In the span of a few years, from 2001 to 2004, Kanye West went from hip-hop beatmaker to worldwide hitmaker, as his stellar production work for Jay-Z earned him a major-label recording contract as a solo artist. Soon his beats were accompanied by his own witty raps on a number of critically and commercially successful releases. West's flamboyant personality also made a mark. He showcased a dapper fashion sense that set him apart from most of his rap peers, and his confidence often came across as boastful or even egotistic, albeit amusingly. This flamboyance, of course, made for good press, something West enjoyed plenty of during his sudden rise to celebrity status. He was a media darling, appearing and performing at practically every major awards show (and winning at them, too), delivering theatrical videos to MTV that were events in themselves, and mouthing off about whatever happened to cross his mind. For instance, he frequently spoke out against the rampant homophobia evident in much rap music, posed for the cover of Rolling Stone as Jesus Christ, and even said during a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser on live television, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." West courted controversy, no question about it, but his steady presence in the celebrity limelight sometimes eclipsed his considerable musical talent. His production ability seemed boundless during his initial surge of activity, as he not only racked up impressive hits for himself like "Jesus Walks" and "Gold Digger," but also graced such fellow rap stars as Jay-Z and Ludacris with productions that led to smash hits. In addition to these many accomplishments, it's worth noting how West shattered certain stereotypes about rappers. Whether it was his appearance or his rhetoric, or even just his music, this young man became a superstar on his own terms, and his singularity no doubt is part of his appeal to a great many people, especially those who don't generally consider themselves rap listeners.
From out of left field (i.e., Chicago, anything but a hip-hop hotbed), West was an unlikely sensation and more than once defied adversity. Like so many others who were initially inspired by Run-D.M.C., he began as just another aspiring rapper with a boundless passion for hip-hop, albeit a rapper with a Midas touch when it came to beatmaking. And it was indeed his beatmaking skills that got his foot in the industry door. Though he did quite a bit of noteworthy production work during the late '90s (Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown, Mase, Goodie Mob), it was his work for Roc-a-Fella at the dawn of the new millennium that took his career to the next level. Alongside fellow fresh talent Just Blaze, West became one of The Roc's go-to producers, consistently delivering hot tracks to album after album. His star turn came on Jay-Z's classic Blueprint (2001) with album standouts "Takeover" and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)." Both songs showcased West's signature beatmaking style of the time, which was largely sample-based -- in these cases the former track appropriating snippets of the Doors' "Five to One," the latter the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."
More high-profile productions followed, and before long word spread that West was going to release an album of his own, on which he'd rap as well as produce. Unfortunately, that album was a long time coming, pushed back and then pushed back again. It didn't help, of course, that West experienced a tragic car accident in October 2002 that almost cost him his life. He capitalized on the traumatic experience by using it as the inspiration for "Through the Wire" (and its corresponding video), which would later become the lead single for his debut album, The College Dropout (2004). As the album was continually delayed, West continued to churn out big hits for the likes of Talib Kweli ("Get By"), Ludacris ("Stand Up"), Jay-Z ("'03 Bonnie & Clyde"), and Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name"). Then, just as "Through the Wire" was breaking big-time at the tail end of 2003, another West song caught fire, a collaboration with Twista and comedian/actor Jamie Foxx called "Slow Jamz" that gave the rapper/producer two simultaneously ubiquitous singles and a much-anticipated debut album. As with so many of West's songs, these two were driven by somewhat recognizable sample-based hooks -- Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire" in the case of "Through the Wire," and Luther Vandross' "A House Is Not a Home" in the case of "Slow Jamz."
In the wake of his breakout success, West earned a whopping ten nominations for the 47th annual Grammy Awards, held in early 2005. The College Dropout won the Best Rap Album award, "Jesus Walks" won Best Rap Song, and a songwriting credit on "You Don't Know My Name" for Best R&B Song award was shared with Alicia Keys and Harold Lilly. Later in the year, West released his second solo album, Late Registration (2005), which spawned a series of hit singles ("Diamonds in Sierra Leone," "Gold Digger," "Heard 'Em Say," "Touch the Sky"), topped the charts (as did "Gold Digger"), and won a Grammy for Album of the Year. West's production work continued more or less unabated during this time; particularly noteworthy were hits for Twista ("Overnight Celebrity"), Janet Jackson ("I Want You"), Brandy ("Talk About Our Love"), the Game ("Dreams"), Common ("Go!"), and Keyshia Cole ("I Changed My Mind"). West also founded his own label, GOOD Music (i.e., "Getting Out Our Dreams"), in conjunction with Sony BMG. The inaugural release was John Legend's Get Lifted (2004), followed by Common's Be (2005). In addition to all of his studio work, West also toured internationally in support of Late Registration and released Late Orchestration: Live at Abbey Road Studios (2006) in commemoration.
After retreating from the spotlight for a while, West returned to the forefront of the music world in 2007 with a series of album releases. Consequence's Don't Quit Your Day Job and Common's Finding Forever, both released by GOOD, were chiefly produced by West; the latter was particularly popular, topping the album chart upon its release in July. And then there was West's third solo album, Graduation, which was promoted well in advance of its September 11 release (a memorable date that pitted Kanye against 50 Cent, who in one interview swore he would quit music if his album, Curtis, wasn't the top-seller). A pair of singles -- "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Stronger," the latter an interpolation of Daft Punk's 2001 single "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" -- led the promotional push. [AMG Jason Birchmeier]