“I no longer have a manager. I cannot be managed.” Those were the words of Kanye West on Twitter roughly two and a half years ago, already deep into his continuing run as one of pop music’s most contentious and unpredictable figures. Ever since then, Abou “Bu” Thiam has been trying to prove his star client wrong.
As West’s manager, Thiam is in charge of juggling all of the variegated aspects of what he calls “Yeezy City,” a business metropolis populated by 150 employees, which on any given day might entail working on West’s Adidas sneaker line, his music (“the new album, ‘Donda,’ is slated for release this year,” he insists), his nascent fashion partnership with the Gap, his ventures into urban planning, or whatever else happens to pique the man’s interest. (Just about the only element of West’s portfolio that Thiam has no part in is his controversial and chaotic presidential candidacy: “I’ve never ran a [political] campaign in my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to do things I’m not fully educated on in that way.”)
It doesn’t seem like a gig for the faint of heart.
“I always say Ye is the hardest-working man on Earth,” Thiam says. “He gets up at 5 in the morning, and he’s there texting or calling you about how things are moving, so it challenges you. And it also sharpens you up, because you have to try to be on the same page as him.”
Thiam already had time to sharpen his skills before West entered his narrative. Raised mostly in New Jersey, Thiam nursed dreams of making music, but quickly found a more fitting role as a sounding board of sorts for his brother, who was starting to craft his own songs under the mononym Akon. When Akon was negotiating his first label deal, he insisted his younger brother come on board as his A&R. “I didn’t even know what that term meant at the time,” Thiam remembers.
As Akon became a multiplatinum R&B star, Thiam began branching out, playing a role in the early careers of Lady Gaga, Jeremih and T-Pain. (“The first time I brought T-Pain into a record label, they actually laughed at me,” he recalls.) At 28, he was hired as vice president of A&R at Def Jam — the youngest person ever to hold that position — and from there he was introduced to West, when the label’s then CEO, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, brought him along to West’s Hawaii studio as he was recording “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
“I met him, and we just kinda clicked,” Thiam says. “And then when I was supposed to leave, Ye told L.A., ‘Yo, can he stay here with me?’ L.A. was surprised — he was like, ‘What the f–k?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know either, man.’”
The two developed a friendship, and West asked him to A&R his 2011 Jay-Z collaboration, “Watch the Throne.” Thiam continued to diversify, setting his sights on artist management – “a lot of times managers didn’t really see the full vision of the artist the way I saw it” – as well as establishing his own company, BuVision, and developing an affordable internet access service in Africa. But it took some time before he agreed to hook up with West full-time.
“I never wanted to manage Ye,” he says, “because when you’re close with someone and you work in a business setting, it could either go two ways: really good or really bad. And I always thought I was more of service helping him from afar, being a friend and giving advice. But he just persisted, and the trust between us was what sparked the idea.”
As someone with experience working with both artists and labels, Thiam found himself in the midst of a miniature firestorm late this summer, when West made headlines with a series of incendiary tweets demanding to be released from his label deal and to regain ownership of his masters. Thiam doesn’t divulge any details on the current state of negotiations (“obviously I stand with him,” he says), though he does have plenty of ideas about systemic change in the major label apparatus.
“I never took the stance of, ‘F–k the labels,’” he says. “I’m all for a fair partnership. But at a certain point they have to change from the way things were done 60 or 70 years ago… We all have to go back to the drawing board and take out these old existing ideas, whether it’s label fees, distribution fees, royalties – no artist should be on a royalty deal in 2020, that’s just ridiculous. They have to remodel the system, and until that time, there are gonna be more Kanye Wests who stand up.”
Of course, speaking of headlines, there’s one inescapable question anyone would have about managing West: What becomes of a manager’s role when his superstar client is, in his own words, unmanageable? At times West has almost seemed to go out of his way to alienate longtime fans, and his penchant for wild political outbursts would seem to make implementing any traditional PR strategy impossible. Here, Thiam takes the long view.
“When Ye talks to the world, he’s also talking to himself,” he says. “That’s how his process works; he’s also having conversations with himself. He doesn’t know how to hold things back or play the political chess game. Everything he feels is what he says. And I can appreciate that.”
He continues: “Obviously there are times when I tell him, ‘Listen, we should maybe say it like this …’ but for the most part I have to allow him to be who he is. If not, what’s the point? Kanye West has said things in the past that later turned out to be true. Multiple times. So what if you had told him, ‘No, don’t say that. Don’t be an artist; just be a producer. Don’t do fashion. Don’t do shoes.’ We would never have so many of the great things that he’s provided us. So I have to allow him to be who he is, but also protect him from himself and others.”