Why Are They Famous?
Kanye West: Why Ask Why
By Jabulani Leffall
Dec 5, 2008

The ascent of Kanye Omari West’s career is akin to a long bus ride in improbable traffic in a space between two cities that it should never take almost 15 hours to traverse -- San Diego to Vegas. It’s like a ride where Kill Bill is playing on DVD on the bus TV in a loop that could fill up a standard work day. Yes, it’s like a bus, there is an arrival point and a destination, wheels spinning, traffic crawling, the hot desert wind……

Okay so I’m reaching. You might even say I’m overreaching really, really far and to no end but in 2004, I was on a tour bus with Mr. West, during an early tour to promote his just released and now seminal backpacker/pop rap dream album College Dropout.

My colleague and I were compiling information for one of the three books I wrote or co-wrote that never came out -- from one of the three book deals I had that fizzled after I received the advance. But we’re not talking about utter self-doubt and flagellation or lasting and debilitating bitterness. This is about my interview with a pre-fab Louis Vuitton Don. (This is what he calls himself, more on that later).

BUS -- Jabulani Leffall: So who is your musical influence?

Kanye: I would say Michael Jackson

Jabulani Leffall: Sure, one of the best that ever did it, a standard for anyone. Any particular reason, song or facet of his performance.

Kanye: Man I don’t know, I just liked the glove.

Much like that long trip to Vegas, we’ve witnessed the meteoric, tragic, comical, surreal and zany rise of a music superstar that is misunderstood, oversaturated, underestimated and weird-cum-eccentric. You see, you get eccentric when you have money.

Growing up in Chicago as the son of an English professor and a Black Panther turned photojournalist, Kanye was exposed to the fine arts at an early age, had a knack for colors and designs, designing tennis shoes, drawing pictures and later taking art classes at the American Academy of Art. I can remember him telling me that when he conceives a beat or a melody, he pictures a spectrum of colors dancing on the surface of a lake, rising and falling with their own syncopation, trajectory and process. He didn’t say “syncopation or trajectory” of course but that was the general gist and I found it quite insightful for someone who I would say without irony or smattering of backhanded compliment is a genius-dullard, an idiot savant, albeit an extremely gifted one.

BUS -- After my co-author and I listen to him on the phone with R&B singer Brandy for about an hour basically storyboarding her video on “Talk About Our Love,” he turns and says:

Kanye: Let’s watch Kill Bill again. 

Such is the attention span of perhaps one of the greatest pop composers of the last 20 years or so with four solid albums of his own and some dynamite collaboration with Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z and John Legend (Who was in the back asleep for most of that bus ride, Ordinary People indeed.)

For all of Kanye’s antics and tantrums and perceived arrogance, few have placed themselves in the guy’s shoes because few ever get to witness the lopsided and grandiose epiphanies that he’s claimed to have had. ("I'm like Elvis," yeah, he said that.) Few have the money to say outlandish shite whenever and however they want. ("My apartment is too nice to listen to Rap music in it.") That's why there are pop stars because few ever do what they want to do, most do what they have to. This is because most of us are standing in line for the next iPod after working a 40 hour work week or writing retrospective blolumns about a weekend on a tour bus four years ago with someone who wouldn’t know me if I approached him with a wide angle lense and shouted expletives -- someone who is now arguably the biggest thing in not just Rap but music period. 

Weirdo or not, he is where he is because he did what he wanted to do until it worked. And before one allows themselves to join the crowd of WTF-is-wrong-with-this-dude celebrity naysayers, consider this:

He was once stuck on a bus eating McDonald’s breakfast, watching Kill Bill on a continuous loop and peddling Jesus Walks t-shirts to supplement tour income. Here is a man who since the year 2000 has been rejected by nearly every major label, initially not taken seriously as a performer for a time by Damon Dash and Jay-Z, then co-CEOs of Roc-a-fella Records where he was a once a staff producer; got into a near fatal car accident; became an overnight celebrity, perhaps too fast; And totally blacked out on a telethon (this is comedy) because he wasn’t articulate enough without a beat playing to say what many were thinking. He also witnessed the sudden, unexpected, untimely and totally unnecessary death of his mother for whom he had great reverence for and who raised him from a pup. And then he got engaged to be married and dumped. 

Add to that the arrival syndrome. As with all artists, it’s always interesting to see what you do when you’ve been waiting on that proverbial bus for what seems like an eternity, craving stardom, recognition and the spotlight only to get off the bus and be overwhelmed by all the flashing lights and people catering to you, trying to sell you things and trying to buy you, your time and you’re attention. It’s no wonder that he decided to do an entire album in autotone with little or no Rap on the whole LP and stray from his satirically scholastic -- College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation -- theme. Having been commercially successful many times over, he’s searching for the spark that had him on that bus in the first place and more power to him for it. No really, he has way more power than back then.

Kanye now has the number one record in the country -- 808’s & Heartbreak -- for the second time in a row, debuts his videos on Ellen and has the type of star power to stomp a cameraman not only in LA but also in London and not go to jail for it.

Lastly, this week it emerged that he wants to take a break from the spotlight and be an intern, yes an unpaid intern for Louis Vuitton. What?

That’s just it, the boy said he likes the glove, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s creation, improvisation, raw impulse and as for what we who are not him might think about it, I leave you with an excerpt of what he said when we finally arrived and were sitting in his suite at Mandalay Bay four long years ago.

Mandalay Bay -- Kanye: Whenever I get down I just be thinking about what my auntie use to say, she tell me “don’t let them motha*&(%$s, bring you down.”

 A little advice when it comes to Kanye West: Don't ask why.

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