Kanye West is having a contentious afternoon. He has just walked out of a magazine photo shoot because he was being asked to pose in front of a sport utility vehicle that he says "isn't what Kanye West represents."
"I'm not going to do something lame or humdrum," he says a few minutes after waving off the photographer. "We don't make our moves off the money. It's how does it make you feel? Does this fit? Does this feel good to you? As long as I'm representing who I am at the time, I think the fans will connect forever."
It becomes quickly apparent _ if his considerable successes in recent years haven't already made it plain _ that West is not anyone's fool. Though the producer-turned-rapper became a pop celebrity by selling more than 2-million copies of his debut album, The College Dropout, and stole the show with his live performance at the recent MTV Video Music Awards, he has done it by challenging his record company and fans rather than pandering to them. His latest hit, Jesus Walks, fuses gospel and hip-hop while wrestling with the question of spirituality in everyday life. West felt so strongly about the track that he spent $1-million of his money to produce three distinct videos for it.
"There are probably more good songs about sex than about God, but people still believe in God, contrary to popular belief," he says. "There hasn't been a place in hip-hop for some of these ideas, which is the main reason I did it. I don't want to do anything that fits in."
West is careful not to disparage hip-hop: "Hip-hop didn't need saving, it just needed an option, an exit door." But he resents those who doubted him.
"I take offense when people try to narrow me down. It's the same thing when I was making beats for Jay-Z or Alicia Keys or Britney Spears, it was, "Oh, he's just a producer.' Now this success I've had as a rapper, with so many people dissing me ahead of time thinking I couldn't make it, has been hard for me to handle."
On The College Dropout, West shows his readiness and range as a triple-threat songwriter, producer and rapper to sometimes spectacular effect. His songs address themes drawn from daily life rather than the champagne-sipping, luxury car fantasies portrayed in many rap videos.
His goal all along, he says, was to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. "I'm more of a comedian than a rapper. I just learned how to put those jokes to a beat," he says. "When I moved to New York, my humor didn't translate right away because I couldn't speak like a New Yorker, but I learned how to connect," said the Chicago native.
"Every rap I spit for a white executive at the top of a company I could also spit at a barbershop. I didn't have to adjust. I wanted to be the Toy Story of hip-hop and speak to every audience."
That West has succeeded in achieving that goal is no longer in question. His phone is constantly ringing as more artists seek to collaborate with him. But not all get through.
"I'm only interested in working with artists who have that spark, who could sell a million records on their own without working with me," West says.
West's confidence _ his detractors would call it cockiness _ has its limits, however. He admires good work, even music outside his presumed area of expertise. In recent months, he has become addicted to English alt-rocker PJ Harvey. And while touring in Europe, he gained an appreciation for the young Scottish indie rock quartet Franz Ferdinand, whose self-titled album ranks with West's College Dropout as among the year's finest debuts.
"That song The Dark of the Matinee is great, and their whole album is pretty crazy," West says of Ferdinand. "I'm so happy and so mad they came out, because they might leave me in my seat at the Grammys."