At the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, Nicki Minaj sparred with Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber cried on stage, and Taylor Swift and Minaj, who had been warring, hugged on stage.
But the show stopper was the speech that Kanye West delivered when he received the Video Vanguard Award.
Just as rumors that swirled all week suggested, Taylor Swift presented him with the award. Anyone who was expecting a standard acceptance speech from him didn’t get it, nor should they have expected one.
Instead of the standard “I’d like to thank my vocal coach” fare, the TV audience and those in attendance at the the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles were treated to 10 minutes of free-form rambling, thanks in part to marijuana that West said he had smoked backstage “to get the edge off.”
West closed it out with the news that he will run for president in 2020. Then he dropped the microphone and darted offstage, and with that, the Kanye West brand took another step forward.
All six of West’s albums have gone platinum, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and he’s logged 22 top 10 singles on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. That’s an impressive stretch by any standard, but becoming a brand takes more than just selling a lot of records, something that the Chicago rapper seems to have understood from the outset.
West’s music has been just one piece of what makes him a brand. He’s distinguished himself in the “business” part of the music business, and made legitimate inroads in fashion, television and philanthropy. He’s also understood the importance of media attention – good or bad. All of these things have helped him keep the brand out there. After all, even if you hate him and can’t wait for him to go away, you still know his name.
Here’s a look at a few of the things that have kept the Kanye West brand name in the headlines since he first emerged.
The recording artist
Kanye West produced his 2004 debut album, “The College Dropout,” by himself, and it sold over 3 million copies according to Billboard. While he likely got some “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” advice from the well-meaning, he did the opposite and enlisted Fiona Apple producer Jon Brion to act as co-producer instead. Brion had no prior experience in hip-hop production either, which heightened the riskiness of the choice.
“It was completely apparent that he was open to investigating new ideas,” Brion told MTV. The result, 2005’s “Late Registration,” sold over 3 million copies in the US, according to the RIAA. He changed the musical direction again on 2007’s “Graduation,” and while it sold less than its predecessors, 2 million copies isn’t exactly bad. More importantly, it let fans know that he wasn’t the type of artist to play it safe.
The clothing designer
West had been talking about designing clothing since 2005, but it was 2011 when he finally made his runway show debut with the DW Kanye West collection at Paris Fashion Week, and critics hated it. In a 2011 article titled “Stick to the day job, Kanye West,” Lisa Armstrong wrote in the UK’s Telegraph that his collection was “rap with a capital C” and compared it to “being subjected to an hour-long MRI scan.”
With reviews like that, it would have been understandable if West had decided to lay low. Instead, he went right back Paris Fashion Week the next year, and while The Telegraph was not much more enthusiastic about this collection, they conceded that it was not a “hit with a capital S.” Meanwhile, his track record with footwear is another matter entirely. His Yeezy Boosts, a limited edition shoe that he made for Adidas, sold out of all 9,000 pairs just minutes after going on sale in 2015.
Many Americans’ first encounter with Kanye West was in September 2005, when he appeared on NBC’s “A Concert for Hurricane Relief,” to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. West abandoned the comments he was supposed to read off the teleprompter and uttered seven words that made him a household name — “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
West’s other forays into charity brought less publicity, but were no less significant. He co-founded Donda’s House, which provides arts and music instruction to youth in poor communities. He also sits on the Board of Directors, and in May 2015 he made a donation of $133,000 to the foundation to make up for funding it had lost as a part of the austerity measures put in place by Governor Bruce Rauner to address the state’s $1.5 billion budget deficit.
The family man
Kanye West is married to Kim Kardashian, who’s put him in front of people he might not have reached on his own. During its 2010 peak, 4.7 million people watched her E! reality show, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and though the show draws less than half that number today, it made her an established brand in her own right, not to mention a net worth of $53 million. This makes West part of a celebrity power couple, and brings his brand further cachet.
She and West have a daughter together named North, and she’s already getting attention as a high-end luxury baby. The Huffington Post reported that on Christmas 2014, her parents bought her a $62,000 diamond-encrusted tiara, so maybe if she goes to play at the home of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, she won’t feel underdressed when Blue Ivy produces her $80,000 diamond-encrusted Barbie to play with.
The controversial figure
Kanye West’s status as a brand was solidified on September 13, 2009 at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Singer Taylor Swift had won the award for Best Female Video, so West went on stage while she was speaking, took the microphone from her and proclaimed Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video “one of the best videos of all time.” Singer Pink called him “the biggest piece of s**t on earth,” President Obama called him a “jacka**,” and meme sites sprang up to offer variations on the event.
West later apologized and all parties involved eventually got on with their lives. Taylor Swift, in fact, has gone on to have a nice little career of her own despite the incident. But while West would never have reached the heights he has without the talent to back it up, the incident proves that West also knows the value of trash talking, bad publicity and being it in the right place at the right time.
Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.