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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Jesus Walks is one of those miraculous songs that you hear for the first time and immediately look forward to hearing on a semiregular basis for the next 30 or 40 years. It's built on a booming gospel sample from the Arc Choir and one of West's typical contradictions, his admission that he's not particularly religious and his anger that songs with Jesus in the title don't get played on the radio. Che Smith, a friend of West's from Chicago who raps as Rhymefest, gave West the sample, wrote some of the first verse and receives half the song's royalties. "But Jesus Walks is all Kanye," says Smith. "When he wrote, 'To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers/ Even the strippers/ Jesus Walks for them!', I said, 'Wait, it doesn't matter what you do at all? You can keep doing bad things, and in the end it's all good? Don't we need to take a stand?' And he said, 'It's about imperfection. Everybody can relate to that.' Damn if he wasn't right."

West is sometimes credited with revolutionizing hip-hop, but this doesn't quite fit. Revolutions require moral certainty, and West's default position is doubt. What he's up to is more like a reformation. "I'm pretty calculating," he says, standing before the baroque altar of Prague's Church of St. Simon and Juda. "I take stuff that I know appeals to people's bad sides and match it up with stuff that appeals to their good sides." As an example, he cites a snippet of Diamonds from Sierra Leone about his rise to fame: "'Life movin' too fast, I need to slow down/ Girl ain't give me no ass, she need to go down.' All right, that's really crass, right? Really bogus. So what comes next? 'My father been said I need Jesus/ So he took me to church, let the water wash over my Caesar' [haircut]. I go back and forth all the time."

In music, West's juxtapositions make your head nod. In life, they can sometimes make it spin. "I came to Prague for this church," West says in the near whisper he uses when not standing in front of a microphone. "I scouted it, researched it. Ever since my accident"--in 2002 he crashed his car and cracked his jaw in three places--"I've had a thing about angels, and you can't get statues of angels or architecture like this in the States." One minute later, he stands in front of a video camera, sets his legs as if he's about to throw a punch, and barks, "'Sup, MTV. We in Pray-Goo for the Diamonds video!" Then West marches over to video director Hype Williams: "Those girls we saw at the club last night, we need them. The ones with the double Fs." Asked afterward which performance was more real, he looks hurt. "Both," he says.

Which brings us to race's kissing cousin: class. Communities that have been discriminated against are hardly free from prejudice. "Black people can be the most conservative, the most discriminating," says West. "Especially among ourselves. It wasn't white people who said all black men have to wear baggy jeans." Bougie is a common African-American term for middle class; it is not used kindly. West--who has a habit of beginning sentences with the preamble, "Rappers say this all the time," as if he were not one of the world's most popular rappers but a kid deconstructing one--is quite bougie.

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