The petulant rapper

Kanye West's unique mix of bling and brains has ignited the pop charts as well as the careers of those he has touched, but he can also be a pain in the neck.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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Kanye West's unique mix of bling and brains has ignited the pop charts as well as the careers of those he has touched. But, as seen at last week's MTV video awards when he snatched the microphone from Taylor Swift, he can also be a pain in the neck. Stephen Dalton on a prickly egotist When President Obama branded rapper Kanye West a "jackass" for his one-man stage invasion at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York last Sunday, the throwaway insult must have cut deep. Not only has West been a highly vocal champion of Obama over the past two years, even performing at the incoming leader's Youth Inaugural Ball in January. But for a prickly egomaniac sensitive to even the slightest criticism, it is hard to imagine anything more humiliating than a public slap from the commander in chief.

Obama's leaked comment to a television news reporter was intended to be private, of course, but it hardly came as a surprise. The president has simply joined the growing army of critics, music fans, bloggers and YouTube satirists who find West's ego-bloated antics irritating. Indeed they are, but they also expose the Achilles heel of a 32-year-old all-rounder who has otherwise proved to be one of smartest and slickest operators of the past decade, with a cross-racial appeal and meteoric career path to rival that of the president himself.

Ironically, for once, the king of bling was not protesting on behalf of his own genius last Sunday but making a misguided stand for the soul-pop superstar Beyoncé Knowles against her teenage rival Taylor Swift. To her credit, Knowles looked aghast at his intervention and later invited Swift on to the stage with her. West, meanwhile, was virtually booed out of the building. This could easily have been a drunken one-off, a simple case of high spirits. Except that West has a long charge sheet of similar tantrums, mostly at awards ceremonies. The first came in 2004, when he walked out of the American Music Awards claiming he had been "robbed" after the country singer Gretchen Wilson won Best New Artist.

Shortly before the 2005 Grammy Awards, West warned the prize selection committee that "if I don't win Album of the Year, I'm really going to have a problem with that". Alas, U2 beat him to the punch. In 2006, at the MTV Europe Music Awards in Copenhagen, West stormed the stage in disgust after his Touch the Sky video lost out to We Are Your Friends by Justice Vs Simian. "This video cost a million dollars!" he fumed. "I had Pam Anderson! I was jumping across canyons!"

In September 2007, West ruffled more feathers by hinting that race might have been a factor in Britney Spears opening the MTV Video Music Awards instead of him: "Maybe my skin's not right," he grumbled. The rapper was already unhappy that he had been relegated to performing on the second stage, and left the ceremony in a boiling rage after failing to score a single prize from five nominations. Leaked backstage footage caught West in full steam-belching rant, insisting he would never play for MTV again.

Even beyond the brittle world of awards ceremonies, West's hair-trigger temper and super-sized ego have generated scandalous headlines. Occasionally his outbursts have struck a populist nerve, as in 2005, when he told a live US news network that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The comment stunned America, but briefly turned West into a folk hero for voicing what millions were already thinking.

But more often, he makes enemies rather than friends. West's blog has become his main outlet for settling scores, as in last year's rant against Pearl Jam and the Bonnaroo festival organisers for forcing him to cut his set short. Last September, in response to being arrested at Los Angeles airport following an altercation with a photographer, he loftily complained: "Let us not forget the paps killed Princess Diana." While filming a TV special earlier this year, he also made scathing comments about Radiohead for allegedly snubbing him at the Grammys. He then praised the disgraced Chris Brown and OJ Simpson.

In fairness, West issued public apologies for many of the outbursts above, as well as phoning Swift to privately say sorry for last week's rudeness. It is also fortunate that he happens to be one of the most prolific and creative pop innovators of his generation, otherwise history might remember him more for his thin-skinned tantrums than his music. He may be fatally lacking in humour and humility, but there is a strong argument that West's track record as a producer, performer and collaborator has been unequalled this decade.

West was raised in the bourgeois Chicago suburbs by his college professor mother Donda. His father Ray, a former Black Panther who is now a Christian marriage counsellor, left when he was three but they remain close. His musical ambitions were obvious from an early age - he made his first amateur recording at 13. After finishing high school in 1995, he persuaded his mother to let him drop out of English and art classes to try rapping and producing for a year.

Donda grudgingly agreed, and before long West was bringing home paycheques from superstars. His big breakthrough came when he produced several tracks for the hip-hop tycoon Jay-Z's groundbreaking 2001 album, The Blueprint. Their fruitful working relationship continues to this day, with West producing most of the Brooklyn heavyweight's latest release, The Blueprint 3. Jay-Z, of course, is married to Beyoncé Knowles.

West's production wizardry is grounded in meticulous, adventurous arrangements and wide-ranging musical tastes. Inspired by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, he built his signature style on a bedrock of high-pitched, speeded-up vocal samples from a vast range of sources - from Michael Jackson to Shirley Bassey, the Doors to Daft Punk. In addition to making his own eclectic and forward-thinking albums, West has also worked with the cream of pop and R&B royalty including Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Madonna.

Thanks largely to this open-minded approach, West has expanded the vocabulary of hip-hop and helped steer the genre firmly into the pop mainstream. For much of the 1990s, this music was stuck in a lucrative but lazy "gangsta rap" rut which forced performers like Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur to play down their college educations while adopting the perilous fantasy posture of millionaire street thugs. A more peaceful and thoughtful branch of hip-hop emerged, epitomised by Mos Def and Talib Kweli, but they were soon lumbered with the limiting label of "backpack rappers" because they mostly appealed to white suburban liberals.

But West's genius has always been in his ability to bridge urban and suburban, black and white, pop and underground, bling and brains into a uniquely appealing crossover formula that tops album charts and sells in the millions. In this respect, if no other, he paved the way for his fellow Chicago pluralist Barack Obama. As the rapper's former label boss Damon Dash told Time magazine in 2005: "He combines the superficialness that the urban demographic needs with conscious rhymes for the kids with backpacks. It's brilliant business."

With hindsight, West's career looks as though it emerged from a brilliant business strategy. He became an overnight sensation in 2004 when his debut album The College Dropout sold an extraordinary 441,000 copies in its first week, entering the US Billboard chart at No 2 on its way to triple platinum status. His three subsequent albums have all been rapturously received, critically and commercially.

But West's initial success was far from guaranteed, and came only after years of hustling lukewarm label bosses unwilling to believe that a preppy, middle-class academic's son could cut it as a rapper. "No joke," West recalled in Time, "I'd leave meetings crying all the time." In terms of armchair psychology, West's struggles to prove his credibility to his African-American peers may help explain some of his prickly, defensive outbursts in recent years. Maybe, behind that swaggering sense of superiority lurks a nagging inferiority complex that he is not quite real or street enough for rap's premier league. He certainly seems ambivalent about his place in hip-hop, telling the BBC radio host DJ Semtex last year that "I don't even listen to rap ... my apartment is too nice to listen to rap in." Ouch. Another classic Kanye clanger.

West may have had a comfortable upbringing by the ghetto-glorifying standards of gangsta rap, but his life has hardly been trouble-free. He cites a 2002 car crash that almost killed him as the catalyst that turned him from producer to performer. "Death is the best thing that can ever happen to a rapper," he said to Time. "Almost dying isn't bad either." In November 2007, West's mother Donda died of complications from cosmetic surgery. The traumatised rapper paid emotional tribute to her at the 2008 Grammy awards. Last week, when the US talk show host Jay Leno asked West how his mother would have reacted to the Taylor Swift incident, the motormouth rapper fell uncharacteristically silent.

"So many celebrities, they never take the time off," he said eventually. "I'm just ashamed that my hurt caused someone else's hurt." For once, West didn't sound like a puffed-up jackass. He sounded truly sorry. * The National