Whether you know him as Ye, Yeezy, Mr. West, or the Louis Vuitton Don, you know Kanye West. He’s the well dressed rapper, wearing the clothes with logos and five hundred dollar shoes, spitting complex rhymes with intricate internal structures. He’s the outspoken one causing the commotion at the awards show. He’s the celebrity who is as loved as he is hated, his immense talent at odds with his crippling lack of impulse control.
We all know the persona that Kanye West puts out to the public: brash, overconfident, braggadocious, and practically sneering. He feeds off of all the publicity, positive, negative, or whatever, and it all just serves to pump up his image even further. But West is, if nothing else, incredibly smart. For all of the press that he gets, we ultimately only see what he wants us to see.
There is, of course, a lot more to this most polarizing of celebrities. Here are 20 things that you didn’t know about Kanye West.
1. Born in Atlanta in 1977, his given name is Kanye Omari West. Kanye is Swahili for “the only one,” and true to the moniker bestowed upon him, he was the only child of Ray and Donda West. His mother was an English professor at Clark Atlanta University, and his father was a Black Panther who worked as a photojournalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper. The family of three did not last long, though: Ray and Donda divorced when Kanye was just three years old, at which point West and his mom relocated to Chicago, where Donda was hired as a professor at Chicago State University.
2. West may not have been born in Chicago, but he was certainly raised there, and he makes it no secret. The Windy City features prominently in many of his lyrics, and he is perhaps the celebrity most associated with the city. So, it will probably come to a surprise to many of his fans to learn that West lived in China for a year when he was younger. His mother landed a position teaching at Nanjing University for a year through an exchange program, and she brought her ten year old son with her. While West admits that he forgot most of the Mandarin he learned there, it was nonetheless a formative experience for him.
3. West went to Polaris High School in Oak Lawn, Illinois, a suburb located southwest of Chicago. His artistic and painting skills were good enough to earn him a scholarship to attend the American Academy of Art in Chicago. He enrolled for a semester, but then quickly transferred to the University of Chicago and started taking English classes, perhaps in an attempt to follow in his mother’s footsteps. However, West realized pretty quickly that going to school was going to get in the way of making music, so even though he knew his mother wanted him to get a degree, he quit college a few years later. When it came time for him to drop his first album, he named it The College Dropout, after the mixed feelings he had about leaving school.
4. West’s chops as an MC have been well established, so it’s a little hard to believe that Roc-A Fella Records, helmed by Jay Z and Damon Dash was hesitant about signing him as a rapper. After earning his stripes as an all-star producer (he produced five of the 13 tracks on Jay Z’s seminal 2001 album The Blueprint), the Roc-A-Fella team wasn’t sure he would hold up as a rapper. After some deliberation, they gave West a shot, and clearly, it turned out to be the right decision.
5. There’s nothing like a near death experience to give a person motivation and a renewed sense of purpose, and West had a near death experience of his own in 2002. He was on his way home from the studio when he was involved in a serious car crash that nearly killed him. The accident left him with a smashed jaw, for which he required reconstructive surgery that included putting a metal plate in his chin and wiring his jaw together so it could heal. It was a tough blow to the budding MC — how do you rap when your jaw is wired shut? — but it didn’t stop him. While he was recovering in the hospital, he asked for an electronic drum machine so he could continue to work on tracks. He penned his first single “Through the Wire,” which was written about the experience, and even rapped the verses while his jaw was wired together. West’s lyrical cleverness, producing prowess, and true grit impressed everyone.
6. Most heterosexual males harbor fantasies about becoming an adult film star, but Kanye West has actually admitted that he was, at one point, interested in this line of work. He credits Alexis Phifer, his former fiance, for helping him to change his mind. Still, hints of West’s fascination with X rated films are in a lot of his work, most notably in the song “Hell of a Life” from his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album; on the track, he raps about marrying an adult star.
7. It was widely publicized that West’s mother Donda died in 2007 after complications from plastic surgery. West’s relationship with his mother was a strong one: she had stepped down from her position as a professor at the University of Chicago to be his manager for a little while, and on his 2005 album Late Registration, he included the song “Hey Mama” as a tribute to her. After her death, West struggled with his grief, but in 2012, he started his creative content and design company and named it DONDA in her memory.
8. West has made no secret that he feels he deserves accolades for his music; in “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” off 2005’s Late Registration, he raps about getting dressed up for the Grammy Awards and includes the lines, “I was sick about awards / Couldn’t nobody cure me / Only playa that got robbed but kept all his jewelry.” In reality, though, West has won lots of Grammys — 21 in all, putting him in tenth place with Jay Z for artist with the most of the golden gramophones.
9. West has received plenty of other recognition as well. On Rolling Stone magazine’s 2012 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, three of West’s efforts were included. He’s been called one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine twice: in 2005 and in 2015. Plus, in 2007, GQ magazine named him its International Man of the Year.
10. With 24 million followers, West’s Twitter account (@kanyewest) is the 43rd most followed on the entire social network. When he first joined in July of 2010, he quickly earned a reputation for unintentionally sending out hilarious tweets. (At least, we think they were unintentional.) A few gems: “Do you know where to find marble conference tables? I’m looking to have a conference… not until I get the table though” and “I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle.” Late night shows soon featured skits in which celebrities would do dramatic readings of some of the best of West’s tweets, and in 2011, Jimmy Kimmel even got internationally respected vocalist Josh Groban to put some of West’s tweets to music and sing them on his show.
11. West appears to be a big believer in collaborating with other great artists: there are featured rappers and singers on more than half of his tracks. And, he doesn’t just work with people in the hip hop and R&B community — he works with everyone. A few of the artists who have appeared on a Kanye West track include Lil Wayne, Pusha T, Alicia Keys, T-Pain, Fergie, Bon Iver, Chris Martin, RZA, Nicki Minaj, and even Elton John.
12. West is a fan of many genres of music. He has professed to being a fan of many artists, including Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple, Franz Ferdinand, David Bowie, Pharrell, Puff Daddy, Kendrick Lamar, John Legend, Bruno Mars, the Weeknd, A$AP Rocky, and many more. His diverse musical tastes may seem surprising at first, but given the wide range of artists that he’s sampled over the years, the diversity starts to make a lot of sense.
13. Kanye West: rapper, producer, travel agent? It sounds crazy, but in 2008, West launched a travel website called Kanye Travel Ventures, or KTV. The idea was to make it like another Expedia or Orbitz, where clients would get great prices on flights, hotels, car rentals, and more, but with more of a hip-hop feel. It was a time when West was trying to branch out and invest his money in some new places, and while KTV was well intentioned, it never really took off (pardon the pun). Now, if you go to the kanyetravel.com website, there’s nothing but spam.
14. In addition to being a producer and a rapper, West has also dabbled in acting. He was the lead in Runaway, the 35 minute film that accompanied My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, and he also had cameo roles in movies like Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and The Love Guru. Most notably, West played the role of original MTV VJ JJ Jackson in Anchorman 2. In fact, Will Ferrell was extremely complimentary of West’s professional demeanor and his love for comedy; apparently, West was so fascinated with the set that he stuck around for two days — much longer than his one scene required.
15. The paparazzi have been known to follow and even antagonize celebrities of all kinds, and West is no exception. Camera men (and women) follow him relentlessly, which takes a toll on the artist; sometimes, push literally comes to shove, and West gets in trouble. So yes, West does have a rap sheet, but all of his arrests have come as a result of some sort of altercation with the paparazzi. He was arrested twice in 2008, and then again in 2013, and while he has received probation, community service, and anger management counseling as a result of these incidents, he has never done any actual jail time.
16. West was sued in 2006 by none other than Evel Knievel. Apparently, the legendary daredevil did not like the daredevil character in West’s video for “Touch the Sky”: it was a little too similar to Knievel’s persona (West was Evel Kanyevel), and the legend did not like video’s gratuitous use of sexuality either. West countered with the defense that it was all satire and therefore protected under the First Amendment. However, the case never went to court: West visited Knievel, and the two were able to talk out the matter and resolve it among themselves. Just a few days later, Knievel died of pulmonary disease.
17. West is one of the few mainstream rappers who does not try to hide his religious or spiritual beliefs. He first put his feelings out there for the world to hear in “Jesus Walks,” one of the singles off his 2004 debut album The College Dropout. The song makes it pretty clear that West does have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but in recent years, he’s been more ambiguous about his spirituality. While he maintains that he believes in God, his thoughts about organized religion have become more negative, as West feels that it does more to separate and judge people rather than promote harmony.
18. While his outspoken persona may not suggest the heart of a philanthropist, West has demonstrated that his heart is indeed in the right place, even if his finances aren’t. He and his mother established the Kanye West Foundation in 2003, which focused on education, especially music education. Unfortunately, mismanagement caused the foundation to be shuttered in 2011. However, West has been active in several other charities, including Live Earth, World Water Day, Hurricane Katrina Relief, and a handful of others.
19. Will we ever see a President Kanye West? Well, maybe. During his acceptance speech for the Video Vanguard Award at the 2015 MTV VMAs, West capped off a rambling, eight minute speech with, “And yes, as you probably coulda guessed by this moment, I have decided in 2020 to run for president,” much to the delight of the crowd. As for whether or not it will actually happen, it’s anyone’s guess, as West admitted to being a little bit under the influence at the time, even admitting in his speech that before he got on stage, “I rolled up a little something. I knocked the edge off.” Oh Kanye.
20. How much is Kanye West worth? It depends on who you ask, though most experts put his net worth at around $145 million. He recently claimed that he was in $53 million worth of debt, though with all the money he has, and with his wife (Kim Kardashian worth about $85 million herself), we doubt he’ll be destitute anytime soon.