Most hip-hop producers-turned-MCs make the transition awkwardly and not entirely successfully. This makes Kanye West one of the genre's great anomalies. Along with OutKast, he is the most critically acclaimed hip-hop artist of the 2000s, and one of the best selling in any genre: his first album, 2004's The College Dropout, debuted at Number Two, while 2005's Late Registration and 2007's Graduation both debuted at Number One. Additionally, West's persona - a hardheaded striver who lusts after the good life but remains conflicted about it - was unique among mainstream hip-hop stars at a time when the playa/gangsta ethic exemplified by his mentor Jay-Z was predominant. Rather than pleading for street credibility, West's lyrics, like the man reciting them, are comfortable with their roots in middle-class suburbia and as a result communicate an honesty rare in any field.
West was born in Atlanta to Ray West, a photojournalist, ex-Black Panther and counselor, and Donda West, an academic. The couple divorced when Kanye was three, and Donda raised him during school years in Chicago's South Shore suburb. Kanye spent a year in college but dropped out to pursue a musical career. He began making hip-hop beats for local acts before moving on to placing tracks on Top Ten albums by Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown, and Lil' Kim.
West's big break came when West put together the beat for Jay-Z's "This Can't Be Life," from the Roc-a-Fella co-founder's 2000 The Dynasty: Roc la Familia album. The following year West handled production on a third of the 15 tracks on Jay-Z's The Blueprint (2001, Number One), including the smash "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" (2001, Number Eight) and the Nas dis track, "Takeover."
West's hot streak as a producer continued apace with his "chipmunk soul" style - sped-up vocal snippets of old R&B records - inspired, according to West, by the RZA's production for the Wu-Tang Clan and their associates. His signature sound helped make him one of the most in-demand producers. In the two-and-a-half years between The Blueprint and his own debut, West contributed tracks to two-dozen albums, among them: Cam'ron's Come Home with Me (2002); Talib Kweli's Quality (2002); Nas's The Lost Tapes (2002); T.I.'s Trap Muzik (2003); Beyoncé's Dangerously in Love (2003); Ludacris's Chicken-N-Beer (2003); The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003) featuring the smash "You Don't Know My Name" (2003, Number Three); Kamikaze, by fellow Chicagoan Twista, featuring the hit "Slow Jamz" (2004, Number One); and Jay-Z's The Blueprint 2.0: The Gift and the Curse (Number One, 2002) and The Black Album (Number One, 2003).
In the midst of this hubbub of activity, in October 2002, West was in a near-fatal car crash. He had to have his jaw wired shut and wrote the song "Through the Wire" (2004, Number 15) about it, rapping his lyrics (yes) through the wire. The track helped build the buzz for West's first album. After several delays, The College Dropout was issued on February 10, 2004 and yielded two more hits in "Jesus Walks" (2004, Number 11) and "All Falls Down" (2004, Number Seven). That year West won three Grammy Awards, including Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song ("Jesus Walks).
West continued making hits for others appearing on post-College Dropout cuts like Brandy's Talk About Our Love" (Number 36, 2004), Slum Village's "Selfish" (with John Legend; Number 55, 2004), and Common's "The Corner" (Number 42 R&B, 2005). Additionally, he produced all but two of the songs on Common's 2005 album Be (Number Two), and signed R&B singer John Legend to his Getting Out Our Dreams (GOOD) label.
West's second album, Late Registration, was issued August 30, 2005, and went straight to Number One, producing several more hits: "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" (Number 43, 2005), "Gold Digger" (Number One, 2005), "Touch the Sky" (Number 42, 2005), and "Heard 'Em Say" (Number 26, 2005). Controversy ensued three days after the album's release when, during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief on NBC, West went off script: "I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says they're looting. If you see a white family, it says they're looking for food . . . George Bush doesn't care about black people." His statement caused an uproar and the television network issued an apology. (West's utterance was later sampled into a scorching anti-Bush song by rappers the Legendary K.O., "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People," which utilized West's rhythm track from "Gold Digger.") Late Registration went on to win the Best Rap Album Grammy Award.
West garnered headlines in early 2006, when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns in a shot inspired by the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ. After concentrating on producing albums by John Legend (Once Again) and Common (Finding Forever), live performance (with a DJ, live drummer, backing singers, and string section accompanying him), West announced his third album, Graduation, to be issued September 11, 2007 - the same date as 50 Cent's Curtis, prompting a rivalry between the MCs. 50 Cent swore he would stop making music if he didn't outsell Kanye, which he didn't: Graduation sold nearly a million copies its first week (an increasingly rare event in the mid-2000s) and maintained a consistent chart presence thanks to the singles "Stronger" (Number One, 2007), "Good Life" (Number Seven), and "Can't Tell Me Nothing" (Number 41).