With his own record label, a new clothing line, a movie in preproduction and three more Grammys in the trophy case, Kanye West’s career continues its skyward trajectory — just like he told you it would.
Whether scandalizing the religious right by posing as Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone, irritating Republicans by trashing the Bush administration or annoying homophobes by demanding gay-bashing be excised from hip-hop, West won’t be held back. The unstoppable success of his platinum LPs, “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration,” his gift for cross-branding, or perhaps the eerily-familiar white suit and sunglasses West wore at the 2006 Grammys, inspire pop-culture vultures to snark, “Look! Kanye’s turned into P. Diddy!”
(Oops ... it’s just “Diddy” now. My bad.)
It’s a comparison with merit, if not completely accurate. Both are producers-turned-rappers. Diddy, with his ever-changing moniker and ubiquitous white suits, is one of the first hip-hop millionaire moguls. West, with his expanding business ventures, follows that tradition.
But unlike Diddy, who brought hip-hop to Top 40 radio via watered-down beats, West bridges the gap between socially conscious rap and party music. And he succeeds in Top 40 anyway. If anything, West is a thinking man’s Diddy, a hip-hop mogul for the new millennium.
At 28 years of age, and $16.9 million in 2005 earnings, West made No. 25 on Rolling Stone Magazine's Top 30 list of The Richest Rock Stars of 2006. (Diddy rings in at No. 14 with $24.3 million, making him the richest hip-hop artist on the list.) Like his predecessors, Diddy, Russell Simmons and Dr. Dre, West followed his success by launching a record label, GOOD Music (which stands for “Getting Out Our Dreams.”)
An impressive lineupArtists on GOOD Music roster include West’s protégé, soul singer John Legend, whose platinum-selling debut LP “Get Lifted” received eight Grammy nominations in 2006 (the same number West received), and Common, whose career West revitalized via the platinum-selling LP “Be.” Also on board: Consequence, Farnsworth Bentley, GLC, SA-RA Creative Partners and Really Doe.
As well as helping his fellow hip-hop artists, Kanye will aid the preppy-impaired by launching his Pastille clothing line this year. Considering Diddy’s multimillion-dollar Sean John line, which won Diddy Menswear Designer of the Year several years in a row, West’s unique take on fashion will no doubt garner similar success. West’s own fragrance, like Diddy’s “Unforgivable,” may not be far off.
Given his lip service to social responsibility, West would do well to watch who’s manufacturing his clothing line. Diddy suffered one of his many public image pitfalls when it was revealed that Sean John was manufactured in violation of labor laws in Honduras-based factories. Social responsibility is, after all, the emblem of the hip-hop mogul of the new millennium.
Don’t misunderstand. Diddy has social merit. Remember “Vote or Die!,” the Diddy-sponsored voter-registration initiative that inspired The Onion to run the election-day headline, “Remember to vote or P. Diddy will kill you”? The physically fit millionaire also raised some $2 million for New York schools by running the 2004 New York City marathon.
Still, Diddy’s community efforts often smell of publicity stunt (and maybe a tax write-off). It’s as if Diddy is, Lady Macbeth-style, trying to scrub away the bad vibes of his '90s mishaps — the club shooting incident with then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, the copious lawsuits and the whole East Coast/West Coast rap wars.
West loves to toot his horn, but his activism seems uncalculated, and sometimes bad for his career. Diverting from script to state “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” on live television during the NBC Hurricane Katrina Benefit in 2005 could’ve resulted in West’s banishment from TV. Denouncing gay bashing in homophobia-laden hip-hop could’ve resulted in lost record sales and audience.
Even West’s obligatory foray into film is different is different from the acting path taken by Diddy and other MCs. While Diddy hosts a new reality cooking show in April, West plans to develop a film inspired by his music. The movie, in which he also appears, features several shorts by different writers and directors, and shows various perspectives of American life. It’s expected that West’s film will reflect, at least in part, the sentiments he blurted during his infamous 2005 Katrina moment on live TV.
Getting humble, sort ofThough dismissed by some for the sin of pride, West ceaselessly puts his money in the same location as his great big mouth. He’s more than happy to tell the world that his music is the best out today, but he’s not far from the truth. Consider West’s gorgeous “Jesus Walks” or the bitingly clever party hit, “Gold Digger.” Now consider Kevin Federline’s “PopoZao,” or the unspeakably inane “My Humps” by formerly intelligent outfit The Black Eyed Peas.
West’s temper tantrums, such as the one West through at the 2005 American Music Awards when he lost best new artist to Gretchen Wilson, are fading from his repertoire. Yes, he brought a sign to the 2006 Grammys that read “I TOLD YOU SO” which he planned on holding it during his acceptance speech for Album of the Year. But when U2 took the prize instead, he was almost humble — by West’s standards at least. "It's all good," Kanye said after the show, "U2, those are my boys.”
Of course, West was sure to add that a vote-split was the reason for his loss — R&B fans were torn between “Late Registration” and Mariah Carey’s comeback LP, “The Emancipation of Mimi.” "I didn't win it by a technicality, not because I didn't deserve it,” West said. “Even (U2 lead singer) Bono was like ‘Come on. Everybody knows it.””
You’re a tough sell if you can’t find such hubris at least a little bit charming. Especially when he assured reporters he was now more motivated than ever to work on his third LP, “Graduation.”
Planning ahead even before “Graduation” is in the can, West, who never completed his degree, says he’ll call his fourth LP something most graduates can’t immediately look forward to: “A Good-Ass Job.”
Ironically, it’s what West already has. And in the true hip-hop mogul tradition, he earned it without a diploma.
Helen Popkin lives in New York. She is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com.