Kanye West Biography

Acclaimed and Controversial Hip-Hop Superstar

Kanye West
Photo by Theo Wargo / Getty Images

Kanye Omari West (born June 8, 1977) dropped out of college to pursue a career in rap music. After initial success as a producer, his career exploded when he began recording as a solo artist. Soon he became the most controversial and recognizable figure in hip-hop. His boasts about his talent have been backed up with a shower of acclaim for his musical achievement from both critics and his peers.

Early Years

Kanye West was born in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Ray West, is a former member of the Black Panther party and was one of the first Black photographers hired by the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution" newspaper. West's mother, Dr. Donda West, was a professor of English who retired from Chicago State University to serve as her son's manager until her death in 2007.  Kanye West's parents divorced when he was three years old. He moved with his mother to the Chicago, Illinois area and grew up in the Oak Lawn suburb.

West began explorations in the arts at an early age. He started to write poetry at age five and pursued an interest in drawing in third grade. He started rapping while in third grade as well and began writing his own works in seventh grade. While in high school, Kanye West became close friends with hip-hop producer No I.D. They entered a mentoring relationship as West's talents developed.

Production Success and Debut Album Breakthrough

At age 20, Kanye West dropped out of college fearing that his class schedule would disrupt the growth of his music career. In the midst of building a reputation as a top regional hip-hop producer in the mid-1990s, Kanye West joined a rap group called the Go-Getters. They released their only studio album "World Record Holders" in 1999.

In 2000, Kanye West began production work for Jay-Z's label Roc-a-Fella Records resulting in a significant music industry breakthrough. He was given credit for helping Jay-Z jumpstart a career that was starting to fade with 2001's critically acclaimed album "The Blueprint." West also produced recordings by a wide range of other artists including Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, and Ludacris.

Despite his production success, Kanye West longed to be a rap artist on his own. A near-fatal car accident in October 2002 was a crucial turning point. West came out of the hospital with his shattered jaw wired shut to facilitate reconstruction. With the jaw still wired shut, he recorded the song "Through the Wire," and its focus on his personal life gave Kanye West a direction for his debut album "The College Dropout."

After three postponements in release due to West's last-minute changes and adjustments to the recordings, "The College Dropout" finally landed in stores in February 2004. The album soared to #2 on the U.S. charts amid significant critical acclaim. Featuring the hit singles "Slow Jamz" and "Jesus Walks," the album sold more than three million copies and won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album while earning a nomination for Album of the Year.

Stardom and Controversies

Kanye West spent two million dollars and took over a year to put together his second studio album "Late Registration." One of his primary influences was the 1998 live album "Roseland NYC Live" by the British trip-hop group Portishead. He was impressed by the addition of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to the recording. West hired a string orchestra and collaborated with film score composer Jon Brion on multiple "Late Registration" tracks.

Released in August 2005, "Late Registration" hit #1 on the album chart and included the #1 pop hit single "Gold Digger." It sold more than two million copies by the end of the year. The triumph of the second album was tarnished somewhat by Kanye West's first major national controversy in September. He was selected to speak during NBC's televised "A Concert for Hurricane Relief" to benefit Hurricane Katrina survivors. He spoke alongside actor Mike Myers and deviated from the script. West's comment, "George Bush doesn't care about Black people," caused a national sensation. President George W. Bush later called hearing it one of the "most disgusting moments" of his presidency.

After touring for a year with the rock band U2 on their "Vertigo Tour," Kanye West decided to work on creating a more anthemic sound for his rap music. He turned to classic rock artists like the Rolling StonesLed Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan for inspiration. The result was his third studio album "Graduation." Released in September 2007, it sold nearly one million copies in its first week and debuted at the top of the album chart. It featured another #1 pop hit single "Stronger" which sampled the music of French electronic pop duo Daft Punk.

West didn't have long to celebrate his latest achievement before heartbreak hit. His mother Donda West died unexpectedly in November 2007. Her death profoundly affected the direction of Kanye West's music. Stating that he couldn't adequately express the range of emotion he felt through only rapping, Kanye began singing and using Auto-Tune technology to alter the tones. The result of his new experimentation was the melancholy album "808s and Heartbreak" released in November 2008. It included extensive use of the Roland TR-808 drum machine mentioned in the title and the pair of top 5 pop charting singles "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless."

The following year in August 2009 at the MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye West created the most significant controversy of his career. In the midst of Taylor Swift's speech accepting the award for Best Female Video, Kanye charged the stage, took the microphone, and stated that Beyonce's also-nominated video for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" was, "one of the best videos of all time." His behavior angered the music industry and music fans alike. In the wake of the incident, a planned tour with Lady Gaga was canceled.

Experimental Albums

After the MTV Video Music Awards controversy, Kanye West took a brief break from his music career before settling down in Hawaii to work on a new album. Working with a wide range of artists and producers, he created the sprawling musical epic "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." Released in November 2010, it received extensive critical acclaim and hit #1 on the album chart. The song "All of the Lights" earned a Grammy Award nomination for Song of the Year, and Kanye created a 35-minute mini-movie to accompany the song "Runaway."

Following collaboration with Jay-Z on the successful "Watch the Throne" album and concert tour, West began working on his sixth studio album in Paris. He deliberately decided to ignore commercial concerns and incorporated influences from a range of musical genres including Chicago's drill music, a form of trap, and industrial dance music. Just over two weeks before the planned release of the album, legendary rock and rap producer Rick Rubin was brought in to strip the music down to a more minimalist form. "Yeezus" appeared in June 2013 amid more positive critical reviews. It debuted at #1 on the album chart.

Following the birth of his first child and his marriage, Kanye West released "Only One," a collaborative single with Beatles legend Paul McCartney in December 2014. The pair collaborated with Rihanna for the top 5 pop hit single "FourFiveSeconds" released in January 2015. Another single "All Day" appeared in March, and Kanye announced that he was at work on his next album tentatively titled "SWISH."

After another title change and more delays, the album "The Life of Pablo" debuted on the Tidal music streaming service. After its release, Kanye West continued to alter the mixes of multiple tracks and stated that the album was, "a living breathing changing creative expression." "The Life of Pablo" became the first album to hit #1 based almost entirely on streaming.

Personal Life

After four years of dating off and on, Kanye West became engaged to designer Alexis Phifer in August 2006. However, the engagement ended in 2008 in the months following the death of Kanye's mother, Donda West. He dated model Amber Rose from 2008 through 2010. 

In April 2012, West began dating reality TV star, Kim Kardashian. They became engaged in October 2013 and married in May 2014 in Florence, Italy. The couple has three children, two daughters North and Chicago, and one son Saint. The West-Kardashian relationship is the ongoing subject of intense tabloid scrutiny.


Despite waves of controversy and tabloid publicity that would sink the careers of many celebrities, Kanye West remains one of the most acclaimed recording artists to emerge after the year 2000. Critics and fans alike have followed him into music that aggressively stretches the boundaries of contemporary hip-hop. He receives credit for steering the genre away from the predominance of gangsta rap toward music that is more personal and thoughtfully incorporates influences from a wide range of other music genres.

In addition to his musical success, Kanye West has proven himself to be an astute businessman and a significant voice in the fashion industry. Regardless of personal opinions about him, West always demands and receives maximum public attention for his latest artistic endeavors.

Top Songs

  • "Jesus Walks" (2004)
  • "Gold Digger" with Jamie Foxx (2005)
  • "Stronger" (2007)
  • "Love Lockdown" (2008)
  • "Runaway" with Pusha T (2010)
  • "All of the Lights" with Rihanna (2010)
  • "Niggas in Paris" with Jay-Z (2011)
  • "FourFiveSeconds" with Paul McCartney and Rihanna (2015)
  • "All Day" (2015)

Awards and Honors

  • Grammy Award - Best Rap Album - "The College Dropout" (2005)
  • Grammy Award - Best Rap Album - "Late Registration" (2006)
  • Grammy Award - Best Rap Album - "Graduation" (2008)
  • Grammy Award - Best Rap Album - "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (2012)
  • MTV Video Music Awards - Video Vanguard Award (2015)

Recommended Reading and Resources

  • Beaumont, Mark. Kanye West: God and Monster. Omnibus, 2015.