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 College Dropout was 76 minutes of someone cramming every thought he'd ever had about himself into rhyme. It was immaculately produced, but what made it compelling was the contradictions. The song Jesus Walks mixed spirituality with skepticism and rap with gospel. All Falls Down slammed the "single black female addicted to retail" but concluded with West admitting, "I wanna act ballerific, like it's all terrific/ I got a couple past due bills, I won't get specific/ I got a problem with spending before I get it/ We all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it." Throughout, West careered between the Protestant ethic and street fantasies, revealing himself to be wise and stupid, arrogant and insecure, often in the same breath. But by baring his flaws and being self-critical--and daring listeners to do the same--he created a fresh portrait of African-American middle-class angst, and you could dance to it.

It didn't take long for The College Dropout to develop coattails. Fashion-wise, you may have been blinded recently by the swarm of pink Polo shirts, while on the charts, West's friends John Legend, an R&B singer with a University of Pennsylvania degree, and Common, a whip-smart and austere Chicago rapper, both had sales spikes. West's Late Registration should push things further. "I didn't want to play it boring and safe," says West while sitting in the balcony of a 14th century church in Prague, one of the locations he hand-picked for the video of Diamonds from Sierra Leone, the Shirley Bassey-- based first single from Late Registration. "I also didn't want to innovate too much. Second albums, man, they're even scarier than first ones."

Musically, West took the extraordinary risk of fiddling with his sound by asking Jon Brion, known mostly for his collaborations with the talented but flaky Fiona Apple, to co-produce. Lyrically, he continues to stomp taboos and create a witty catalog of his schizophrenia. If that makes him sound like Eminem, it's worth noting that West is usually incorrigible like a puppy, not a pit bull. "His music is about being human," says West's obviously biased mother Donda, who recently retired from her post as chair of the English department at Chicago State University. "It's like Walt Whitman. 'Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.'" West's old boss, Damon Dash, puts it a little differently: "He combines the superficialness that the urban demographic needs with conscious rhymes for the kids with backpacks. It's brilliant business."

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