The Top 34 Moments That Shaped Kanye West (Also: Happy Birthday, Yeezy!)


Today is Kanye West‘s 34th birthday, and while we would be happy to praise our favorite controversial artist to high heaven, we’re sure no amount of laudation would be enough for the notoriously immodest West. So we decided to take a different approach: pinpointing the 34 moments that shaped Kanye. Some shaped his life; some shaped his persona; some shaped the way he’s seen. All of them either have found or will find their way into his highly personal music. Happy birthday, Yeezy!

DATE: June 8, 1977
EVENT: Kanye West is born
It wouldn’t be Kanye’s birthday if he hadn’t been born thirty-four years ago today, in Atlanta, where his parents settled after they both finished graduate school.

DATE: August 28, 1980
EVENT: Kanye’s parents, Ray And Donda, divorce
In her memoir Raising Kanye, Donda West recalls that, to her mind, her husband Ray was putting his new photography studio ahead of his own family, so she filed for divorce and full custody of young Kanye. Two weeks after the divorce was final, Kanye and his mother left Atlanta for Chicago. Imagine the life he might have led had he grown up in Atlanta!

DATE: 1992 or 1993
EVENT: Kanye meets No I.D.
Chicago producer No I.D. says in an interview that Kanye was only 14 when he began coming to the studio while No I.D. was producing. This is probably a bit of an exaggeration, to indicate how annoying a young Kanye probably was at first, especially since No I.D. invited West at their mothers’ behest (Donda West and No I.D.’s mother met at Chicago State University where the former taught and the latter studied). Kanye was certainly there by sixteen, because he witnessed much of the production of Common’s second album, Resurrection.

DATE: 1997
EVENT: Kanye drops out of Chicago State University
Despite getting good grades in high school, Kanye lost interest in what a college education had to offer him, especially as he started to make his name as a producer, crafting the majority of Grav‘s 1996 album Down to Earth. He would later encourage other students to stay in school, recalling the struggles he had after dropping out: “When I dropped out of school I had worked in the music industry and had checks cut in my name from record labels and had a record deal on the table, and when I wasn’t successful and Columbia said, ‘We’ll call you,’ I had to go back and work a telemarketing job, go back to the real world, and that’s how life is. Life is hard. Take advantage of your opportunities.”

DATE: 1999-2001
EVENT: Kanye produces for Roc-A-Fella Records
After making “five beats a day for three summers,” as he would later rap on “Spaceship,” Kanye scored his first big hit with Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth,” recorded in 1999, released in February 2000, and peaking at #23 on the Hot Rap Singles Chart. Then Jay-Z brought Kanye on board for “This Can?t Be Life” (featuring Beanie Sigel & Scarface) on 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, and they hit it off, leading to five collaborations on 2001’s The Blueprint, including megahits “Takeover” and “I.Z.Z.O. (H.O.V.A.).” Earlier that year, Kanye had still been sending out beat tapes on spec; by the end of the year, he was inside the Roc-A-Fella camp and well on his way. Just Blaze recalled on a Hypemen podcast that even this early in his career, Kanye was determined to become a rapper: “He would rap any opportunity he got to anyone who would listen,” even waitresses.

DATE: October 23, 2002
EVENT: The Car Accident
Kanye West was driving home from a studio in Los Angeles at 3 a.m. in a rental car when he sustained a serious car accident, fracturing his jaw, just two weeks after being announced as Roc-A-Fella’s newest signee. His jaw would be wired shut for weeks.

DATE: September 30, 2003
EVENT: Kanye starts the Kanye West Foundation
Kanye catches a lot of flack from his detractors (and sometimes, rightly so) for being self-centered and egomaniacal. However, his charity efforts are almost always overlooked, including the Kanye West Foundation, which was founded to help combat high school dropout rates. However, this charity “mysteriously” (the NYT’s phrase, not ours) closed in April, 2011.

DATE: September 30, 2003
EVENT: Kanye releases “Through the Wire”
Within a month of his car accident, Kanye was back in the studio, furiously spitting comic verses about his accident and recovery, both literally and as a metaphor for his career. Those lyrics, rapped while his jaw was still wired shut, would not surface until almost a year later, as the lead single from his forthcoming debut album. The song would peak at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100, and stay there for four more weeks.

DATE: February 10, 2004
EVENT: The College Dropout is released
Following the success of “Through the Wire” and “Slow Jamz,” Kanye released his debut album The College Dropout, with additional singles released later that month (“All Falls Down”) and then in May (“Jesus Walks”). The album would go platinum on April 6 and double platinum on June 30 of that year.

DATE: 2004
EVENT: Kanye founds G.O.O.D. Music
Buoyed by the success of his debut, Kanye founded his own boutique record label, G.O.O.D. (an acronym for “Getting Out Our Dreams”), immediately signing recent discovery John Legend and longtime friend Common. Its first release would be John Legend’s Get Lifted on December 28, 2004, through Sony. Common’s collaborator and Kanye’s mentor No I.D. would ultimately be named president of G.O.O.D.

DATE: November 11, 2004
EVENT: Kanye walks out of the American Music Awards
West was nominated for Breakthrough Artist opposite Maroon 5 and Gretchen Wilson. When Wilson won, West stormed out, but not before stopping to tell reporters backstage, “I feel I was definitely robbed… I was the best new artist this year.” He later apologized for the outburst, but not for its message, after winning Best Rap Artist at the Billboard Awards: “I was raised better than that. It was very ignorant. I apologize to my role models [including] Denzel Washington, who had to sit in that [Oscar] seat and take it so many years.”

DATE: February 13, 2005
EVENT: Kanye wins three Grammys
Despite the American Music Awards slight, the awards shows were largely a victory lap for Kanye, who was riding high on the success of The College Dropout (and felt he deserved at least as many awards as he received). At the 47th Annual Grammy Awards, West won three trophies (Best Rap Song: “Jesus Walks”; Best Rap Album: The College Dropout; Best R&B Song: Alicia Keys’s “You Don’t Know My Name”).

DATE: July 2, 2005
EVENT: Kanye proclaims that AIDS is a “man-made disease”
During the Philadelphia stop of multi-national Live 8 concert, Kanye seized the moment to espouse his conspiracy theory that AIDS was “placed in Africa just like crack was placed in the black community to break up the Black Panthers” (a theory he also referenced in “Heard ‘Em Say”). He understandably caught a lot of flack for voicing these beliefs, but not nearly as much as he would draw just two months later…

DATE: August 28, 2005
EVENT: Kanye takes home the Best Male Video VMA for “Jesus Walks”
Yeezy landed in Miami with even more swagger than LeBron James did last summer during “The Decision.” After playing the petulant card at awards shows past (see: his AMA crybaby fit), this time around, he was finally able to taste what it’s like to be a winner at MTV. (His performance of “Gold Digger” with Jamie Foxx was pretty outstanding, too.)

DATE: September 2, 2005
EVENT: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Eek! During a televised benefit to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims, ‘Ye stunned audiences internationally — not to mention his co-presenter Mike Myers — when he emotionally proclaimed, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Much like his “AIDS is a man-made disease” comment, Kanye proved himself to be fearless enough to voice sentiments that a lot of people in the African-American community felt strongly about. Bush would later go on to describe the moment as his “all-time low” as President.

DATE: January 24, 2006
EVENT: Kanye poses as Jesus Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone
After pissing off huge swaths of Americans with his controversial comments on AIDS and George Bush’s lack of fondness for black people, Mr. West then pissed off the powerful religious right by posing with a thorn of crowns on his head on the cover of the most-read music magazine in the world in a cover story called “The Passion Of Kanye West.” He didn’t address the statements he made about Bush directly, but his statement to the mag that “My misery is your pleasure” pretty well sums up how Kanye felt how he was treated by the media in the wake of the Katrina controversy. (He also talked at length about his addiction to pornography, a theme that would later resurface on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, particularly on the track “Hell Of A Life.”)

DATE: February 15, 2006
EVENT: Kanye wins Best International Male at the BRIT Awards
Since his release of The College Dropout, Yeezy has been consistently praised by music critics. However, it took him a few years to win accolades at awards shows, but his stunning 3-song performance this night was the highlight of this event. Here’s how The Guardian described it: “The most remarkable thing about Kanye West is that he really is as good as he thinks he is. His three-song set has everything the rest of the night has lacked: wit, drama, flamboyance, an orchestra, a harp (a harp!), and a parade of bikini-clad women spray-painted gold. If you had to explain to somebody why pop music is worth getting implausibly excited about, despite ample James Blunt-shaped evidence to the contrary, then just sit them down and watch this.”

DATE: August 26, 2007
EVENT: Kanye makes a cameo on Entourage
Frankly, we’re surprised (and delighted!) that Kanye hasn’t been distracted by the acting bug. The producers of Entourage did well by giving him the part he was born to play: Himself.

DATE: 2006
EVENT: launches
One of the best blogs ever to exist, Kanye UniverCity gave unfiltered access to Kanye’s one-of-a-kind brain. Whether it was video of Kanye playing Connect Four with Beyoncé or any number of stream of consciousness rants he posted, his decision to show off his personal side in blog form won him undying devotion from a new generation of social media nerds and superfans alike.

DATE: September 11, 2007
EVENT: Kanye and 50 Cent both release new albums on the same day
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems almost silly that Kanye and Fiddy were once considered to be equals in the rap game. However, at the time, there was genuine doubt as to which would reign supreme at the record store when both Graduation and Curtis were released on the same day. The two (wisely) manufactured a lot of hype in their projects by engaging in some imitation beef, but at the end of the week, both artists were smiling: Kanye sold 957,000 copies of his LP, while 50 moved 691,000.

DATE: November 11, 2007
EVENT: Kanye’s mom, Dr. Donda West, dies at 58
Kanye’s world was shattered when his beloved mom passed away due to complications resulting from plastic surgery; according to an autopsy report found on The Smoking Gun, she underwent breast reduction, a tummy tuck and liposuction concurrently. This tragedy would go on to have a profound effect on not only West’s career, but also his personal life.

DATE: April 21, 2008
EVENT: Kanye breaks off his engagement to Alexis Phifer
Still reeling from the death of his mother, Kanye broke off his year-and-a-half engagement with designer Alexis Phifer, a move which would go on to inspire most of the material on his stark 808s and Heartbreak LP. The two had been a pair since 2002, but split while Kanye was prepping his Glow In The Dark tour.

DATE: June 15, 2008
EVENT: Kanye nearly booed off stage at Bonnaroo
One of the biggest debaucles in Kanye’s performing career was when he brought his much-hyped Glow In The Dark tour to Bonnaroo. Kanye was booed mercilessly by the hippies in attendance when he missed his 2:45 a.m. (!!!) set time by over two hours. He went on to blame Pearl Jam for his tardiness, claiming that they played an hour longer than they were supposed to, but reports have them getting off stage at 1:15 a.m.

DATE: November 25, 2008
EVENT: 808s and Heartbreaks is released
Taking a sharp, emo turn from his previous, more rappity-rap-focused work, Kanye put down the mic and picked up the auto-tuning vocoder?to help deliver a pop album that, despite its unfamiliar sound, still wound up destroying the charts.

DATE: February 28, 2009
EVENT: Kanye Narrates His VH1 Storytellers
Adding to a list of celebrated artists before him, Kanye boarded a spaceship? took to the Storytellers stage to perform and explain the inspiration behind songs from then-current album,?808s.

DATE: April 4th, 2009
EVENT: The Air Yeezy Sneaker Becomes Available For Purchase
Hype had been building for almost a year, and through a collaboration with Nike, Kanye finally released?his first?line of kicks. With the Air Yeezy 2 on the way, this?union of of leather and lyricist could arguably only be in its infancy.

DATE: September 13, 2009
EVENT: The Taylor Swift Incident
Even your grandmother knew this happened, and frankly, we can’t imagine who or what Kanye would be if it didn’t. A spike in his already-chaotic behavioral history, this inebriated “shot” was truly heard ’round the world.

DATE: January 31, 2010
EVENT:Blacklisted From The Grammys?
Still on punishment from interrupting an innocent blonde teenager at the VMAs, Kanye’s absence was strongly felt when Lil Wayne, Eminem, and Drake performed “Forever” without him.

DATE: July 28, 2010
EVENT:Kanye Joins Twitter
Sending the Twitterverse into an unfettered frenzy after his first tweet, Yeezy managed to harness the medium and amass what is now?nearing four-million followers. Earlier this year, Kanye received every nomination for Best Tweet at the O Music Awards. (Oh, and if you’re not following @kanyewest, what’s your problem?)

DATE: August 20, 2010
EVENT: G.O.O.D. Fridays Are Born
Like his use of Twitter, Kanye developed a clever strategy to help promote his album release by liberating feature-stacked tracks and sharing them weekly with his fans.

DATE: September 12, 2010
EVENT: Kanye Returns To The VMAs
On stage with only his MPC at first, Kanye premiered “Runaway,” the second single off of My Dark Twisted Fantasy. Joined soon by a salmon-blazer-wearing Pusha T and an army of aceful ballerinas, Kanye made it clear that his intention was to comeback in peace.

DATE: October 17, 2010
EVENT: Album Art From My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Banned From Retailers
George Condo’s partially nude portrait stirred-up quite a bit?of controversy and was forbidden from certain retailers, forcing ‘Ye to use alternate album covers in stores.

DATE: October 23, 2010
EVENT: His short film, Runaway, premieres
Although the?work had already been screened exclusively in few cities around the world, Kanye premiered his 35-minute mini film on-air and online for mass consumption. Laced with vibrant colors and powerful imagery, the film spawned many questions about Kanye’s vision and mental state.

DATE: April 2011
EVENT: Coachella Gets a The MBDTF Treatment
Recreating aesthetics from the recent project’s videos and previous elaborate performances, Mr. West brought both a sick set list and his best efforts to the festival circuit. Game, Blouses.

DATE: June 2, 2011
EVENT: Kanye Performs at Gil Scott-Heron?s Memorial
Paying his respects to one of hip hop’s most highly influential musicians and spoken-word artists, Kanye took on the duty to perform “Lost in the World” at Riverside Church services last week in Harlem. A perfect fit, since the outro of the song, which is listed on the album as “Who Will Survive In America?”, samples lines from the Heron’s popular poem, “Comment #1.”

(Written by Mark Graham, Nick Minichino and Lacey Seidman)

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