Over the last twenty years, Kanye West has consistently changed the course of rap music and influenced his era’s pop scene like no other. Collaborating with Paul McCartney, Rick Rubin, and Rihanna, he has both revitalized the careers of Jay-Z and Common and provided a platform for Kid Cudi and John Legend. Kanye West remains a major influence on artists such as Childish Gambino, Drake and The Weeknd. Cast yourself back to the career of an endlessly enigmatic artist.

He is loved by the media, controversial and ambivalent, capable of calling out George W. Bush on television for not doing enough to help the black victims of Hurricane Katrina only to then say some years later that “slavery was a choice”. Kanye West has indeed made his mark on two decades of rap, selling more than 135 million albums and raking in a record number of Grammy Awards for his generation. His relationship with Kim Kardashian that started in 2012 is one of the most widely covered on the planet. His repeated outlandish behavior and incoherent musical releases, as well as some of his lyrical content, were finally explained when West experienced hallucinations and bouts of paranoia at the end of 2016. He was admitted to psychiatric care in a Californian hospital and later diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Around fifteen years earlier, he was hospitalized having narrowly escaped death after being involved in a car accident. With his jaw wired shut and awaiting surgery, West conceived the title Through the Wire. This hugely successful track was the first single to solidify his status as an icon in the history of music.

Born in Atlanta to a former Black Panther father and university professor mother, West was raised by his mother in Chicago. He is as much a force of nature as he is an enigma. His albums are cathartic, provocative and aggressive containing both narcissistic statements and vivid manifestos; a first point of call for continual and passionate streams of reflections. At 20 years old, Kanye West dropped out of college in Chicago and produced several tracks for a local rapper. He worked in the shadow of super-producer D-Dot who at the time was the artistic director of Puff Daddys label, Bad Boy. West then worked as an in-house producer at Roc-A-Fella Records, the label founded by Damon Dash and Jay-Z. His widely acclaimed contribution to Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint (he produced four tracks including the first single Izzo (H.O.VA.)) established Kanye as a reputable beatmaker. Though West, who was then lending his know-how to names such as Nas, Scarface and Cam’Ron, was dreaming bigger: he wanted to be recognized as an individual artist in his own right and sign to a major label as a rapper.

First album and first masterpiece

After being rejected by the major label, Capitol, West finally sealed a contract with Roc-A-Fella who signed him out of fear of losing their star producer but could hardly imagine transforming a middle-class man into a rap star. “It was obvious we were not from the same place or cut from the same cloth”, explained Jay-Z to a Time journalist in 2006. “We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do get by. Then there’s Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn’t see how it could work.

Nevertheless, Kanye’s time would come after years of working on what would become his debut album, The College Dropout. The album, released on 10 February 2004, was a smash-hit. In the midst of the more dominant Gangster Rap, Kanye West’s storytelling touched millions of listeners, drawing inspiration from family, religion, and education and crafted a persona of a self-made man. His knack for cutting samples, his taste for luxurious strings and gospel choirs and his already well-established list of contacts (including Jay-Z, Ludacris, Common, and Mos Def) did the rest.

The first of his maximalist albums, Late Registration, was released little than a year later. Kanye West took on the role of a conductor leading an orchestra, utilizing all resources left at his disposal (and after the success of The College Dropout, such resources were plentiful) to create music of a baffling scale. West brought on Jon Brion – soundtrack composer for Paul Thomas Anderson and Michel Gondry and album producer for Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright – to organize and lead a string orchestra. He asked Jamie Foxx to cover Ray Charles’s Gold Digger, recorded scratches by his DJ A-Trak, requested a beat from Just Blaze (Touch the Sky), sampled countless artists (Bill Withers, Gil-Scott Heron, Shirley Bassey, Otis Redding) and has a harpsichord and celesta delivered to the studio. Kanye invited rappers who to him were intrinsically superior (Jay-Z, Common, Nas, Cam’Rom) but knew how to subject them to his authority. He also helped elevate the profile of the singer Adam Levine from Maroon 5 (Hard Em’ Say). The result was an album of rare ambition, that completely overturned the music scene and promised future greatness for Kanye.