When Kanye West called in December to talk about being one of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s Entertainers of the Year, something seemed off. West just wasn’t as interested in going on and on about how great he is. Admittedly, he had earned his bragging rights. His Grammy-winning debut, 2004’s The College Dropout, sold 3 million copies and boasted innovative marvels like “Through the Wire” and “Jesus Walks.” And just when his preening pose started to bore, didn’t he make a good case for himself with his follow-up, Late Registration? Even more breathless critical acclaim followed, along with double-platinum sales, another slew of Grammy nominations, and a string of daring provocations, like when he denounced President Bush during a live Hurricane Katrina telethon. Here, on the phone, was another chance to gloat. And sure, he couldn’t help comparing himself to the Michaels (Jordan and Jackson), but his heart didn’t seem in it. What West really wanted to talk about was his next move.
“Do you think my new video should be ‘Touch the Sky’ or ‘We Major?’” the 28-year-old hip-hop wunderkind wondered earnestly. Go with the first one, we replied. But he wanted enthusiasm! “The way you answered,” he said, “it sounded like there was a question mark at the end.” West’s prenup anthem, “Gold Digger,” had enjoyed a great run, living atop the pop charts for 10 weeks with its neon video spinning constantly on MTV. But a follow-up single, the graceful uplifter “Heard ‘Em Say,” stalled at No. 26, and the album started to lose some of its chart luster. The video, directed by the usually inspired Michel Gondry, was a cheesy dud, and West knew it. So he demanded a second version, an arty black-and-white clip, but it too failed to catch on. The unexpected misses had left him shaken. “So you think that ‘Touch the Sky’ could provide the energy to give the album a sales resurgence like ‘Hollaback Girl’ did for Gwen Stefani?” he asked anxiously. “I know I have to come up with some out-of-the-ballpark ideas for the video. I can’t miss on this one!”
Cut to a blustery day in January on an Indian reservation overlooking the Grand Canyon. According to West, the “Touch the Sky” video will cost more than $1 million, with almost three-quarters of the budget coming out of his own pocket. He’s determined to make it the spectacle to top all spectacles. The video boasts an Evel Knievel ’70s story line sending up West’s overarching hubris; a rocket ship, motorcycles, a hilarious reference to his Bush comments, Nia Long, and Pamela Anderson. He wanted to hire a bear to charge him in one shot, but logistical woes — and common sense, perhaps — got in his way.
It’s day three of the grueling four-day shoot, and in West’s trailer — a decidedly untricked-out den with a crummy bathroom and yogurt and juice in the fridge — “Touch the Sky” track producer Just Blaze gets a haircut from West’s personal groomer, Ibn. “Kanye’s still like an eager little kid in a candy store,” says Just Blaze, who’s known him for almost a decade. “The world might see someone who’s very arrogant and cocky and talks all this craziness, but at the end of the day the music he’s making lives up to it. And he’s smart enough to know that if he ever puts out a bad record, people will pounce. Kanye’s put himself on such a high pedestal that he knows he has to stay on top.” Outside in the wind and cold, an aerial camera crane swoops around West, who stands near the edge of a very high cliff.
Working late into the evening out on that precipice, West missed the helicopter that was supposed to fly him back to Las Vegas, where he’s staying during the shoot. So he bounces happily instead into a shabby crew van, and picks up where he left off in December. “What did you think of the ‘Heard ‘Em Say’ videos?” he asks, spooning strawberry yogurt. Tell him that Michel Gondry’s original version, in which the rapper and a couple of cutie-pie kids frolic in Macy’s, was an oversentimental disappointment and he nods his head. “For real? You thought it was bad? Yeah, that’s what I thought too.”
And so begins a three-hour ride, from the bumpiest desert road into the most aggressively garish of American cities. Along the way, West hits all the high and low notes of hope and despair, his relentless ambition and his equally powerful fear of failure.
WEST The thing is, it’s not like I didn’t try hard as hell on the “Heard ‘Em Say” videos. I’ve got a bunch of “Damn, we should have tried this” regrets. I’m banking on having good taste, and I was off about what I thought would work in the marketplace. It’s the one thing in 2005 that I feel like I really failed at.
EW So in the end, Kanye West is his own worst critic?
WEST In the end, in the middle, and in the beginning. You don’t know how bad it hurts to fail like that. So it means so much to me for this next video to be great. Instead of this being the last hurrah, this video could put me back at the awards shows.
EW Speaking of awards shows, are you excited about your eight Grammy nominations?
WEST If God gave me the choice between winning Grammys or having a really awesome across-the-board “Heard ‘Em Say” video, I would choose an awesome video. I want you to want to run home to see a Kanye West video.
EW So you no longer care about winning awards?
WEST Well, when I was making the album I would use the Grammys as one of my muses. The media makes it seem like I feel I should always win even if I’m not in the category. But, duh, I feel like I should win Album of the Year because, um, it was. [Laughs] People always ask, “What’s the key to success?” And someone will say, “Well, I don’t know, but I know the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
EW That sounds like sane advice.
WEST I disagree with that, though. I am scared of failure. I was scared to work on the second album, but I have eight people in the studio while I’m working on a track and I ask them a million questions. “What did you think of this? Do you think this is it?” And I want the truth. You can’t learn anything from a compliment. So I take all their opinions and by the time the record’s out, you can’t tell me s— about it.
EW I have friends who admire your music, but they hate your attitude. Does it bother you that people might think you’re an ass?
WEST There are times where I have leeway to spaz out because I’m a successful artist, but I really am trying my best not to be a jerk. I’m definitely a better person than I was two years ago. It’s hard coming in — that struggle to get through the gate and everybody’s dissing you, A&R people saying, “You’re never going to make it! No one’s ever going to play this track!” People talk to you the way guards talk to prisoners. So for me to finally make it, I felt like I was fresh out of jail. And you know I got to go back to the people who used to bring me down. I’m Robert De Niro in Heat! I got to go back for one more time.
EW But why can’t you let it go if only 95 percent of a review is glowing? On your “Touch the Sky” tour, you took time each night to lambast all of the reviewers who dared to criticize you.
WEST I’m trying to take the power out of their words and give it back to me. And I thought it would be entertaining. It always gets an “ahh” out of the audience.