Kanye West, the rapper, fashion designer, and self-proclaimed genius, has in recent years become a lightning rod for controversy as he increasingly embraces a new role: disruptor.
West’s rap career broke through after a car crash that shattered his jaw and spawned his debut album’s lead single, “Through the Wire,” but his early fame came with lofty highs — winning the Best Rap Album Grammy for his first three albums — and sharp lows, such as the death of his mother and dissolution of his engagement.
West, though, has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind — his declaration that President Bush did not care about black people painted him as music’s most uncompromising artist — but at some key points along the way, he started behaving in a way that has tested the patience of even his most diehard fans. In fact, after his latest heightened antics in support of President Trump, many have stood firm in abandoning the outspoken rapper.
Here’s a look at key moments along West’s path into controversy.
West Interrupts Taylor Swift At MTV’s Video Music Awards (Sept. 13, 2009)
The moment many credit as being when West became truly divisive on an international level was in September 2009 at MTV’s Video Music Awards. The rapper stormed the stage to interrupt Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, saying Beyoncé was more deserving. The ensuing outrage prompted him to go on an apology tour, including on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to explain himself. West said in his recent interview with Charlamagne tha God that he still sees the VMA moment as the turning point where the amount of radio play he got took a nosedive.
DW Kanye West Debuts At Paris Fashion Week (Oct. 1, 2011)
Somewhat unexpectedly, West announced his first high-fashion line for women, DW Kanye West, would premiere at Paris Fashion Week. West had already been hailed as a fashion influencer at the time, so most titans of the fashion world, like Azzedine Alaïa and Anna Wintour, were in attendance — but critics were not very kind to the line partially named after his late mother, Donda West.
West Leaves Nike For Adidas (Dec. 3, 2013)
2013 was the year West began his battle to be recognized in the corporate world. His album Yeezus was him at his most anti-establishment with songs like “New Slaves,” but the impetus really can be pinpointed to his frustration with Nike for only being interested in his name, not his ideas. By the end of the year, West had moved over to Adidas.
Kanye West And Kim Kardashian Land The Cover Of Vogue (March 24, 2014)
When West and Kim Kardashian began dating in 2012, it was a match made in headline-grabbing heaven. West has referred to himself and his eventual wife as “walking performance art.” But while he was able to break into the world of high fashion, his reality star girlfriend was still an alleged fashion week pariah. That all changed when West and Kardashian were engaged and appeared on the cover of American Vogue.
It was a controversial move by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who was friends with West but was rumored to detest Kim Kardashian. There was a whole movement of subscribers who threatened to cancel over the cover as critics accused the magazine of losing all credibility by including a Kardashian on fashion’s most important magazine cover.
Kanye West’s Laptop Is “Stolen” (March 11, 2015)
It all started when one of West’s regular collaborators, Malik Yusef, tweeted about the rapper’s laptop being stolen in Paris. The theft appeared to be confirmed when West’s song “Awesome” leaked soon after, and there were rumors of leaked sex videos and extortion. However, a spokesperson for West told the New York Times he never was without possession of the laptop. Cut to 2016, when West confirmed on his song “Real Friends” that it was his cousin who had the computer and gave it back in exchange for $250,000.
Twitter Feud With Wiz Khalifa (Jan. 27, 2016)
After releasing Yeezus, West was sporadic on Twitter, posting stream-of-consciousness thoughts about in-app purchases and what to name his upcoming album. But when he tweeted about naming the album Waves, rapper Wiz Khalifa — who just so happened to have a child with West’s ex Amber Rose — took offense to the idea, saying West was not giving proper credit to incarcerated rapper Max B, who popularized “wave” and “wavy” in rap.
West then zoned in on one of Khalifa’s tweets mentioning “KK,” which he took as his wife’s initials, and began a Twitter tirade about how he owns Khalifa’s child with Amber Rose because he dated her first.
The “KK” ended up standing for Khalifa Kush, Wiz Khalifa’s brand of weed, and eventually the rappers somewhat patched things over.
The “Bill Cosby Innocent” Tweet (Feb. 9, 2016)
In promoting his upcoming album The Life of Pablo, West shared a new single on New Year’s Eve 2015 called “Facts,” in which one of the lyrics asks: “Do anybody feel bad for Bill Cosby? / Did he forget the names just like Steve Harvey?”
While the lyrics allude to skepticism about Cosby’s case, West would go on to tweet “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” without any context, angering fans who took it as West defending the comedian against a tidal wave of sexual assault accusations.
Cosby would eventually be found guilty of drugging and raping a woman at his Pennsylvania home in 2004, and sentenced to three to 10 years in prison.
“Famous” Debuts (Feb. 11, 2016)
West’s third fashion show for Adidas doubled as his album listening party. Being at Madison Square Garden in New York City during fashion week opened it up to many celebrities in attendance to hear the lyrics, “For all my Southside niggas that know me best / I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.”
Celebrities like Gigi Hadid who were members of Swift’s “squad” took offense to the lines. West tweeted that it was Swift who OK-ed the lyric, but Swift denied ever doing so and used her Grammy acceptance speech for Album of the Year to call out West for implying he’d been responsible for her fame.
West Tweets He Is $53 Million In Debt (Feb. 15, 2016)
After West’s album had already started streaming, he posted on social media that he was $53 million in debt. He explained he was spending more of his own money than he could afford on his creative ventures and needed someone with more money to invest in his genius. He began campaigning for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to invest $1 billion in his creative ventures, but he did so on Twitter, one of Zuckerberg’s corporate competitors.
Kanye West Releases The “Famous” Music Video (June 24, 2016)
West used his art to continue fanning the flames around his relationship with Swift. His music video for “Famous” depicts him and his wife nude on a bed next to naked wax figures of Swift, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Ray J, Amber Rose, Caitlyn Jenner, and Bill Cosby.
West said the video was a commentary on fame, but some celebrities, including Swift and Ray J, took issue with the depiction of their naked bodies without their consent, a notion also reflected in some of the public reaction to the music video.
Kim Kardashian Snapchats Footage Of Taylor Swift Approving Kanye West’s “Famous” Lyrics (July 17, 2016)
In a cover story for GQ, Kardashian shared that she was hurt by Swift lying to the media about her husband and that there was video proof of the phone call where Swift approved the controversial lyrics to “Famous.”
Swift maintained that she had not known about the content of the song, but the same night as the Keeping Up With the Kardashians episode depicting Kardashian-West’s cover story premiered, the reality star posted video on her Snapchat of West on the phone with Swift getting her approval on the lyrics about them still possibly having sex and that he made her famous.
The only rebuttal left for Swift was that she did not know she’d be referred to as “that bitch.”
Yeezy Season 4 Fashion Show Disaster (Sept. 7, 2016)
Many had already taken offense to the Yeezy Season 4 casting call calling for “multiracial women only” — implying the exclusion of dark-skinned black women — but when the show finally happened, a different issue arose when West forced editors to travel to New York's Roosevelt Island, far off the beaten path of the rest of the fashion week calendar and therefore ensuring attendees would be missing out on more competing shows.
The show ended up being hampered by blistering heat and models baking in the sun and looking lethargic on the runway. At least one of them fainted. At the most extreme, fashion writers felt West had stolen all their time just to force them to watch him torture his models.
Kim Kardashian Is Robbed In Paris During Kanye West’s Festival Set (Oct. 2, 2016)
It all started when West abruptly left his huge Meadows Festival set due to a family issue. Then international news broke that his wife, who was in Paris for fashion week, had been robbed in her hotel room at gunpoint.
West immediately met Kardashian in New York and lay low for a while. He eventually returned to his obligations with the Saint Pablo tour.
West Ends Saint The Pablo Tour Early After Episodes Where He Supported Trump and Bashed Jay-Z (Nov. 19, 2016)
West had already been receiving criticism for his Saint Pablo tour becoming more about his “rants” than his music, but it hit a peak when he stated that had he voted in the recent 2016 election, he would have voted for President-elect Donald Trump.
At the next concert, he also hinted at support for Trump criticizing Hillary Clinton, and called out his friend Jay-Z for allegedly not calling after his wife was robbed.
West’s Saint Pablo tour would end a week later after the rapper was put on psychiatric hold. He was then sued by his insurance company for ending the tour early, but the lawsuit was settled in early 2018.
West Meets Trump (Dec. 13, 2016)
West found controversy again when he met the president-elect at Trump Tower to discuss what he says were multicultural issues. However, many felt it was a transparent attempt by Trump to reach the black community and were angry at West for playing into the gesture.
West Returns To Twitter To Share Philosophy (April 13, 2018)
West returned to Twitter mid-April, initially to accuse Nike of copying one of his designs. But he also followed up by announcing his social media account would act as his rumored philosophy “book.”
What first felt innocuous turned into yet another controversy after he tweeted support for black conservative YouTube personality Candace Owens. West also started tweeting about the merits of free thought, connecting it to his support of Trump, but many of his followers felt he was deliberately ignoring any arguments against the president without educating himself on current issues.
West’s TMZ Interview Goes Haywire (May 1, 2018)
West’s tweeting culminated in two major interviews. The first was an interview with radio personality Charlamagne tha God, which gave more context to West’s mindset since his episode in late 2016.
But it was his interview on TMZ Live that got the most buzz after he said 400 years of slavery sounded like a choice to him. West later tried to clarify his comments on Twitter, including using a fake Harriet Tubman quote, by saying that he wants black Americans to get out of the slavery mindset.
West Holds The SNL Cast Hostage Onstage While Giving A Bizarre Speech (Sept. 29, 2018)
West was the musical guest on the premiere of Season 44 of Saturday Night Live and was given the rare opportunity for a third performance. However, West donned a red Make America Great Again hat for that performance, and ended it with a drawn-out pro-Trump speech that did not even make it to air. While the week's host Adam Driver and the cast uncomfortably stood in the background, West said, "There’s so many times I talk to, like, a white person about this and they say, ‘How could you like Trump? He’s racist.’ Well, uh, if I was concerned about racism I would’ve moved out of America a long time ago,” in a video captured by comedian Chris Rock.
The speech did not go over well, with SNL cast members like Kenan Thompson condemning it, and celebrities like Chris Evans and Lana Del Rey criticizing West for using his platform to support President Trump.
Trump And West Have A Light Lunch (Oct. 11, 2018)
Nearly two years after their first big political meeting of minds, West ventured to the Oval Office to meet again with President Trump. What started as a sitdown to discuss prison reform, manufacturing, and gang violence in parts of Chicago devolved into the two men showering each other with compliments.
West referred to the MAGA hat Trump gave him as "a Superman cape" while Trump said West could "very well be" a future presidential candidate. The meeting ended with a hug as the world questioned what more West could do to surprise us.
Photo Illustrations by Ben Kothe, Ben King / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images; NBC Universal