A MUSICAL HAPPENING IN A MOST UNUSUAL PLACE
In the space of six months, Complex editor-in-chief Noah Callahan-Bever confided in Kanye, flew to Hawaii, and found himself in rap nerd Nirvana.
"Did you look at my eyes?" asked Kanye West over the phone. He was calling from Milan. It was the middle of October 2009. It had been over a year since the completion of his last LP, 808s & Heartbreak, but this conversation was my first glimpse of what would become My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. "I mean, really look in my eyes in the ‘Run This Town' video. If you do, you can't tell me you're surprised by what happened. It was all there in my eyes."
He was, of course, referring to "what happened" at the 2009 VMAs, one week after the video shoot. Kanye and I had exchanged emails days after the Taylor Swift incident, but between him being inundated with criticism and my own personal distraction—a recently discovered brain tumor, of all things—this conversation, a month later, was our first real catch-up. And yes, Kanye West and I do periodically catch up. (And yes, I know how that sounds. Believe me.) Which is why, when I finally got around to explaining my condition over email, I received this concerned phone call from Milan, like, four minutes later.
After I hurried through the uncomfortable explanation of where I was at, the commiserating naturally turned to the major event in his life. Besieged and apologetic—but defiant—Kanye explained the fragile, overworked mental state that led to the outburst, his disgust with the ensuing media storm, and why he'd suddenly, and seemingly indefinitely, gone full ex-pat.
Kanye West was over it, he said. Done with music. He'd clearly needed a break, and his subconscious had manufactured one. Now, he was all about fashion—red leather, gold details, and recapturing the decadence of late-'90s hip-hop in design. While I encouraged his pursuit since he was so obviously enthused, I confessed that it'd be a bummer if he abandoned music altogether. In response, he shared rhymes from a still-never-released song he'd done with Jay-Z and Jack White and talked at length about trying to master the physicality of rap. He also admitted that he had beats in his head—ones that sounded like 808s melodies over Mobb Deep drums, no less—that he had to get out. But he was over it. Riiiiiiiight.
Conversation over, we hung up, but my mind went to the story behind the Rolling Stones LP Exile on Main Street; the band had recorded it entirely in the South of France, due to a seven-figure tax debt that kept them off English soil. I thought of Kanye in Italy, I thought of his trials here in the States, and I thought: "This is about to get really...interesting."
Months went by, and—save for two brief one-line check-ins on my recovery (I'm fine now, thanks!)—Kanye was ghost. At least until mid-January, when an email appeared in my inbox: "Yooooooo, happy new year fam. I can't wait to play you this new shit!!!!" He explained that he'd holed up in Hawaii and was importing his favorite producers and artists to work on and inspire his recording. Rap Camp! Two weeks later, while Kanye was briefly in NYC, I got a preview of five rough, but incredibly promising songs: "Power," "Live Fast, Die Young," "Monster," "Lost in a World," and "Gorgeous." And even better, I got an invite to Hawaii.
On a late March afternoon, I arrive at Avex Honolulu Studios, the seaside recording studio on Oahu where West tracked 808s and is now block-booking all three session rooms, 24 hours a day, until he decides he's done. He had deliberately concealed the names of the players he'd enlisted, but I can't say I'm totally shocked to find him posted up in the studio's A room with Kid Cudi and the Clipse's Pusha T. Those are his guys, after all. What does elicit a visceral reaction—hard, heavy laughter—is the wall of Kanye Commandments posted on 8.5"x 11" sheets of paper on one side of the studio. They include the obvious—"No Tweeting" and "No Pictures"—and some...well, some less obvious ones, too. Not that "No Hipster Hats" and "Just Shut the Fuck Up Sometimes" aren't rules to live by.
In any case, within 15 minutes I get to see Rap Camp in action. Kanye throws on the instrumental for "So Appalled," which plays on hypnotic repeat for more than an hour while Pusha puts pen to paper finishing his verse. Then RZA walks in the room. And of course he's got on sunglasses inside. And of course he's wearing an all-black Ed Hardy-esque ensemble with matching dragon tattoo prints that start on his baseball cap, slither down his T-shirt, and end on his cargo pants. And of course he pulls out a Bobby Digital customized Akai drum machine with the Zorro mask and Wu logo on its face. Because that's what you do when you're a motherfucking national treasure. BONG!
Meanwhile, Kanye stares at his laptop, jumping between email and 15 open windows of art references in his browser. He polls those assembled on how risqué is too risqué for his blog, and occasionally barks mixing orders at the engineer, tuning subtle parts of the beat—all without breaking eye contact from his computer. This is how he works: all-A.D.D. everything.
The sun sets, and Q-Tip and Consequence arrive, straight from the plane. Kanye asks RZA if he'd voice the hook—"Champagne wishes and 30 white bitches/You know the shit is, fuckin' ridic'lous"—and the Abbott steps into the booth and obliges, immediately transforming from sedate and stoned to amped and aggressive. It's enough to make us all chuckle on his first take; wrapped around those words, his thick and bizarre drawl just sounds so perfectly...RZA. But Kanye notices something off in the delivery, and he presses the intercom button to talk to RZA: "Um, fam, it's actually ‘thirty white bitches,' not ‘dirty white bitches.'" RZA laughs. "I'll do it again," he says, "but to be real, the way I be saying words, you ain't gon' be able to tell the difference." Ha! At Rap Camp, the shit is fuckin' ridiculous.
The rest of the trip settles into a fairly routine pattern, if by "fairly routine" you mean "a succession of both magical and mundane moments starring the musicians who defined your adolescence alongside the most exciting artists of today." Each morning begins with a 10 a.m. breakfast at Kanye's Diamondhead residence. Pusha, Tip, RZA, Cudi, Cons, and Kanye's crew slowly assemble to enjoy the absurdly tasty cooking of Kanye's in-house chefs. If you're smart, you order the French toast with the flambéed banana. An hour later, Kanye pulls up in his Porsche Panamera, fresh from the studio. That's right, from the studio. During my five days in Hawaii, Kanye never slept at his house, or even in a bed. He would, er, power-nap in a studio chair or couch here and there in 90-minute intervals, working through the night. Engineers remained behind the boards 24 hours a day.
With everyone assembled and enjoying their leisurely multi-course breakfast, music is the only thing discussed at the kitchen table—or anywhere else. Despite the heavyweights assembled, the egos rarely clash; talks are sprawling, enlightening, and productive. Topics range from the future (whether "Live Fast" should be gifted to Rick Ross, who ended up with the track) to the present (reactions to Drake's single "Over") to the past (RZA describing the exact frequency to which he would tune Ghostface's voice in order to regulate its whininess). But mostly we talk about Kanye's album: what it has to mean, and what it has to accomplish.
At its heart, beyond the beats or rhymes, this conversation is the reason we were all summoned to the island (no LOST). It's never explicitly discussed, but everyone here knows that good music is the key to Kanye's redemption. With the right songs and the right album, he can overcome any and all controversy, and we are here to contribute, challenge, and inspire. And to play basketball.
Every morning after breakfast, Kanye and most everyone else (save for stoner Cudi; me, who opts for the treadmill rather than bodying myself on the court; and RZA, who keeps his god-body chiseled in the weight room) throws on gym shorts, heads to the Honolulu YMCA, and plays five or six games of 21 against the locals. How does Kanye play? Aggressively, but not to the point of being that miserably competitive dick no one wants to play against (or with). He's just balling—this is his momentof zen, when the questions go away.
After the Y comes free time until 3 p.m. or so, when people naturally reassemble at the studio—at which point, make no mistake about it, time is anything but free. On one particular afternoon, Kanye is hell-bent on finishing "Power," which has had exactly 1.5 completed verses for the better part of a month now. He takes up residence in the A room. Sitting again at his laptop, perusing fashion and art sites for bloggable images, he scribbles lyrics and holds court trying to fill the first verse, which exists only as a mumbled, wordless flow reference. This goes on for hours.
Kanye's process is communal—he literally goes around the room asking everyone there what "power" means to them, throws out lines to see how they're received, and works out his exact wording with whomever is around to help. But his output is most definitely entirely his own—one listen to that consistently unique cadence, word choice, and sense of humor reveals that. Rappers, producers, and entourage are all welcome to offer ideas or phrases, but the funny thing is, nearly every suggestion is met with, "That's really not at all a word I would ever say, but don't stop offering ideas, thanks!" In fact, that day, a rah-rah couplet is offered by a rapper in the room (who will remain nameless) to close a line on "Power," and Kanye jokingly says it would be "great—if my name was LL and I was making ‘Mama Said Knock You Out Pt. II.'" You get the feeling it's addition by subtraction with him—the demonstration of what he doesn't like illuminates what he does like.
And when he hits a creative wall, as he does this evening, he heads to another studio room to make progress on another song. In this case, it's upstairs to check in on Q-Tip, who is syncing a beat he'd made to an acappella Kanye laid for a song called "My Momma's Boyfriend." Kanye had spit it to a Madlib beat, but didn't feel like it was the right fit, so Tip is fitting a new track around the words. At first, Kanye is engaged, offering copious feedback, but as the record plays over and over, Tip tweaking small parts, Kanye starts to zone out. At first this means he just nods and stares without talking— processing, but too tired to speak. Eventually, the weight in his eyelids overcomes him and he nods off. It's only 11 p.m., which means that we can expect a rested and ready Kanye by 2 a.m. at the latest. Tip keeps banging on the MPC for his sleeping audience while the rest of us decide whether to crash out at the hotel or wait on the next burst of creativity.
Of course, we wait. Who would allow themselves to miss a moment of this?
HIP-HOP'S FIRST FANTASY CAMP
MBDTF's key players tell tales of beats, basketball, and breakfast buffets.
"He's telling me, ‘Yo, you need to be more douchebag. We need more douchebag!"
PUSHA-T / Clipse consigliere, Virginia wordsmith
"Kanye West is the hardest working man in music. If it wasn't for deadlines, I don't know if anything would be finished. I've heard things that I thought were perfect, and I come back and they're more perfect—and they're still not done. The guy's the maestro. It's a totally unorthodox way—well, it's unorthodox to me, 'cause I've never seen anyone work in pieces like that. It was really on some Quincy Jones shit, man. We could easily be working on one song, thinking we're in a mode, and he'll hear a sound from someone like [producer] Jeff Bhasker and immediately turn his whole attention to that sound and go through his mental Rolodex to where that sound belongs on his album, and then it goes straight to that song, immediately. Now, mind you, his album is a collage of sounds. It has one consistent theme, but you really have to be some type of weirdo to be able to do that. It's like turning on the drop of a dime, in a car. A Maybach on a two-lane highway making a fucking U-turn.
"He's the most meticulous individual ever. I've never penned so many verses for one particular record. ‘So Appalled’? That's a one-take verse. He was like, ‘Go, please. I love this. Thank you, goodbye.’ But I wrote ‘Runaway’ four times—and what he does not know to this day is that I was going through a relationship scandal in my life. So this man is asking me to write a song about a relationship and to say that I'm the biggest douchebag ever. He's telling me, ‘Yo, you need to be more douchebag. We need more douchebag!’ I didn't want to say to him, ‘Dog, I don't know if I even have douchebag in me right now.’ I've been jammed up, and it's hard for me to even tap into that part,because I'm remorseful. [Laughs.] And he's fucking beating me for fucking more. All I hear in my head is, ‘More douchebag. More douchebag. More douchebag!’ Finally, after a couple of days, I said, ‘I'm going to go upstairs and get in total solitude and just do what I need to do.’ And: ‘24/7/365, pussy stays on my mind.’ It starts from there."
"I'm real critical of emcees, but when I hear Kanye spit, it opens me up like a flower, man."
PETE ROCK / Legendary producer, crate-digging O.G.
"I know one of Kanye's bodyguards, and he told me that Kanye was looking for me. I just grabbed this bag of discs—these discs hold at least 50 beats apiece—and went to Hawaii. [Laughs.] That was my first time ever going to Hawaii, so I was blown back by the weather and the beach. It's a beautiful environment to make music in. I immediately said to myself, ‘This is why he's here!’ No one bothers you and you're free as a bird; an important part of being creative is being able to be free in a good environment where you can make music and there's no interruptions or disturbance or anything. When I got there, Kanye was in the chair in the studio getting his hair cut. He played the ‘Power’ song from before he even put the lyrics on it and he was spittin' the lyrics to me. I'm real critical of emcees, but when I hear Kanye spit, it opens me up like a flower, man. I used to hear him spit my name in his own records before he even got with me, and I used to say to myself, ‘Damn, he says my name in more than two or three records! Maybe he's trying to let me know he wants to work with me.’
"The studio kind of reminded me of back in the days when I used to work on three or four projects at once, doing it all in the studio. That's what he was doing—running back and forth from room to room to room to room. He had Kid Cudi upstairs, he was working on his album downstairs, then doing a mix on another record, and it straight reminded me of what I used to do back in the '90s. He played ‘Runaway’—and as soon as I heard the drums come in, I just started laughing. He used my drums from Mecca and the Soul Brother! I used these drums in an interlude before this record called ‘The Basement,’ and those drums come on before the song. I never heard anybody make a song the way he made it out of those drums. I thought that was genius."
"I'm just a fuckin' lumberjack dude from Wisconsin. I'm not going to go out there and try to be this awesome rap guy."
JUSTIN VERNON / Folk-rock darling, Bon Iver frontman
"We heard that Kanye was gonna use our song ‘Woods’ for a sample—and then a couple of weeks later, we were hearing through his camp that he may want to come out here to Minnesota and record some stuff with me. He had a ticket booked and everything, but we had a bad snowstorm in Minneapolis so he couldn't come. He ended up calling me on the phone that day, just saying that he liked our shit and was interested in getting together. He was getting a vibe from our music that we would do well together and figure things out. We talked for half an hour or so, and he told me to get on a plane and come out to Hawaii and work on stuff—so I got on a plane the next morning. They flew me out three different times. Each time was like a week. I didn't go anywhere but the gym, Kanye's house, and the studio. I didn't even take a walk on the beach.
"I was surprised at how relaxed I was the whole time because he's a really cool guy, and really down to earth. I'm just a fuckin' lumberjack dude from Wisconsin, I'm not going to go out there and try to be this awesome rap guy. I'm just doing my job. My favorite thing about Kanye is he just doesn't quit. He does not quit on a song. Sometimes in pop music, there's so much clutter and so many people trying to do something that's gonna get on the radio or whatever, but he's truly about approaching the song and finishing it and doing the coolest possible thing that he wants to express. He's not just a rapper. He's not just a producer. He's a musician. He's a true artist in every sense. Every part of his expression, from his clothes to everything, is a part of how he lives his life, and I think that's why he's so successful. I would show him what I did and he would come back and be like, ‘Oh, that's awesome.’ Or, ‘Oh, that's not cool.’ And we would just work on it—there was no ego involved, it was just what's best for the song."
"When I picked up my head from sleeping, he was looking at me in the strangest way I've ever been looked at by a human being."
NICKI MINAJ / Freshman phenom, president of Barbie Nation
"I heard through Drake that Kanye wanted me on his album, and I got on the next thing smokin' to Hawaii. I didn't think that he was gonna like me. I always figured that he was one of those conscious rappers, so I thought that he wouldn't want girls to be dressed overtly sexy—and I go to the studio and he has nothing but pictures of naked women on his computer that he'd invite me to look at. They were really artsy pictures, but you know he loves nudity, so it was a complete shock to me, 'cause I thought I had him all figured out, but I didn't. He was watching porn when we were in the studio—no shame in his game. Kanye kept askin' me to come and eat breakfast, but I like to record in the morning. So, when they were eating breakfast, I was in the studio listening to music and writing. And he would always be like, ‘Yo, why you ain't never come over for breakfast, yo?’ But I never went. I would get to the studio at like 10:30 in the morning and he'd be leaving to go home and eat breakfast and I'd be getting to the studio to just write and record. I stayed late sometimes, but I was always getting sleepy. I get up at 6 in the morning, so midnight is late for me. One time he caught me nodding off, and I thought maybe he would kick me out. I've never been so embarrassed in my life. You know how you're sitting up and you don't realize that you've just fallen asleep, but it feels like an eternity? When I picked up my head from sleeping, he was looking at me in the strangest way I've ever been looked at by a human being. He pulled his shades down and he looked and said, ‘Oh, she's sleeping?’ I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. [Laughs.]
"He's a legend in hip-hop and in pop culture and to be on his album is a blessing. I don't even remember him ever working with a female rapper, so to be on an album and on a record this monstrous? I couldn't have planned it better in a perfect world. I remember a conversation I had with Kanye every time I sit down to write now. Every single time I sit down, I remember him asking, ‘What is it that you wanna say? It's not about rhyming words, it's about what you really wanna say.’ The fact that he wasn't even looking at me when he said it—he was on the computer looking at naked girls, I think—it was just a life-changing experience. Outside of Wayne, no one has ever spoken to me that way and caused me to better my craft. I credit him with bringing out something miraculous in me, I really do."
"If the delivery guy comes in the studio and Kanye likes him, he'll go, ‘Check this out, tell me what you think.'"
Q-TIP / Quester, abstract poetic representin' from Queens
"I'd never worked the way Kanye was working in Hawaii. Everybody's opinions mattered and counted. You would walk in, and there's Consequence and Pusha T and everybody is sitting in there and he's playing music and everyone is weighing in. It was like music by committee. [Laughs.] It was fresh that everybody cared like that. I have my people that listen to my stuff—I think everybody does—but his thing is much more like, if the delivery guy comes in the studio and Kanye likes him and they strike up a conversation, he'll go, ‘Check this out, tell me what you think.’ Which speaks volumes about who he is and how he sees and views people. Every person has a voice and an idea, so he's sincerely looking to hear what you have to say—good, bad, or whatever.
"In art, whether it was Michelangelo or Rembrandt or all these dudes, they'll sketch something, but their hands may not necessarily touch the paint. Damien Hirst may conceptualize it, but there's a whole crew of people who are putting it together, like workers. His hand doesn't have to touch the canvas, but his thought does. With Kanye, when he has his beats or his rhymes, he offers them to the committee and we're all invited to dissect, strip, or add on to what he's already started. By the end of the sessions, you see how he integrates and transforms everyone's contributions, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He's a real wizard at it. What he does is alchemy, really."
"Kanye always asked me to play basketball... What was I going to be, scorekeeper?"
KID CUDI / Man on the moon, G.O.O.D. musician
"It's always the same thing when we work together—it happened on 808s, too: ‘Cudi, what are you thinking?’ And I'll spit out something I think is good and hope he doesn't shoot it down. [Laughs.] It's very casual; we're all creative people, so it's not a stressful thing for us to create in the studio. We're not in there pulling our hair out. We all have good ideas, and that's why the records usually come out the way they come out—everybody adds their flavor, and it ends up being a masterpiece. ‘Gorgeous’ is one of those joints. The process this time was a bit smoother; there was definitely an operation. I knew how I wanted to go about writing references, whereas on 808s, it was people in a room. This time, I wanted to dip off, do my ideas separately, and present them, because that's the only way I think. I had to go off, get my ideas right, and then bring them to the team.
"I was soaking up everything in Hawaii and it was a learning experience. I always go back into my mind and reimagine those moments again, because it's life-changing shit for me. Leaving Hawaii, I just saw that there was a formula that I wanted to apply to get my shit together. Kanye always asked me to play basketball, and I'm not athletic at all. What was I going to be, scorekeeper? So I would sleep in until they got done playing. I always had jet lag out there while other people were in the Hawaii groove already, but it worked out, because by the time they were done hooping, I was refreshed and ready to go. I dodged any sport they were trying to play, that's for certain. [Laughs.]"