Before rapper and Jay-Z protégé Kanye West took the stage and rocked the mic at the FedExForum last Friday night, he paid a visit to kids at The Stax Academy.
His visit was presented by the Memphis chapter of The Recording Academy and by the Grammy Foundation, which provides youth with an up-close look into the lives of major artists.
The 27-year-old Roc-A-Fella recording artist entered the room to cheers and screams from the 20 kids, local music personalities, and NARAS representatives. In a Q&A session, the first question for West was predictable: How hard is it to get into the music business? His response: The toughest thing I've ever done in my life.
West also answered questions regarding his early work as producer for artists such as Alicia Keys and Talib Kweli and about his debut album, The College Dropout. But perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the almost two-hour session was West's candid responses and straightforward attitude. "People call me arrogant, and it's not that I am, but you go through the pain and drama and you have to let everyone know about it," he said.
From his perch in a swivel chair at the front of the room, dressed in blue jeans, black shirt, and brown Converse sneakers, West interspersed his witty replies with song lyrics, both his and other artists. He told the audience that some of his main influences come from music not played on traditional urban stations, opting instead for the themes from alternative, pop, and rock songs. "A lot of times, all [rappers] be talking about is getting a record deal and buying things in their songs," said West, before reciting a few bars of a Red Hot Chili Peppers tune. "Don't let your finances determine your creativity," he said.
Before releasing his own album, West built a reputation as a producer. Like other popular producers, including The Neptunes, Timbaland, and Just Blaze, West's ear for music earned him work with some of the hottest names in the R&B and rap genres. His production credits include Kweli's "Get By," "Stand Up" by Ludacris, various Jay-Z tunes (including the hit "IZZO"), and perhaps most notably, "You Don't Know My Name" by Keys. But those opportunities began for West at age 19, when his main musical requests came from drug dealers looking to purchase beats for $50 a pop. Of that time, West simply said, "I waited my turn and played my role."
Now his role is performer, entertainer, rapper, and even thought-provoker. With an album that takes its name from the rapper's actual experiences (West dropped out of Chicago State University), West relives a life-changing car accident in "Through the Wire," discusses materialism in "All Falls Down," and considers religion and redemption in the controversial "Jesus Walks." West refuses to characterize himself as a political lyricist, leaving that title to his close friends Kweli and Mos Def. He did admit to a potential vote for John Kerry, not because of Kerry's reputation and platform but simply because he is anti-Bush. "I don't like making uninformed decisions," he said. "But I don't have time to be informed. That's one reason why I never wore a 'Vote or Die' T-shirt (made famous by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs). Voting is a choice. You won't die if you don't vote."
Maybe the most noticeable difference in West's lyrics is his continual reliance on his strong religious background. In a genre where cars and clothes are more esteemed than going to church, his songs are a direct contrast to the usual fare. West told audience members that when industry executives were unimpressed with his ideas for the "Jesus Walks" video -- which depicts prostitutes, a Ku Klux Klan member, and a drug dealer receiving spiritual forgiveness -- he paid for the video with his own money.
"My album is gospel, but it's not classified as that because it has cursing in it," he said. "People get so caught up in traditions. I came back to the rap game because this is where people need Jesus." •