October 2002: The Car Crash That Changed Kanye West's Life

Submitted by notoriousclassics on Fri, 10/23/2020 - 20:50
Kanye West

Inspiration comes to some people in the strangest places. For Kanye West, an unusual burst of creativity came weeks after the early morning of Oct. 23, 2002, when he got into a car accident that shattered his jaw.

At the time, West was making incredible strides as a producer, having produced key tracks on Jay-Z's 2001 chart-topper The Blueprint and its 2002 sequel. But his real goal was to become a rapper himself - no easy dream, as labels found his polo shirts and backpacks image at odds with the harder-edged "gangsta" styles that had dominated hip-hop over the years. When he inked a deal with Jay-Z's label Roc-a-Fella, it was mostly to keep his beatmaking skills in-house.

Read More: September 2001: Jay-Z Drafts 'The Blueprint' for Success

That all changed when, after a late night in a California studio, West fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle and collided head-on with another car. The accident shattered his jaw, which was wired to his face during reconstructive surgery and left to heal for several weeks. Within a few days, he had a breakthrough.

"He called me maybe like three days [after the accident] rapping ‘Through the Wire’ verses," friend and fellow rapper Consequence recalled to Complex. "I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? Why the fuck are you rapping right now?’" But Kanye couldn't wait: within two weeks of the accident, with his jaw still wired shut, he was at The Record Plant laying down his vision. Over a sped-up sample of Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire," Kanye delivered his perspective after the accident - and, friends realized, found his voice as a lyricist.

"The accident wound up being a blessing for him: Whatever diction issues he had, he came back with a super clear voice," Consequence remembered. "The same way [50 Cent’s voice changed after he got shot], Kanye’s voice changed."

"Wire" was a highlight of West's first mixtape, Get Well Soon...; when it was formally released nearly a year after the crash in September 2003, as the first single from debut album The College Dropout, fans and critics alike went wild. The track reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 on Feb. 14, 2004 (that week's top hit: OutKast's "The Way You Move," holding off the Kanye-produced Twista track "Slow Jamz" at No. 2) and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. While he lost that category to Jay-Z's "99 Problems," he did win three trophies that night including Best Rap Album for The College Dropout - and an iconoclastic career as a legit rapper was born.