At first, this rap song Gold Digger is about a girl who’s only interested in money, but then it’s about a girl who isn’t interested in money and gets ditched by her significant other when he gets some money. It’s Kanye’s proper induction into the Mainstream America canon, and it was a massive success. He only grew more powerful and more influential from there.
“‘Gold Digger’ is straight poetry. It uses profanity, and it’s fucked-up and funny. It’s so perfect and out of the park. I’d like to state this, and fuck whoever tells me I can’t word it out loud: ‘Gold Digger’ is one of the biggest songs of our lifetime.” —Kanye West, Playboy, 2006
“Gold Digger” is Kanye West’s single most successful song. It was nominated for two Grammys (Record of the Year; Best Rap Solo Performance) and won one (Best Rap Solo Performance). Billboard loves lists, and the list that they made for their All-Time Top 100 Songs put “Gold Digger” at number fifty-eight.
Also, the list they made for their Songs of the Decade for 2000–2010, it’s number nine on that one. VH1 picked it as the twentieth-greatest rap song ever, and that seems a tad overzealous, though I suppose a great amount of zeal is needed to create a show around Flavor Flav in a hot tub with an older-aged white woman with an aggressive haircut, so that makes sense.
“Gold Digger” was Kanye’s first top ten single ever, and it was number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 for ten weeks. Additionally, it jumped from number ninety-four up to number two on their Pop 100 chart and that was the biggest jump that’d ever occurred there. It also broke the record for most digital downloads in a week, as well as the fastest-selling digital download of all time. Its weight is true: Measured against other songs, it was the ninth most successful U.S. single of the 2000s.
Today we know Kanye to be a star. There is nothing odd about that, about his preening, about his fondness for his own self-fondness. But in the early aughts, after he’d produced four songs on Jay Z’s The Blueprint album working as a house producer for Jay’s Roc-A-Fella label, after he’d made clear his intent to ascend toward the sun, it was strange, particularly when he said he wanted to move into rapping.
He was a middle-class Chicagoan with then-upper-middle-class tastes who appeared to only be concerned with the existential crisis of his own existence. How can that sell, how can that play, how can that stand where Tupac and Biggie stood, where Jay and Nas were standing, where 50 Cent was standing, how can that be rap was the thought. Then his album The College Dropout came out.
And that’s what rap became. It sold more than 441,000 copies in its first week, and would go on to move four million worldwide. His second album, Late Registration, mimicked the sales and multiplied the acclaim. Its first single, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” was compelling, but it didn’t move like the label had hoped it would.
When “Gold Digger” popped, when it spread like it did, it was the official affirmation: The Kanye West experiment was no longer an experiment, it was a business model. It helped to revitalize sampling soul music, it stitched together pop music with themes generally attributable to the easily ignorable “conscious rap” quadrant (“Gold Digger” is secretly a clever examination of the effects money has on relationships), and it created a precedent for the larger-scale gazing he’d go on to do. Rap followed along right behind him.
Somehow, George W. Bush, the forty-third president of the United States of America, and Taylor Swift, a woman who one time sang about dressing ironically and eating pancakes at an inappropriate time of day, are tied together in history. It’s a bizarre Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon branch, only it’s not Kevin Bacon, it’s Kanye West.
The connection is a feat only an ego as massive as Kanye’s could orchestrate; a throbbing, pulsating ego so swollen and possessed of such gravitas that the time Kanye talked about one and the time he interrupted the other, events separated in real life by four years, are smudged together into one moment now, occupying the same pop time and pop space and pop infamy.
When Kanye talked about Bush, it was during a telethon for hurricane relief in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and it was part of a larger conversation he was having with himself on live TV, which is mostly either forgotten or ignored. He indicted himself on air first, saying he was guilty of turning the channel when the aftereffects of the catastrophe were shown on television, guilty of having gone shopping before considering giving a donation.
Mike Myers, who was on camera with him, was mortified, but he wasn’t entirely caught off guard—Kanye later told Playboy in an interview in 2006 that he hadn’t planned what he was going to say that day, and you can definitely see that as the clip plays and Kanye stumbles along, but he did know that he was going to say something, and so he let Myers know before shooting5 that he’d be going off-script.
Finally, after a bit of rambling, and after having steadied himself while Myers spoke his part, Kanye peeled away all layers of innuendo and implication and very plainly stated his thought: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
When Kanye interrupted Taylor, it was during her award acceptance speech at MTV’s Video Music Awards in 2009. He ran up there in protest, upset that she’d won for Best Female Video, more specifically that she’d won for Best Female Video over Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which Kanye described during his tiny tirade as “one of the best videos of all time.”
If you strip the sting away from its application, Kanye’s logic is actually very irrefutable: Beyoncé ended up winning the award for Video of the Year later that same evening. You can’t very well have the best video of the year between all the men and women together and somehow not have the best video among only the women.
Still, no matter, Kanye, a reputation for brashness and aggravation already long in place, became a pariah, became labeled a racist. Everything near him seemed to turn to ash, and even the new president, Barack Obama, was caught on camera calling him a jackass. Kanye made $25 million in 2009. In 2010, his earnings dropped to $12 million.8 The biggest ramification: Three weeks after The Interruption, West ended up canceling a tour he’d had planned with Lady Gaga, and while he never said it was because of what had happened at the VMAs, everyone understood that this was the cause.
The Bush thing and the Taylor thing are connected obliquely, but also directly.
When the Bush thing happened, that was the first proper large-scale Kanye controversy. In other circumstances—say, if it’d come after his first album, which was a triumph itself but had less of an echo outside of rap—it might’ve been enough to have disappeared him forever, to have had his fame swapped out for infamy.
But it came in the same month that “Gold Digger” had consumed America. The song was so big and so clever and so much wider than “just rap” that it couldn’t be discarded or denied or even disliked. It gave Kanye, at least at that moment, a tremendous amount of critical capital, and he leveraged all of it and then a tiny bit more.
And so what happened was the “Gold Digger”–to–George Bush moment was the first instance of separation between Kanye West the musician and Kanye West the personality, which became a key component of his professional identity, and probably his personal one, too, if he’s being truthful in the interviews he gives. When the Taylor thing happened, that was the widest the divide between the two sides was.
In Bush’s 2010 book, Decision Points, he described West’s public shaming of him as the lowest moment of his presidency, which certainly seems strange, given he (probably) fabricated a war motive and (probably) knew about the systemic torture of terrorism suspects that and (definitely) forgot how a door worked one time.
When Kanye was asked about Bush’s evaluation of the event, he connected it back to the Taylor Swift thing: “Well, I definitely can understand the way he feels, to be accused of being a racist in any way, because…the same thing happened to me, you know, where I got accused of being a racist.” It was the lowest moment of Kanye’s career.
There’s an easy joke to be made about Kanye taking a moment he created and reflecting it up against a separate moment he created. But sometimes that’s just what it is. It’s neat when things make a full circle like that.