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IMAGE: West
Jim Cooper  /  AP
Singer Kanye West is also one of today's most prolific music producers.
updated 8/4/2004 4:35:33 PM ET 2004-08-04T20:35:33

Kanye West’s debut album, “The College Dropout,” is a masterful piece of work that should be mentioned among the classic albums of our time.

That’s what West thinks. And he’ll tell you so — again and again and again.

“You can’t judge ’The College Dropout.’ It’s something completely different,” the 27-year-old musician declared in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “It’s definitely a classic, if I stepped aside from myself and say that. ... we’ll see the results in the next six months, of whether it did change the game or whether it is it’s own entity.”

Those kind of declarations have earned the blazing young rapper and superhot producer the reputation of being, well, a bit arrogant. Yet it’s hard to blame him when “Dropout” has sold more than two million copies and is being hailed by most critics and fans as the answer to a stagnant rap scene.

From the clever, thought-provoking “All Falls Down” to the religious fervor of his latest single, “Jesus Walks,” to the witty skits and clever rhymes, the album takes a welcome detour from materialistic, violent hip-hop fare to subject matter that’s more substantial — and more realistic.

“I appreciate people like Kanye, people that dare to be different. Hip-hop is supposed to be an avenue of expression, and people are supposed to be able to express what they feel, what they believe,” said the recently unretired rapper Ma$E, who dropped a verse on the “Jesus Walks” remix.

But it’s not only Kanye’s rap career that’s gotten people’s attention. He’s become one of today’s most prolific producers, working with everyone from Ludacris to Brandy to Alicia Keys.

“He definitely put his foot in the game with his style of music. He’s the beat man,” said Twista, who had his first No. 1 hit this year thanks to West with the humorous smash “Slow Jamz,” featuring West and actor Jamie Foxx.

Rap fairy tale
Even a life-threatening car accident in 2002 didn’t defer his dreams — he turned the experience into a hit single, recording a song about the crash and rapping with his jaw wired shut on the clever “Through the Wire.” The chorus featured West’s much-imitated trademark sound, a sped-up sample of a soul classic, in this case Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.”

“My thing is, how can I possibly be overly confident? Look at my accomplishments!” says West, in between breaks sketching out designs for his newest project — launching his own sneaker.

Yet in his next breath, the Chicago native (and true college dropout, from Chicago State) admits that much of his exuberance is just an act — a mental trick to give him the confidence he needs to succeed in the rough-and-tumble music world.

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“I say in my songs, I’m so insecure. So a lot of times, arrogance is to combat insecurity. So in order for me to go out and do what I’ve done, facing insecurity and facing people telling me I couldn’t do it, I had to build a force field around myself,” he explains.

“I had to be a borderline lunatic to think that I could do what I’ve done. It’s crazy ... what I’ve accomplished is crazy,” he says.

West’s rise to the top may not be crazy, but it certainly is the stuff rap fairy tales are made of. Drawn to rap since childhood, he set his sights on being the next superstar. But instead of just dreaming about it, he took action. He got his mother, a college professor, to lend him money to buy an expensive keyboard when he was a teen so he could work on his tunes, and started hanging out in clubs to taste the scene, though he was too young to get in.

“I thought I was going to get signed back when I was 13 years old, and come out with a record and take Kris Kross out,” he said of the ’90s kiddie rap group.

Kanye actually got an opportunity for stardom a few years ago — West recalls Columbia Records dangling a record contract, and it helped contribute to his decision to drop out of school. But he didn’t have the big game to back up his big talk back then — and it may have cost him a deal.

“I said, I’m going to be bigger than Michael Jackson, I’m going to bigger to Jermaine Dupri. I said that to (Columbia executive) Michael Mauldin” — not knowing that he was Dupri’s father.

Whether that torpedoed the deal or not, by the time the meeting was over, “they hit me with those three words — we’ll call you. They sent limos on the way up, and when I got downstairs I couldn’t even catch a cab.”

Turning point
He didn’t give up on his dreams, instead using producing to get his foot in the door. And he kicked it wide open when he provided Jay-Z with the beat to his smash “Izzo (H.O.V.A).” The hit not only made West’s stock soar as a producer, it eventually led to a deal that made him the latest member of Jay-Z’s Roc-a-fella label.

“That was the turning point in my life. Jay made all the difference,” West says. “I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done it without him, but he made it easier because he gave me a stamp, he gave me the streets. The Roc-A-fella chain helped me get my name.”

One of the reason West has some of the hottest records is because he’s offered something different. He introduced the rap world to sped-up samples, yet he’s also been diverse enough to offer buttery-smooth soul for the likes of Janet Jackson and anthem-like raps for Dilated Peoples and a party jam for Ludacris.

“I feel like Kanye, he thinks outside of the box as a producer and as an artist,” said Usher, in explaining why he chose West for the coveted spot as his opening act on his tour.

But it’s been the artist in West that has taken him from behind the scenes to the forefront. Far from the average rapper, West’s originality in comparison to his peers is striking. His videos — “Jesus Walks” has three different versions alone — actually have plots and are visually captivating without resorting to a bevy of dancing girls in bikinis. Instead of the thug look, he admits he looks more like “Carlton” — the preppy rich kid from the Will Smith sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” And in his music, rather than boasting about his riches, he admits he buys expensive jewelry just to feel validated.

“Every rapper was the king of ... ’I can do this and not go to jail, you know what I’m saying?’ Mine just came out from a totally different perspective,” he says.

“And I’m very creative. I always want to do something different from what everybody else is doing, ever since I was little.”

Ah, that healthy dose of self-confidence appears once again. But West doesn’t care whether you think he’s cocky or crazy — just as long as you know “The College Dropout” is a classic.

“I tried really hard, and I know I gave my all on this album,” he explains, showing a bit of the vulnerability he spoke of earlier when he talks about the rare non-glowing review.

“I know I can’t make a song in five minutes like Jay, so what I’m gonna do, I’m going to take five days, but I’m going to try and make it somewhere near as good. That’s what I did with my album, and I just wanted credit for that. And it hurt. Those reviews that I got hurt.”

Besides, he asks: “Would you classify this album as a B, given what you heard?”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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