Why You Can't Ignore Kanye

More GQ than gangsta, Kanye West is challenging the way rap thinks about race and class--and striking a chord with fans of all stripes

The first time Kanye West asked the folks at Roc-A-Fella records to let him rap, there was an uncomfortable silence. As a producer, West had churned out hits for Roc-A-Fella's intimidating trio of stars--Jay-Z, Cam'ron and Beanie Siegel--and earned praise for his great ear and tireless ethic. But in 2002 the idea that someone like West could be a successful rapper was faintly absurd. "Kanye wore a pink shirt with the collar sticking up and Gucci loafers," recalls Damon Dash, then Roc-A-Fella CEO. "It was obvious we were not from the same place or cut from the same cloth." Says Jay-Z: "We all...