the grain. But how exactly does that affect your writing?
I feel like my lyrics are, if not the, then equal to, the realest lyrics out. Because it’s so honest that there’s no reason for me to back it up. I connected with so many people without talkin’ about guns and drugs. Because rap music is about being hard—P.E. all the way back to Melle Mel. So all you have to do is talk about hard shit. For real people, shit that’s hard is going to work every day. It’s harder to go to work 365 days than shoot a person in one day. I think it’s harder for me to write raps than rappers who talk about guns, because, at any given time, you can say, “By the way, I got the 9 on me.” That shit always sounds hot. Picture going into the booth, and you’re competing with every rapper talking about guns, and you need to make some shit that has as much impact without talking about guns. And there’s nothing about wearing a pink Polo that would make anybody believe that I would hold a gun.
So you feel the conditions in which you work should be taken into consideration when critiquing your success, because most rappers don’t face the same things?
Yes, because I have an uphill battle every time. I have a hard job because I wear tight jeans and I don’t really fit the dress code. I got a hard job because I talk so much shit. But the thing is, I’m not talkin’ shit. I’m just saying, “Did you experience that one 45-minute session with me fuckin’ with the kick on ‘Good Life’?” So when interviewers ask me how I feel about the record, and I say it’s the best thing out, it’s because I put that much work into it. If Steve Jobs or Bill Gates put some new shit out, they gonna be like, “This is the coldest shit out.” When you have media training, you’re supposed to buffer your shit, so when people come up to you like, “That was really good,” you’re supposed to play stupid, like, “Wow, you really think so?” Because people can’t really handle the truth. But I am the truth. I’d rather be hated for what I am than loved for what I’m not.