THE RAP ON KANYE

Some men tattoo their girlfriends' names on their arms. Others prefer a skull and crossbones. But rapper Kanye West always has to be different. The faded blue ink on his forearm is a list of his favorite songs: "You Made Me" (by Kanye West). "My Life" (by Kanye West). "Izzo" (by... Kanye West). "Yes, all songs by me," he says, taking a puff of his cigar and adjusting his sunglasses. "My grandfather told me shy is next to stupid. He said stand up and celebrate when you're having a good time and don't ever overcompensate for those who are intimidated by you. So here I am, celebrating."

Kanye West certainly has reason to pop a champagne cork. At 28, he's produced stellar records for figures ranging from Jay-Z to Alicia Keys, founded his own label, broke artists like John Legend and dropped his own Grammy-winning debut, 2004's "College Dropout." His single "Jesus Walks" blew holes in the notion that rap and religion just don't mix. He rhymed about his faith over music that felt more like a sophisticated soundtrack than a Power 106 hit. That single won the rapper respect (and envy) among his peers and a 2005 Grammy for best rap song. But West was just getting started.

His new record, "Late Registration," is the most dynamic and original album of the fall--maybe even the year. The first singles off the CD (in stores Aug. 30)--the refined remake of Shirley Bassey's "Diamonds Are Forever" (titled "Diamonds of Sierra Leone") and the prenuptial anthem "Golddigger"--are classic examples of his range, from the classy to the crass. And the rest of the CD? "Just imagine someone rapping over 'Star Wars,' then add a beat to it. That's my album," he says. His co-producer, Jon Brion, a man known for moody orchestrations for eccentrics like Fiona Apple, had never worked with a hip-hop artist before. "I'm sure everyone thought he was making a dangerous left turn by working with me," says Brion. "But Kanye has always challenged the advice of the music industry, and it hasn't exactly hurt his career." West was right again. The CD is layered with disparate yet somehow simpatico elements--cinematic orchestration, catchy bass-laden beats, dusty R&B samples--plus plenty of social commentary and sharp bits of humor. On "Crack Music," he raps about the parallels between bad drugs and bad hip-hop: "We invested in that. It's like we got Merrill Lynched and we been hanging from the same tree ever since." The record is an ingenious balance of arty intentions and mainstream savvy.

"I'd like to add that I think this is the best-produced record--ever," says West. So you just want to slap him, right? But for all his bravado, he still relies on the opinions of others. When a small group of people were listening to his new CD in his dressing room during a recent video shoot, he nervously hovered outside the door, then popped back into the room before it was even over: "I saw you talking over the first verse of 'Dear Mama'," he said. "You need to hear it again, because you may have missed something." Later, he quietly grilled each listener: "What do you think? I mean, really, really think?"

West had his first taste of fame at 10 when his mother, an English professor, moved the family from Chicago to China for a yearlong exchange program. "People used to come up to me and rub my skin to see if any color would come off," he recalls. "They'd never seen a black person. Everywhere I'd go, I was surrounded by a crowd." Back in Chicago, West was placed in gifted classes, and by seventh grade he was designing his own videogames on a $500 home computer. After creating the backdrop and characters, he got hooked on making the music. Four years later, West would sell songs to underground rappers at $250 a pop. "It was money on top of the paycheck from my telemarketing job, you know, convincing people to buy insurance for their Montgomery Ward products." He landed a full scholarship at the American Academy of Arts in Chicago, left to major in English at Chicago State, then dropped out to pursue his budding music career. After he coproduced a song on Mases's 1997 CD "Harlem World," he gradually became the producer du jour, working with Janet Jackson and Lauryn Hill, among others. He signed on for his own album with Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella label in 2002 and, three years later, landed 10 Grammy nominations. Now he's CEO of GOOD Music (an acronym for Getting Out Our Dreams), with hit records by Legend and Common, and, of course, his own clothing line, Mascott. Next up: he hopes to create a comedy show similar to Dave Chappelle's.

Jesus may still walk with West, but these days so do a bodyguard, a publicist, a manager, his DJ and the occasional video hoochie. His is not exactly a pious life, but like most good artists, West is full of contradictions. The video he directed for "Diamonds" is about the slaverylike conditions in Africa's diamond mines--yet he wears a giant rock in his ear. He's one of the few rappers to speak out against homophobia on MTV, but he disrespects women in his songs and videos. He raps about his Christian faith on one song, then talks about his sex addiction on the next. "I definitely have conflicts," he says. "Am I able to walk like I'm Jesus Christ? No, but I do a lot more right than wrong. From what I hear, all sins are equal in God's eye. But I believe some sins are worse than others." He smiles at the girl from the video. She smiles back. "That's where the concepts that I touch on all the time come from--that fight between good and evil within yourself."

It's hard to imagine when West fits those internal battles into his schedule. He's constantly moving to stay ahead of the curve. "I always wanted to be the person who shows up at school with the new [Air] Jordans first," he says. "It doesn't matter if you're the second person with the shoes. You have to be first, or no one will remember you." It's unlikely West will let us forget him any time soon.