CHICAGO ­- Two years ago, when multi-platinum producer and rapper Kanye West was making the rounds to promote his much-anticipated sophomore album, “Late Registration,” he talked to critics about what went into creating the masterpiece album, which took on everything from conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone to disgruntled, gold-digging women.

Then there was the song “Hey Mama,” about his mother, Donda, a former Chicago State University English professor who’d often told her son he needed a college education in order to be successful.

“Hey,” West laughed at the time, “we need something to perform at the Grammys.”

But it was more than that. It was a song that paid tribute to a mother who, in spite of her scholastic achievements, stood by her son when he decided to drop out of college and pursue a childhood fantasy of becoming a hip-hop superstar. He even performed the song on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

In the tune, he raps, “Forrest Gump mama said “life is like a box of chocolates’/My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate/Something to fall back on, you could profit with/But still supported me when I did the opposite.”

Ms. West, 58, a longtime Chicago resident, died early Sunday morning in Los Angeles.

Other than confirming the death, a spokesman for Kanye West offered only a statement saying that “the family respectfully asks for privacy during this time of grief.”

The loss of his mother comes as a blow in an otherwise high time in West’s life. The Grammy Award winner is celebrating what likely will be one of the best-selling albums of the year with his recent release, “Graduation,” which in its first week sold about 957,000 copies.

Kanye West, who was in Chicago just last week as a surprise guest for Jay-Z’s “American Gangster” concert at the House of Blues, was overseas in London at the time of his mother’s death.

Friends close to him say that he naturally is devastated by the passing of his mother.

The two shared an undeniable bond, as evidenced in both the music West made and the public affinity they had for one another. Just this fall Ms. West had released “Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Star,” a memoir she’d penned with author Karen Hunter about bringing up her famous son.

In August she told the Chicago Tribune, “He told me, “There’s no real acrimony between us – there’s no controversy,’ He didn’t think people would buy it. But I felt there are a lot of things about Kanye and I that might be beneficial to other mothers and their children. People don’t get a sound bite from Kanye, they get a full idea of what Kanye is really like.”

Though she gained fame through her son, becoming one of the higher-profile mothers in hip-hop, Ms. West was also an academic and former chairwoman of the English Department at Chicago State University.

“We were coming back from a short vacation in Michigan when he was 5 and he composed a poem in the back seat,” she told the Tribune back in 2004, just before his debut album, “The College Dropout,” was released. “The one line that sticks with me is “the trees are melting black.’ It was late fall, and the trees had no leaves. He saw how those limbs were etched against the sky, and he described them the way a poet would.”

In the single/tribute “Hey Mama,” he paints a picture of life with a mother who, in spite of being a single parent – she split from his dad, Ray West, a Black Panther who became an award-winning photojournalist, when he was 11 months old and divorced when he was 3 – she worked hard so that he wanted for nothing.

“This record alone just shows you the relationship he had with his mother,” says DJ Khaled, a Miami-based producer who last summer released the single “Grammy Family,” which featured West. “He always big-upped his mother in his career. There are always pictures of him and his mother. His mother is his life. And he had a close bond with her, they were best friends.

“Kanye is a special person. You feel me? When he drops a record everybody listens. So when he dropped the record about his mother, it got everyone’s attention. Kanye and his mom are one.”

His mother also served as chief executive of West Brands LLC, the parent company of her son’s business enterprises, according to the biography listed on her son’s foundation’s Web site.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-11-07 2008EST

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