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

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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 grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there's Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn't see how it could work."

Roc-A-Fella wasn't the only label to pass on Kanye (pronounced Kahn-yay; it means "the Only One" in Swahili) West. Executives at record companies large and small failed to reconcile West's appearance and demeanor with their expectations of what a rapper should be. They had no idea how to market him. "It was a strike against me that I didn't wear baggy jeans and jerseys and that I never hustled, never sold drugs," says West, 28, who grew up in suburban Chicago and often dresses as if he's anticipating an acceptance letter from Exeter. "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 finally got a deal (in the end, Roc-A-Fella overcame its institutional bias against Polo shirts), he shattered the myth that he was too soft, too weird and too bourgeois to fit the mold of a platinum-selling rapper. His 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, went nearly triple platinum, topped all the major critics' polls, earned 10 Grammy nominations and made rap accessible to audiences that hadn't paid attention in years. "That record restored my faith in hip-hop," says Jamie Foxx, who lent comic vocals to West's No. 1 hit Slow Jamz.

West is hardly the first person to bring a Buppie sensibility to rap. In the '80s, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, A Tribe Called Quest and LL Cool J successfully wove suburban perspectives into rebellious music, but when gangsta rap arrived, nuance was smothered by a blanket of extreme poses. Tupac Shakur, once a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, died with THUG LIFE tattooed across his torso. On The College Dropout, West found a way to bridge the divide without self-destruction. His follow-up, Late Registration, arrives Aug. 30 and continues to mix race and class with beats and melodies. It is widely expected to be the biggest-selling record of the year--1.6 million copies will be shipped to stores for its first week of release.

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