"Don't Front on Kanye": Revisiting Mr. West's First Complex Cover

Kanye is headlining ComplexCon on Nov. 6, but we go way, way back. Eleven years ago, Complex spoke with Ye for his first solo cover story.

Kanye West
Complex Original

Terry Richardson via Complex Original

Kanye West

There’s something you need to understand about Kanye West. He may seem cheeky and tossed-off, skipping around the land mines of stardom. Don’t be fooled. He thinks long and hard about exactly what he wants to say. When Complex spoke to Kanye a week before he previewed his second album, Late Registration, for a select group of New York City journalists, he paused reflectively after each question and carefully articulated his thoughts while trying to dodge the publicity traps he’s found himself ensnared in for much of his career. Still, he’s got Grammys in his closet, John Legend and Common’s platinum records burning up iPods everywhere and the eye of every fashionista this side of Milan Malpensa Airport. Now, with the arrival of Late Registration, a truly engaging and risky record full of tuned-up trombones, xylophones, and orchestral squalls provided by co-producer Jon Brion, all we can say is Kanyeeze, you did it again. You a genius!

You’re considered a real tastemaker. How do you decide what’s fresh and what’s not?
There’s a team of us. I’m really surrounded by a lot of people who can dress, who are tastemakers in Chicago. And if you see me around somebody who can’t dress, then basically we’re just talking about him the whole way there.

Are you going to stores and looking for things or do you just take whatever people are giving you?
No, I like to shop.

Where do you go in Chicago?
I go to Bloomingdales, Gucci. In New York, Atrium, Saks Fifth Avenue. I go everywhere.  

Where do you go to get your kicks? Where did you get your cell phone, where do you get little stuff like that?
Well, you know I definitely have to have a Motorola phone. You know I have to have––

—Because you’re on the Boost Mobile commercial?
[Laughing.] No… I have to have the hottest phone out. I have the black one; I think it’s called a Razor.

What about sneakers?
I get boxes of them from Adidas now because I really like the vintage Rod Lavers they just came out with. So I tell them, “Send me every pair in size 12 that are on the continent.”

What about your clothing line? Can you talk about that?
It's called Pastelle. We’re working on designs for it right now. We want to open up a store in the spring. We’re looking in New York and L.A. There will be at least one of the two if not both of them.

What can you compare the line to?
They’re really conversational pieces. I don’t want to go towards that and have people trying to predict what I’m about to do. Because so many clothing lines have already capitalized on others’ styles.

Are you trying to change up your look?
I think I dress a little bit more easygoing than I have before. I really wanted to make a statement and set myself apart from people. And now with the more experience I have shopping, the more opportunities I get traveling around the world, I’ve been able to pick out the best of the best of the best. It takes time to really build up a wardrobe like mine and be one of the best-dressed people on the planet. Like right now, I’ve got a red suede Yves Saint Laurent leather bag and matching carry-on bag. That’s a one of one. I took it as a birthday gift from them.

So, who is involved in designing for Pastelle?
We’re going to have multiple designers do stuff under the brand. Adidas, Nigo[from A Bathing Ape], Jonas [Bevacqua] from LRG. They’ll come up with stuff, design stuff. I think that was my first love even before I truly wanted to be a rapper. I really thought I was going to be a designer. Like back in fourth grade I used to design clothes.

Did you just cherry pick your favorite people to do the line? And were they open as soon as you reached out?
All but Nigo.

It’s surprising that he’d get involved.
Well, I wouldn’t word it like that. But there will be some exclusive pieces. He’s not doing the whole line. But you know how he did sunglasses with Pharrell? We just want to have it open, to have different celebrity designers come in and design under the brand.

In an interview a couple of years ago you said you didn’t like people looking to you as a fashion icon. Do you still feel that way?
It was probably just a misquote in the interview. That’s what journalists do professionally, other than actually typing: misquoting. When they go to school, the teachers say, “Make sure you misquote and paraphrase the artist that speaks in spectrums, that talks in colors. The only way that you can make this fit on the page is if you turn what he says into black and white. So take specific lines out of his sentence, so that it only means exactly what you want it to say!” My thing is, Fuck your 4,000 words. Make my shit 4,050 words and quote it and quote it right. It happens even with the nicest journalists, even with the people that have no malicious intent. That’s one of the reasons I rap in the first place. I wanted to get my point across exactly the way I wanted to say it. I spent so much time articulating my sentences, especially when I did those quotes. If I had all of my quotes, I could make a book.

You have a strange love/hate relationship with the press. Do you think even though you say you’ve been misquoted, they’ve still helped you by praising you and loving The College Dropout?
They were real after the fact with Dropout. I just had to mature. I’m an artist. I was a starving artist. I was someone nobody believed in. This is your pull quote right here: “Success is a humbling experience because now I don’t have to tell anybody how good I am, everybody else can see it.”

“Success is a humbling experience because now I don’t have to tell anybody how good I am, everybody else can see it.”

That makes you feel humble, or just makes you look humble?
Well, I think I have a lot of internal conflicts with that because it’s the nature of a Gemini to try to make people happy. So, I guess that’s where I get my split personalities from. What we do is, if we have a problem we will evaluate the response—if we bring up something, half the people will respond to it before we say something. We really try to think before we talk and it feels like a lull. It will be like, “Well, why you not talking?” when really I’m trying to figure this all out in my head, to figure out the best way to articulate. And so people say, “Why you acting funny, why you acting like that?”So, I have a complex that I’m trying to fight to try to make people happy. Just today on the train, this guy was talking to me—now mind you, people come up to me all the time trying to ask for advice on how to make it so I will remember them. He said, “What are you doing down here?” And I said I have a show. He said, “Yo dog, keep doing your thing.” And I said, “Fo sho’ man, I’mma try.” And then he told me, “Don’t say try, don’t say try.” And I said “Wait a second dog—I do this. This is what I do. I say I’ll try to make you feel comfortable.” Just so people will walk away saying, “Damn, Kanye is a really nice guy.” For some reason, whenever I talk directly it just makes people feel so uncomfortable. The thing is if you want the realest me, then it’s gonna be like, [excitedly] “Yeah, I did that” and shouting all the time and celebrating all the time because it’s so good. Every day is my birthday. What do you expect? It’s like walk a day in my shoes and try to not spare anybody. What do you want from me? So now what I do is put up what I always talked about: the false modesty. I’m becoming so fake. I’m becoming exactly what I tried to fight against.

That’s a trap of success.
Last night, somebody came out to the studio. It was someone I didn’t know who was coming out to the studio. I do know him, but not too well though—

Who was it?
Come on now…. But then they said he’s at the front desk. And I’m telling you I’m so stressed out—I got a couple days to finish my album, I’m doing an intro for the “Diamonds” video, and I was in total work mode. I don’t have time to say, “What’s up.” It’s a closed session. But, it’s like if they word it in some way that I was like, “Yo, you can’t come in right now,” then I’m an asshole. Mind you, you weren’t invited or nothing.

Right, but if people want to be around you then that’s what it’s like.
The thing is, I’m always in the wrong. Somebody looks at me and I’ll just be looking. “You can’t speak? I don’t know you. You didn’t ask me anything. You didn’t say anything to me. Am I just supposed to walk around the street?” On the other hand, should I be so cocky to think that everybody is looking at me? I’ve had times where I thought somebody was looking at me, and I give them the head nod and people look away from me. Then it’s like, What did I do that for? It’s like you’re always trying to make up for your success, to overcompensate to try to be extra nice.

You’ve said you’re a shy person. Do you think that’s because of how you grew up? Do you think you were telling people, “I’m the shit” because you were overcompensating or just confident?
I definitely think that it’s overcompensation, I was the scaredest of all. Just scared of not being able to make it. Just imagine the walls that I’ve had to climb, or the people I’ve had to stand in front of. You have to build something up. When I do my signature pose it’s like a force field toward all of the naysayers and the haters. I just have that up. I’m going to make up a new theory: [the saying goes] If you come in a room and people think you’re stupid, open your mouth and remove all doubt. The flipside of that is, If you come in a room talking, you don’t allow anybody else to say anything about you.

"It takes time to really build up a wardrobe like mine and be one of the best-dressed people on the planet."

You did a humble thing by letting Jay Z come out during your set at Hot 97’s Summer Jam recently. And you look to Jay as a model for a sustained music career. But do you look at him as a businessman whose path you’d like to follow?
Yeah, I’d definitely say that.  

Jay’s also a branding expert. Is that something you aspire to?
Well, I want to make my bear be the icon. I always pictured having my own skyscraper. And when you get to my office, there would be the Dropout Bear logo encrusted on the wall.  

Have you even looked into doing real estate?
I was doing real estate before I really got into the game. My mother always said real estate. But not skyscrapers or anything like that.

What are you driving?
A Mercedes Benz CLS55. It’s really fun, But it’s definitely not like a John-Legend-platinum, Common-almost-platinum, all-these-other-triple-platinum-artists type of car, know what I’m saying? It’s not downplayed like white person downplayed, like a Nissan Altima. It’s still niggerish…and you can say that Kanye allowed you to print that.

Let’s talk about something else. Can you give me a little “Day in the life of Kanye”? When you woke up this morning, what did you do?
I had sex. Then I ran outside, attempted to make a flight. We made the flight, and we cut the line because I got B.S.P.

What’s B.S.P.?
Black Star Power. Then I got on the airplane, went to sleep. Got off the plane. [My publicist] Gabe told me that this was the last day for the Complex interview, then I looked down at my Yves Saint Laurent bag and it’s suede and I saw a little glue coming off of it and I told Ivan I need Scotchguard.

There’s very personal subject matter on College Dropout songs like “Family Business” and “Spaceship.” Is the stuff as personal on Late Registration?
Yes, I think personal, but I’ll word it in ways so that every person can relate to it. I always wanted to rap in a way that I could be respected in a barbershop and on a mixtape level but also spit a rap to a straight, white, corporate dude and he would understand every word. I’m kind of like Jadakiss meets Will Smith.

People say that you get 25 years to write your first record and only one year to write your second. How do you keep it creative?
I have two words for the new album: Jon Brion.

Can you describe the series of events that led to you two getting together?
Just a whole bunch of me asking people and people not giving me the number. When I finally hooked up with Rick Rubin, who is basically like the Hollywood yellow pages, he helped me out.

Was Jon open to it right off the bat?
I talked to him on the phone and I came to him playing songs and he just started working and said, “Hey, let’s do this.”

That’s crazy. You’re really an unlikely pair.
He connected with the music and he has a lot of soul, he plays every instrument. We both want the same things out of the music: for people to feel it at the end of the day. All the technical shit aside, we just want people to feel it. And I wish I could word it to make me sound smarter, but it’s really that simple.

Was it difficult for you to give up the reins?
Well, yeah, we did it together. I guess if I was on a “Kanye’s not so bad” campaign I could use that as an example. Just because you’re coming out winning three Grammys and you’re considered one of the No. 1 producers in the game doesn’t mean you can’t put your album in someone else’s hands because you respect his work so much.  

How do you avoid repetition in writing rhymes? How do you keep it new?
I refuse to be boxed in. I’m always like, “Damn, I never heard that before.” Even at the risk of people not liking it. Seriously—I think I am really capable of making an extension of The College Dropout, but the answer is, I wouldn’t.

Are you comfortable sacrificing that bigger success?
Dog, don’t you know that by now? I’m ill.

 Want to experience Complex IRL? Check out ComplexCon, a festival and exhibition on Nov. 5-6, 2016 in Long Beach, Calif., featuring performances, panels, and more. For ticket info, click here.

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