Kanye West Has a Goblet
An all-access, totally non-exclusive interview with the would-be king of hip-hop.
"Fur pillows are hard to actually sleep on," Kanye West tells me. It's just before noon on an overcast Sunday in late July, and West has invited me into his Manhattan apartment. Three years ago, the rapper hired an interior designer to renovate the place into a stark configuration of right angles and polished stone surfaces. But these days, West's aesthetic has taken a turn for the maximal. "Versailles is the shit," he says. He's in the process, as he puts it, of "turning the crib real Kingish." The pillows are part of the plan.
Interviews with Kanye West have become increasingly rare over the past few years. For a time, the Chicago rapper was unavoidable—on the cover of Time in a blazer and jeans, on the cover of Rolling Stone in a crown of thorns—but the late 2007 death of his mother Donda knocked him off the radar. There are only a small handful of print interviews West has given since her passing. * His silence was presumably—at least in part—a function of grief, but West has also communicated his general ambivalence about journalists. "This is my problem with interviews, you know? What if you did music, and someone else could come in and change your words around and then release it to the radio? And you ain't even get a chance to listen to it before they dropped it to radio? That's how interviews are! You say what you say and then you get paraphrased," he's said. "I wanna get approval over the shit."
So, as West begins the run-up to the release of his fifth album—it's set to come out in November and is currently titled Dark Twisted Fantasy—he has launched a new-media-heavy promo offensive, in which his words go straight from his mouth to the public record. So far, this tour has involved impromptu, video-recorded performances at the Silicon Valley offices of Facebook and Twitter, an account opened at the latter site and immediately put to near-constant use, and a real-time interview with fans on a Web site called UStream. There was a visit to the offices of Rolling Stone, too, where he monologued at some editors and allowed them to post a video clip of the visit. An interview on New York's Hot 97 last Wednesday has been the sole old-media throwback.
This way, West's thinking goes, if someone's going to quote him out of context and make him sound like an asshole, it will be him, thank you very much. The strategy brings to mind M.I.A.'s online retaliations in the wake of Lynn Hirschberg's New York Times Magazine hit piece, but refigured—far more cannily—as a pre-emptive strike.
That's one way of looking at it, anyway. Here's another: West has agreed to speak candidly to me on a wide variety of subjects, to run his mouth but remain pithy at the same time, and to grant me virtually round-the-clock access to his life—no publicist popping his head in and telling me there's five minutes left. As conditions go for writing a profile, these are extremely favorable. No, I don't get to ask any questions, but I do get a constantly updating record of West's thoughts, whereabouts, cravings, jokes, meals, flirtations, bon mots, and on and on. In the face of a mountainous info dump like West's, isn't the basic work of profiling—building from the raw material of everything someone says and does toward a more focused sense of who they are—as relevant as ever?
Several days before he invited me into his home, West brought me aboard a small plane he referred to as a "babymama" jet (because, he elaborated, like a purse dog, it's the sort of cute, undersized thing a rich guy gets for his mistress). West wore a slim dark suit, unbuttoned rakishly at the cuffs, with a tuxedo collar. "Everything's the right backdrop for a suit," he says. He's been talking a lot about suits recently, presenting them as a sign of some next-level classiness, getting his Glenn O'Brien on. He mentioned a girl who'd recently asked him why he was so dressed up. "I told her, 'cause I'm not headed to the gym right now,' " he said. As we boarded the plane, a couple other guys dressed in their own suits accompanied West, mugging on the tarmac Reservoir Dogs-style. (West never saw fit to introduce them.)
Flying back from Silicon Valley to New York, West wanted to show me images of some recent kingish purchases he'd made, along with various treasures he had his eye on. It was a giddy tour of ancien régime-looking finery that didn't end until well after the plane had landed. There were two golden goblets—thin-stemmed and etched with an intricate floral pattern—that West said he planned to use for drinking water. He was particularly excited about a bowl that squats regally on a gold base. The bowl is made of milky, hand-painted porcelain, with two grippable gold lions curling up its sides. "I copped this to eat cereal out of," he said, adding that he's been fantasizing about buying a horse. It's hard to say exactly how much, if at all, he was joking.
It's similarly unclear, three days later at his apartment, whether he regrets buying the fur pillows, which cost him god knows how much, or if he regards their impracticality as central to their appeal. Uncomfortable fur pillows represent the kind of problem a plebe would kill to have, after all, and in West's acquisition value-system, form left function lying bruised, beaten, and bloody on the mat long ago. At one point West tells me, apropos of nothing, "I jog in Lanvin."
But when West complains about the pillows, it's not just an underhanded brag. It also speaks to a deeper sense that, as life has gotten ever more luxuriously comfortable for him, he has become that much more restive and incapable of truly enjoying it. He fancies himself a king these days, but throughout his career he has frequently come across like a princess tossing and turning atop a pea. It's as though an irritating little voice nags at him from down below, telling him that he still hasn't achieved everything he can, that he still doesn't have all the success he deserves, and that he never will. Sometimes he says he doesn't want to be "limited by the art form of rap," and sometimes he sets his sights higher and says he doesn't want to be limited by the 21st century: "When I think of competition it's like I try to create against the past. I think about Michelangelo and Picasso, you know, the pyramids," he says.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Kanye West by Larry Busacca/Getty Images.