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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Raised in the Chicago neighborhood of South Shore by his mother (his parents divorced when he was 3, and he spent summers with his father Ray, a former Black Panther who is now a Christian marriage counselor), West went to good schools, received art and music lessons and, when he was 10, spent a year in Nanjing, China, where his mother was a visiting professor. Like many suburban kids, he developed a passion for hip-hop that was only enhanced by his awareness that the genre often romanticized bad behavior. His mother did not exactly approve; when West went to concerts, even in his late teens, she often followed. "He maybe doesn't know this," says Donda West, "but I was at a lot of those shows, watching him."

Early on, West knew he wanted to be a rapper; at 13 he made an amateur recording about green eggs and ham. But his parents had other ideas. "My plan was that he would get at least one degree, if not several," says his mom, the Ph.D. After Kanye graduated from high school in 1995, he enrolled in art school and took an English class for a year at Chicago State before finally confronting his parents. After months of lengthy conversations, West persuaded them to let him try rapping and producing for a year. Recalls Donda: "He said, 'Mom, I can do this, and I don't need to go to college because I've had a professor in the house with me my whole life.' I'm thinking, This boy is at it again. He always could twirl a word."

During the day, West worked as a telemarketer to pay the $200 a month his mother demanded in rent. At night he honed his delivery and made beats for other rappers. Within a few months he had his first major sale--$8,000 from a Chicago rapper named Gravity. "That's when I knew the one-year plan was out the window," says West. Soon he was making beats for Bad Boy Records' rapper Mase, and in 2001 West produced several tracks for Jay-Z's groundbreaking album The Blueprint, using samples of old songs (the Doors' Five to One, the Jackson 5's I Want You Back) sped up until they sounded like Chipmunks cover versions. (West admits he took the idea from the Wu-Tang Clan's The RZA; he insists on giving credit where it's due.) Still, he couldn't persuade Jay-Z, Damon Dash or anyone else to take him seriously as a rapper.

In October 2002, West, exhausted from hours spent in a recording studio, fell asleep behind the wheel of his Lexus and nearly died. "He called me from his hospital bed with his jaw wired shut and asked for a drum machine," says Dash. "That impressed me." Three weeks after the accident, with his jaw still shut, West went to a studio and mumbled Through the Wire, a song about the crash built on the accelerated chorus of Chaka Khan's Through the Fire. It was dramatic and funny ("I drink a Boost for breakfast, a Ensure for dizzert/ Somebody ordered pancakes, I just sip the sizzurp"), and it finally persuaded Roc-A-Fella to move ahead with a Kanye West album. "Death," says West, "is the best thing that can ever happen to a rapper. Almost dying isn't bad either."

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