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.
I arrive at Avex Honolulu Studios on Oahu, where Kanye is block-booking all three session rooms, 24 hours a day, until he decides he's done.
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.