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— by Shaheem Reid, with additional reporting by Sway Calloway

Oh, you will believe in him. You have no choice. Tonight Kanye West is going to get props or die trying.

"I'm asking you all, I'm begging you all," Kanye, standing on a table, pleads with the conviction of a civil-rights leader leading a march. "If y'all feel this is a zero, give it a zero. If you feel like it is a five, give it a five. If y'all believe that this is the future, which is what I believe ... If y'all feel like this is what the game needs right now, if y'all feel that this anticipation ... I delivered what y'all all been waiting for, then let it ... what's the word? Reciprocate? I dropped out of college, can I have a thesaurus?"

The 26-year-old is speaking to a gathering that includes John Mayer, Common, a handful of journalists and other music-industry tastemakers inside New York's Sony Studios. They've all been privileged enough to preview his debut, The College Dropout, almost a month before its February 10 release.

  Kanye West featuring Talib Kweli and Common
"Get 'Em High" live
The College Dropout
(Roc-A-Fella)
"I'm asking you all not to let the future pass you by and be a part of history, 'cause this is history in the making, man," he says before playing the first track.

Kanye is going to do more than just play the records. He's going to be lip-syncing, singing and yelling his raps like it's the finale of a sold-out, three-night stint at Madison Square Garden. He's going to jump on tables, pound his chest like an athlete who just made a winning shot, pose in a b-boy stance and flail his arms, all with enough vim and vigor that you'd think he was ready to fight.

He is.

Hip-hop's latest purveyor of common-man music not only wants you to feel his music, he wants you to feel his struggle. If he thinks that he doesn't have 150 percent of your undivided attention, he's going to put you on blast. A couple of times at the listening session, he stopped a song and started it over when he thought there might be someone in the room who was not getting it.

"Abby, remember when they ain't believe in me?!" West, standing on a tabletop and pounding his right fist into the palm of his left hand, rapped a cappella before talking. "How many months ago was that? What did it take? It took 'Slow Jamz' to have 9,000 spins. Or it took 'Through the Wire' [to become a hit]. Do y'all remember when they ain't believe in me?!"

  Kanye West
The College Dropout
An MTV News Video Report
If it seems like Kanye has a chip on his shoulder, it's because he's had to labor to the brink of exhaustion to tell the world what he's believed since he was a kid: Given the chance, he could change the rap game. His words would do more than strike a chord, they would give listeners flashbacks to when they'd seen or felt the same situation he talked about. And his beats — we all know about his beats. So soulful and rich they've been known to make people rejoice like it was the last day of school.

"I'm a pretty smart dude. I knew that if I could rap even anywhere near the caliber of my beats, I would kill the game," Kanye, a couple of weeks removed from the listening sessions, surmised modestly. "Murder the game."

He seems to be on the right track. "We've heard him from a production standpoint for a minute, and he's always come through in a major way," Alicia Keys said recently, "but he really has crazy rhyme skills. The way he puts his thoughts together, the way he puts everything in this mixture, it's something everybody can feel."

That's exactly the idea, West said. "I try to see how I can express things in my life that other people will relate to and feel like, 'Man, I'm glad that somebody said that.' There are so many people that vent through other stuff other than shootin'."

His regular-Joe ditties have emerged at perhaps the perfect point in hip-hop. With the game mired in G-Unit wannabes more concerned with piling up a lyrical body count than writing witty punch lines, West is making tunes about being frustrated with his job as a cashier, being self-conscious and overcoming racial stereotypes.

"I saw his show at [New York club] S.O.B.'s and I was like, 'Man, hip-hop is back again,' " Common said. "It felt so good that it was coming through this brother. I'm honored to be on his album and geeked what the brother is bringing to hip-hop. I don't think nobody is coming with beats and rhymes, putting that package together like this right now."


Next: The industry can't hold Kanye back ...
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Photo: Roc-A-Fella

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  Beanie Sigel
(Kanye West, producer)
"The Truth"
The Truth
(Roc-A-Fella)


  Jay-Z
" '03 Bonnie & Clyde"
(Kanye West, producer)
The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse
(Roc-A-Fella)


  Monica
"Knock, Knock"
(Kanye West, producer)
After The Storm
(J Records)


  "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)"
(Kanye West, producer)
The Blueprint
(Roc-A-Fella)


  Jay-Z
(Kanye West, producer)
"Encore"
The Black Album
(Roc-A-Fella)


  Alicia Keys
(Kanye West, producer)
"You Don't Know My Name"
Diary Of Alicia Keys
(J Records)


  Talib Kweli
(Kanye West, producer)
"Get By"
Quality
(Rawkus)


  Ludacris
(Kanye West, producer)
"Stand Up"
Chicken-N-Beer
(Def Jam)


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