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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In its first week of release, The College Dropout sold 441,000 copies--an extraordinary number for a debut--and entered Billboard's album chart at No. 2, behind velvet colossus Norah Jones. Immediately West started grumbling about disrespect. He complained about ambivalent words in glowing reviews, whined to his label about a lack of promotion, suggested that magazines pay to put him on their cover (in case you're wondering: uh, no) and, most famously, walked out of the American Music Awards when he lost Best New Artist to country singer Gretchen Wilson ("I was the best new artist this year, so get that other bull____ out of here"), a gesture made even more obnoxious by the fact that Wilson was as much a rebel in her field as West was in his (see page 66). In all, he acted with the maturity and grace traditionally associated with rap stars.

Like most people who've ever stared into a camera lens or picked up a microphone, West is better at integrating his flaws into his art than into his personality. As he says on the new song Touch the Sky, "I'm trying to right my wrongs/ But it's funny the same wrongs help me write this song." Still, his behavior during awards season was reminiscent of the video-set collision between church architecture and large breasts. It seemed a little forced. "He's trying to change this genre, and in order to do that he's got to get people to listen to his music," says a fervent McDaniels. "They've gotten so used to hardness, to stupidity, that if he has to engage in a little of that to be relevant, so be it."

West won't cop to exaggerating his petulance. "I was just trying to create some entertainment," he says, adding that his act will probably tone down in the future because "people mature" and "I have a lot more to lose." In another context he admits to a contradiction truly worthy of him: in his attempt to shatter the rapper stereotype, he's sometimes willing to behave stereotypically. "Take the word nigga," West says. "I don't like the word, and I made an attempt to change it on this new song Crack Music"--an indictment of drug abuse. "I tried saying, 'This is crack music, homey,' but it just didn't have the same impact. My mom's a teacher, and I'm kind of a teacher too. But the hood, the suburbs, MTV and BET are my classrooms, and I know how to talk to my class." The word nigga appears multiple times on the album.

On Late Registration, the syllabus returns to Whitman's Song of Myself. There are skits ridiculing the impoverished members of a made-up black fraternity (Broke Phi Broke), while the song Gold Digger pleads with women to stand by working-class men because "He got that ambition baby look at his eyes/ This week he mopping floors next week it's the fries."

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