In a room tucked in Rockefeller Center in New York City, Kanye West stood nervously alongside actor Mike Myers with a plan to say everything on his mind. It was September 2005, days after Hurricane Katrina’s wrath destroyed cities throughout the Gulf Coast. The storm killed more than 1,800 people and caused more than $125 billion in damage. But West was fixated on a particular demographic: the disproportionate number of Black people who died or were caught on camera struggling to stay above water.
Days earlier, on August 30, West had released his second project, Late Registration, which shed light on the systematic racism faced by those in the water. Of those killed in Louisiana, 51 percent were Black, and they lived primarily in Orleans Parish, St. Bernard Parish, Jefferson Parish, and other districts more vulnerable to floods due to their below-sea-level elevation. The low elevation, combined with an outdated levee system, left the city’s Black population fighting for their lives. The rapper and producer, speaking on a pre-planned segment at the Concert for Hurricane Relief telethon, expressed his disappointment about the media’s lack of empathy toward his people.
“I hate the way they portray us in the media,” West said off the cuff, trembling. “If you see a Black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’”
West understood the struggle. He was a child of the Black Panther movement; his sheer presence was a walking revolution. His general air of defiance brought him ridicule but gave a voice to those yelling for help from the water. West’s next statement would speak to the frustrations an entire race felt in the days following the storm.
“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he said, right before the camera cut away, leaving Myers in shock.
West’s words had merit. Following the tragedy, President Bush was criticized for his slow response to the storm, leaving the heavily Black neighborhoods of New Orleans without clear federal guidance. And they were in line with the defiance that Late Registration displayed, the same fortitude that saved his life, helped him rise from an unknown Chicago beatmaker, and eventually made him the biggest artist in the world. But as West would find out, it would all come at a price.
Kanye West had a revolutionary spirit in his blood long before the episode in New York. His father, Ray, was a Black Panther and one of the first Black photojournalists at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His mother, Donda, was a college professor. An Oklahoma native, she was arrested in the lunch counter sit-ins as a child along with her brother Portwood Jr. West alluded to his mother’s experience on the track “Never Let Me Down” off his debut album, College Dropout, flexing his lineage: “With that in my blood I was born to be different,” he rapped. “Now niggas can’t make it to ballots to choose leadership. But we can make it to Jacob’s and to the dealership.”
If College Dropout gave hints of West’s lineage, Late Registration embodied his family tree. Songs like “Crack Music,” “We Major,” and “Touch the Sky” painted a picture of the Black experience. West’s hometown, Chicago, was crippled by the crack epidemic. When West was 14, the city’s murder toll reached 686, as many more died from the potent drug. And the rapper used “Crack Music” as an opportunity to ask important questions, like who stopped the Black Panthers (West put the blame on Ronald Reagan’s policy decisions as governor of California), and to call out the once-cozy relationship between U.S. leaders and Saddam Hussein.
“I started [thinking], if I was to make a song about [crack], I wanted to start where my parents told me it started,” West explained to MTV in 2005. “It goes back to artists being on the chitterling circuit and labels giving them drugs to lull them over and not be focused on their business. Crack was placed in the Black community, used to separate the groups who were to protect us from police brutality and racism at the time.”
“We Major” touches on the perils that come with the illusion of making it out. Yeah, you survived the dangers of the projects and can smoke in your hotel room with the homies, West was saying, but beware of the IRS when your first check comes in the mail. On “Touch the Sky,” West spoke of the importance of having your vices in check before you lose loved ones. West curated the vibe largely through samples from the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, Shirley Bassey, and Gil Scott-Heron, showcasing the soundtrack of his youth.
His conflicted relationship with higher education—first explored on his 2004 debut, College Dropout—is captured by skits chronicling the rise of fictional fraternity Broke Phi Broke and invoking the struggles of university life. West, who dropped out of Chicago State in 1997, used skits throughout the album to display extracurricular conflict through a fictionalized version of himself attempting to join the frat whose motto was “We ain’t got it.” Over the course of the album, the crew boasts about not having enough gas, sharing clothes, and letting wealthier dudes take their girls. By the end of the project, fictional Ye sneaks off and buys some new shoes and starts making beats for cash to the chagrin of his line brothers. After chastising him, his line leader tells the rapper “don’t you ever come back smelling good and taking showers, and shit like that.” The skits, like college, paint a picture of how ambition can be met with resistance.
Ironically, West’s Black vision for Late Registration was heavily cultivated by Jon Brion, a white film composer who scored Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. West—a fan of Fiona Apple, whom Brion had worked with on the singer’s When the Pawn ...—sought out Brion after hearing his work on the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. West called a mutual friend, Rick Rubin, to make the introduction. At the time, West was about 75 percent done with the album, but he was largely unsatisfied with the project, which he felt needed a more thematic feel. Brion and West clicked immediately. On most days, West would spend hours listening to records in the studio while the television played, barely laying tracks until he found the right sample. He ran point, and Brion played a worthy co-conductor in his first hip-hop foray, as West impressed him at every turn.
“It was completely apparent that he was open to investigating new ideas,” Brion told MTV at the time. “I was playing something on a track and he was completely psyched, and then he left after a few hours and said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’”
Production aside, Late Registration’s power was in the space West found himself in when he made it. Three years prior, he broke his jaw after he fell asleep behind the wheel of his Lexus and crashed near the W Hotel in West Hollywood. Before the crash, he had become one of hip-hop’s hottest hitmakers, producing songs like Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and Ludacris’s “Stand Up.” Along the way, he developed an obsession with becoming bigger than the acts he was providing backdrops for. More specifically, he aimed to be a bigger rapper than his idol, Jay-Z. But while he played his demo in every studio he entered, artists and label heads alike weren’t swayed. Still, he tried, pleaded, and demanded to be heard. His passion was occasionally counterproductive, like when he talked himself out of a deal by telling the head of Columbia Records, Michael Mauldin, that he’d be better than any act on the roster, including Jermaine Dupri, Mauldin’s son.
While College Dropout made it clear he wasn’t just a producer, Late Registration, which sold more than 860,000 copies in its first week, proved that Ye was here to stay—that he wasn’t just a walking beat machine for one of the most famous rap labels on the planet. Rather, Kanye was the force that no one saw coming, and whoever doubted him would know about it. He had a story to tell, an underdog tale that the masses related to.
In Oakland, I was one of those fans. Though I was just 12 years old, I recognized the same struggles West spoke about plaguing my own environment. Like West, I had educated parents and a stable home life, but was aware of the world around me. Like West, I struggled to get acceptance, living a double life. For most of the day, I’d go to a private school in Alameda, alongside students whose parents were in a much higher tax bracket than mine. In the afternoon, I’d take the bus back to Lake Merritt, pick up my football pads, get on the Fremont Bart train, get off at Fruitvale station and get on another bus to Curt Flood Field in East Oakland. Along the way, I saw the demographics West spoke for: the addicts still affected by the crack epidemic 20 years later, the homie in the back of the bus slappin’ Traxamillion on speakers connected to his backpack, the single parent trying to get their children to and from school. Late Registration made it all add up: Though we were all struggling, we were all together, and, most importantly, we were gonna get through it.
West’s best display of hope came on “Drive Slow,” featuring Paul Wall and GLC. Each rapper tells an unknown youth to chill out, that their life’s goals will be achieved, all the while sharing their own experience. The Houston-inspired track samples Hank Crawford’s “Wildflower,” the same sample producer Johnny J used on Tupac’s “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug.” The two songs’ relationship runs deeper than a shared origin: In Pac’s version, the rapper marvels at the kid’s transition into a thug as a sped-up version of Crawford’s sax plays. On Ye’s version, West, GLC, and Wall tell the kid his gangster dreams ain’t worth it.
Like most on the ascent, West was still reconciling his fame. “Touch the Sky” and “Celebration” show West thumbing his nose at anyone who doubted his fortitude, all while displaying the innocence of a man who hasn’t fully figured out his celebrity. West also shows the other side of the climb, like on “Roses,” when he finds out that his newfound wealth can’t bring his family more life when their time is up, or on “Bring Me Down,” which sheds light on the frustration of overcoming external doubt. Late Registration was Kanye West on the precipice of what he always wanted, still armed with the naiveté of a young artist.
Eleven years after Late Registration was released, Kanye found himself back in New York City, in another high-rise, making another statement that drew ire from a section of fans. Sporting a blond hairdo, he walked out of an elevator at Trump Tower alongside the president-elect. Weeks earlier, Donald Trump won the presidency with a campaign that was endorsed by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. Despite Trump running a campaign supported by the same racist institutions that West’s kin protested during the civil rights movement, Kanye had eyes on something different by 2016: worldwide political influence. In Midtown Manhattan, he was a world away from the 28-year-old who spoke out against President Bush’s response to a national crisis.
In the years between the telethon moment and his appearance with Trump, the empathy he displayed on his sophomore project had begun to crumble. Shortly after his follow-up to Late Registration, 2007’s Graduation, his mother died from complications during plastic surgery. The pain bore out in self-reflection in the chilly 808s and Heartbreak, as he coped with his newfound loneliness. His pain manifested itself at the 2009 VMAs when, in a Hennessy-induced state, he stormed the stage, took the mic from singer Taylor Swift to praise Beyoncé. In the wake of the criticism lobbied at him following the incident, he banished himself from the country, briefly gave up music, and took an internship at Fendi. When he emerged months later, he began work on what would become his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, letting his tension out. But before the album dropped, subtle changes began to arise in his political stances. In a 2010 interview with Matt Lauer, he apologized for his comments about President Bush at the 2005 telethon.
“I would tell George Bush, in my moment of frustration, I didn’t have the grounds to call him a racist,” West said. “But I believe that in a situation of high emotion like that, we as human beings don’t always choose the right words. And that’s why I’m here.”
Though he would say that his words to Lauer were “manipulated,” it was a clear shift from West’s unapologetic rhetoric of the past. But his biggest shift would come six years later, at the SAP Center in San Jose. West, by that point a husband to Kim Kardashian and a father, was on a floating stage hovering over the crowd during a date on his Saint Pablo Tour. It was just after the 2016 presidential election. After a few songs, he stopped the music, customary for this tour, to provide himself time for one of his famous rants. First, he complimented Republican Ben Carson, a Trump ally. Then he said: “There are things I like about Trump’s campaign. That’s not supposed to happen, right?”
Then finally he told the crowd that he didn’t vote in the election, but if he had voted, it would have been for Trump.
I was in the audience that night, having purchased tickets last minute because I was so gassed from seeing his Oakland tour stop weeks earlier. I’d even bought merch to celebrate the occasion. But when West said those words, I froze. I thought back to that 12-year-old, who believed every revolutionary word the rapper spoke, to when I thought the man on stage was an idol. Now, he was speaking rhetoric that wasn’t based in logic. I, like a lot of my peers, felt like he failed us. The pain made me walk out in disgust.
Now West is in the midst of his new journey, seemingly alienating the voiceless minority he spoke for in 2005, and the struggle he claimed to shed light on in his second studio album. Now he’s reportedly running for president, possibly as an operative for Trump, whose ideals do not seem to align with those of the people West claimed to speak for 15 years ago. Now, more than a decade later, his ambition is still coming at a price.