“It was five in the morning when the phone rang, October 23, 2002,” Donda West recounted in her memoir Raising Kanye: Life Lessons From the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar. “I picked it up and immediately recognized the voice. It was Sumeke, Kanye’s girlfriend at the time. She was talking through tears, saying she hated to wake me so early in the morning, but Kanye had been in an accident. I sat straight up in the bed, fully awake at that moment. Before she could continue, I began firing questions: ‘Where was the accident? Who was driving? Was he hurt?’ I asked her all in one sentence and in one breath.”
Over the last nearly 20 years, Kanye West has been a lot of things: a genius, a pain in the ass, a cautionary tale, still my pick for the century’s greatest artist. But no matter your thoughts on the man, if things had worked out differently that night back in late October 2002, we wouldn’t be talking about him at all. The last two decades of astounding, sometimes divisive West records? Never would have happened, and that would have been a massive loss. Thank god he ain’t too cool for the safe belt.
As we wait — and wait and wait — for West to release the much-anticipated Donda, it felt appropriate to reflect back on his origin story, that near-fatal car accident that almost snuffed out his rap career before it had even started. But in typical West fashion, he turned what could have been a tragedy into a mission statement as well as a captivating song. Before most of us knew who Kanye West was, he introduced himself with “Through the Wire.”
West’s pre-fame life is so well-known that you can dole out the details from memory. Born in Atlanta, moved with his mom Donda to Chicago when he was a little kid after her divorce. Interested in a music career, he dropped out of college, focusing on coming up with beats that incorporated soulful old-school samples, usually sped up. He came to the industry’s attention after hooking up with Jay-Z, providing the rapper with some of the best moments off, arguably, the rapper’s best album, 2001’s The Blueprint. He didn’t want to be just a producer, though. And yet the thing he most desired — a solo career — eluded him. “Man, people told me that I couldn’t rap, that I couldn’t sell a record, that I didn’t have a chance,” he said around that time. “And it hurt me. Nobody believed in me.”
For West, who grew up loving more socially conscious, introspective hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest, the early-aughts’ interest in harder-edged rap seemed to put him at a disadvantage. In a 2005 Time cover story about West, Damon Dash, who was then the CEO of Roc-A-Fella, which ended up signing him, recalled, “Kanye wore a pink shirt with the collar sticking up and Gucci loafers. It was obvious we were not from the same place or cut from the same cloth.” But those obstacles only galvanized West, who told Time, “It was a strike against me that I didn’t wear baggy jeans and jerseys and that I never hustled, never sold drugs. But for me to have the opportunity to stand in front of a bunch of executives and present myself, I had to hustle in my own way. I can’t tell you how frustrating it was that they didn’t get that. No joke — I’d leave meetings crying all the time.”
When West signed with the label in 2002, it was a chance to finally harness all the material he’d been working on over time — some of which he’d tried (unsuccessfully) to sell to other artists. “He’d been working on his debut album forever,” West’s friend and manager John Monopoly told MTV the following year. “It [didn’t have] a particular start date. He’s been gathering beats for years. He was always producing with the intention of being a rapper. There’s beats on the album he’s been literally saving for himself for years.”
Shortly after the Roc-A-Fella deal, though, West was driving to an L.A. hotel after a studio session with Beanie Sigel and Peedi Crakk when he got into an accident with another motorist, Miguel Villasana, around three in the morning. (He’d fallen asleep behind the wheel, his exhaustion based on the insane hours he was working, not alcohol or drugs.) West’s girlfriend Sumeke Rainey called Donda. An English professor, Donda had disapproved of her son dropping out of college, but she encouraged his creative aspirations. “You have to be able to see yourself; you have to be able to see it when no one else can see it,” Donda wrote in her book (co-authored by Karen Hunter) about Kanye’s early aspirations to be a star. “You have to visualize where you want to be and claim it. Kanye claimed it a long time ago.” His success as a producer had been cheering, but his brand new solo career really felt like the culmination of everything he’d been working toward for years.
But now, a late-night car accident threatened to take it all away. “[T]he car is totaled and they can’t get him out of it,” Donda remembered Sumeke telling her. Donda hopped on a plane to L.A., racing over to Cedars-Sinai to see him. “Now was not the time for me to let go of my unshakable faith in God,” she wrote. “I just kept praying. I’d been praying constantly since I got the call. Oh God, let my baby be all right. I probably made a string of promises, too, about what I would or would not do if He’d just let Kanye be all right.”
Whether it was divine inspiration or good fortune, West survived the crash, although the aftermath was traumatizing for him both physically and emotionally. “My jaw was broken in three places,” West said a couple months later. “I had nasal fractures — I’d be talking to people and my nose would start bleeding. Even to this day, I could start choking because spit will go down the wrong path. That whole area is messed up. But right now I’m healing, I’m just learning how to pronounce words like, ‘What’s up’ with the ‘T’ and the ‘S’ together without it being slurred, so I can rap again. … The first two or three days were like some of the worst pains in my life. I would not wish this on anybody, except maybe three people. I was scared, ‘cause you hear about people dying in surgery and this [injury] is dealing with my breathing. I had so much blood coming out my mouth. Every 20 minutes I had to have one of them suction-type things. It would be so much mucus and blood.”
The accident brought plenty of media attention to West, and he decided to address it in his music. While recuperating in bed, he started coming up with verses for what would become “Through the Wire,” a detailed account of the crash, his mindset and what he’d learned from the experience. His mentor, producer No ID, recalled talking to West shortly after the accident: “He was like, ‘I’ve figured it all out.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re safe, God bless.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, I figured out my direction.’ For whatever reason, it clicked in his head. Kanye always had a way of thinking and I learned not to question it.”
For West, the crash was an epiphany and a wake-up call. “I think I started to approach time in a different way after the accident,” he admitted in 2014. “Before I was more willing to give my time to people and things that I wasn’t as interested in because somehow I allowed myself to be brainwashed into being forced to work with other people or on other projects that I had no interest in. So simply, the accident gave me the opportunity to do what I really wanted to do. I was a music producer, and everyone was telling me that I had no business becoming a rapper, so it gave me the opportunity to tell everyone, ‘Hey, I need some time to recover.’ But during that recovery period, I just spent all my time honing my craft and making The College Dropout. Without that period, there would have been so many phone calls and so many people putting pressure on me from every direction — so many people I somehow owed something to — and I would have never had the time to do what I wanted to.”
“Through the Wire” is a statement of perseverance and defiance. It’s also very funny, with West finding the dark humor in the public’s interest in the crash and his badly-bruised face. “I looked like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky / It was televised,” he raps on the song. “There’s been an accident like GEICO / They thought I was burnt up like Pepsi did Michael / I must got a angel, ‘cause look how death missed his ass / Unbreakable, what, you thought they’d call me Mr. Glass?”
Folding pop-culture references into one another, cleverly rhyming “GEICO” with “Michael,” West demonstrated the superior rapping skills he’d possessed from the start — despite the skeptical record executives who thought of him only as a producer. As for the beat, he sped up a sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire,” a technique he’d perfected while working for Jay-Z, Scarface and others. The song sounded familiar and fresh at the same time — although Kahn famously hated what he did to her 1985 hit.
“He said he wanted to redo the song,” she said last year. “I said, ‘Well, are you a singer?’ He said, ‘No, no. I just wanted to use your chorus.’” But despite her initial reluctance to let him sample her, she relented: “I thought about it and said, ‘Well, he can’t mess it up because I will be singing it after all. It’s my voice.’ But he found a way. By golly, he found a way to frick that up.”
As he freely acknowledged, the middle-class West didn’t have the gritty upbringing that other rap luminaries such as Jay-Z or the Notorious B.I.G. could claim. (He wasn’t shot nine times like 50 Cent.) But the accident provided him with a rise-from-the-ashes narrative that was compelling in its own way. “Through the Wire” didn’t just document the crash but gave listeners a way of thinking about West’s personal narrative — one in which he defied the odds first to get signed and then, soon after, surviving this frightening ordeal. It’s only in retrospect that his fans realized how serious his injuries were: He sounds nothing like himself on the track. (“I really apologize for everything right now if it’s unclear at all, man,” he garbles at one point as an aside during the chorus. “They got my mouth wired shut … I had reconstructive surgery on my jaw. I looked in the mirror, and half my jaw was in the back of my mouth, man. I couldn’t believe it.”)
Humility has not been a tenet of West’s career, but amidst the brags about his jewelry and his ability to “make music that’s fire,” “Through the Wire” was downright charming in its inherent fragility. He was full of bravado, but we could literally hear in his delivery what the crash had done to him.
The single didn’t come out until the following year, with the video hitting MTV in late summer. Directed by the duo Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah (better known as Coodie & Chike), the clip was low-budget but creative, offering a wealth of private West footage, including a visit to the dentist after the crash, all made to look like a bunch of photos on a bulletin board. “[West] was like, ‘We can do the whole video through Polaroids with documentary footage,’ Simmons recalled. “We came together and we built the bulletin board, me and Chike. When we edited it, we just made sure it told a story. We were actually sneaking into MTV, by the way, every night to work on the video. When Chike got off work, we would sneak in and try to use some of their equipment, but we just couldn’t pull off the Polaroids. So we presented it to Damon Dash over at Roc-A-Fella and he was like, ‘Let’s put this up, let’s put this up.’ But we were like, ‘No, no. Let us do it the right way. Give us a little money so we could do it the right way,’ and he honored that. Kanye put up the money first and we made it happen, and it was history in the making.”
The video only further burnished the heroic origin story that was going to launch West’s debut, The College Dropout, which hit stores in February 2004. By that point, “Through the Wire” had already hit the Top 20, but once the album arrived, boosted by the smash singles “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks,” West was a sensation. The College Dropout topped that year’s prestigious Village Voice critics poll and was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy. (Funny enough, it’s the only Kanye West album that didn’t go to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 2.)
The following years were even more of a blur, with West achieving greater commercial success with the follow-up, Late Registration, and its huge lead single “Gold Digger.” The underdog no more, Kanye West was, without exaggeration, the biggest thing in pop music for years afterward. The trauma of his near-death experience faded into the background, replaced with outsized fame, infamous public tantrums and a string of incredible music. That last point might be hard to remember — his marriage to Kim Kardashian, his erratic behavior, his very real mental-health struggles and his devotion to Trump started to outshine the quality of his work. But when I needed to reacquaint myself with the West I fell in love with, I’d flip on The College Dropout. There, his cockiness was mixed with the playfulness of a sweetly insecure guy hungry to take over the world. “Through the Wire” embodied that period when he was so grateful for the opportunity that had opened up in front of him.
Interestingly, West also used “Through the Wire” to imagine what the accident must have done to his mom, who’d been his rock since childhood. “How do you console my mom or give her light support,” he rapped. “Tellin’ her her son’s on life support?” You didn’t get many love songs on a Kanye West record, but you’d hear him sing Donda’s praises, dedicating Late Registration’s “Hey Mama” to her. It’s insultingly simplistic to suggest that his life has never been the same since her 2007 death after complications from plastic surgery. And yet, the increasing megalomania of his subsequent albums — save for 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, which is often thought of as a breakup album but is also very much consumed with the sadness of losing his mother — seems connected to a profound grief he’s never gotten over.
That might be why he’s calling his new album Donda: Years ago he hinted that the record would be his way of finally letting go of the anger he felt over the surgeon he blamed for her death. (In a since-deleted tweet, he wrote, “I want to forgive and stop hating.”) Kanye’s career started with a terrifying trip to the emergency room — as he put it in “Through the Wire,” “the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died” — but he couldn’t have possibly imagined in that moment the tragedy that was to come.
“For me, it is only the physical body that dies,” Donda West wrote in Raising Kanye, “not the soul, not the spirit.” As we wait for Donda to arrive, I’ve been thinking a lot about Kanye and his mom. When I hear “Through the Wire,” I hear a guy about to take off. But I also think of what it must have been like to be Donda and to get that call at five in the morning. Oh God, let my baby be all right. The song is the story of Kanye West finding his purpose. But it’s also about the bond with the woman who’s probably meant more to him than any other.