After His Near-Fatal Car Accident Inspired A Hit Record, Roc-A Fella’s Most Unlikely Hero Kanye West Is On A Mission To Resurrect Hip-Hop’s Soul. But Can This College Dropout Live UP To His Own Hype?

kanyeSourceCoverSoul Survivor

Words By: Thomas Golianopoulos

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Photographs By: Anthony Mandler

Chicago: September 2, 2002

Labor Day Weekend is one of the saddest times of year. Summer’s coming to a close and the first hint of autumn are already popping up. Nonetheless, families are strolling Lake Michigan’s shoreline enjoying the last three-day weekend before the little tykes head back to school. And over in the heart of the North Side, faithful Chicago Cubs fans cheer their hapless squad during a doubleheader with the Milwaukee Brewers. But in the nearby village of Tinley Park, Illinois, something special is brewing for another underdog from the Chi.

The Tweeter Center is the setting for the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour and one of the Windy City’s own is ready for the spotlight. Producer Kanye West is already signed to Roc-A-Fella Records as a solo artist, but the official announcement has yet to take place. Backstage, there’s a little more blunt-smoking than usual but Kanye isn’t partaking of it. Actually, the sheer amount of smoke is giving him a contact high. Rocking a crimson-and-white Team Canada warm up jacket, Mr. West is clashing with his Rocawear-and throwback-clad crew, which he’ll soon  join onstage.

Before Jay-Z’s headlining set winds down, Hov pulls Kanye aside, whispers in his ear and then hands him the precious mic. Kanye nods and then announces to the crowd: “I’m the newest member of the Roc-A-Fella team/ And I’ma make Dame and Hov mad more cream.” The audience is now roaring for their fellow Chicagoan. Damon Dash, the George Steinbrenner of Hip-Hop, places the platinum-and-gold Roc chain around Kanye’s neck and the union is complete. With confidence overflowing, Kanye is now eager to show off his lyrical prowess, which has been questioned by some. But according to him, he would have been better off calling it a night after getting chained.

“About six bars in, I’m completely bombing,” remembers Kanye almost two years later. “I was spitting a wack-ass rap and completely embarrassing the entire Roc-A-Fella staff to the point where I can imagine what the conversations were like on the tour bus.”

Though his tenure as a solo artist was off to an inauspicious start, Kan’ was determined to get his respect as an MC. Over the next 16 months, he would work tirelessly on his craft, and shamelessly promote himself as an artist to anyone with a pulse. Which brings us to…

Chicago: December 19, 2003

It’s tough to remain humble when Jay-Z shouts you out as a genius on a record. Luckily, Kanye is taking Hova’s “Lucifer” blessing in stride as he arrives at Chicago’s Prosser Career Academy High School for a surprise concert. “Every month, I seem less arrogant because I have accomplished something else I said I was going to do,” says the remarkably self-aware 26 year old. Before getting out of his rented minivan, he makes a prediction: “I think there will be one glimmering moment in time where I will be the No. 1 rap artist in the game.”

One this last Friday before Christmas, Kanye West is closer to fulfilling that prophecy than even he knows. His first single, “Through the Wire,” has gone from hometown hit to one of BET’s most-played videos, and at press time, “Slow Jamz,” a collaboration with Twista and Jamie Foxx, was on its way to becoming the No.1 song in the country. But no amount of radio spins or industry hubbub can compare to the love he’s about to receive.

His short walk to the high school’s entrance is disrupted by a teenage girl’s amorous catcalls from a second-floor window. Inside the building, security guards struggle to keep students from rushing into their morning assembly. However, the excitement stops when the inner-city school’s auditorium’s sound system crashes. Ain’t budget cuts a bitch? But Kanye still rips through rousing

Me breaking my mouth was like a parent hitting a shorty so he knows how to act. God was saying, ‘Kanye I’m about to give you the world. Don’t misuse it.’”

a cappellas of “Through the Wire”, “Slow Jamz” and “Champions.”