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-- Shaheem Reid

Kanye West has dropped to his knees like James Brown, thrown punches at phantoms, struck B-boy poses and held his hand high to the heavens — and that's just on two cuts.

If he works up this big of a sweat just playing his songs in the studio, he's going to be deadly when he actually performs them onstage.

The 25-year-old Chicago native, who has built tracks for everyone from Jay-Z to Nelly, is a little bit more impassioned than usual about the tracks he's playing at the moment. Kanye didn't just produce these sonic-boom-powered ditties; he rhymes on them.

"I was always rapping, and it just so happened that really phenomenal rappers started rapping over my beats before I got a chance to," West explains. "That put me in the classification of a producer, but I'm a rapper from the heart."

A young Kanye started writing his rhymes around the time kids get really nice in coloring with crayons: the third grade. Four years later, his most steady source of income would take shape like Play-Doh.

"I had a computer," he remembers. "I was drawing on it, and I was going to make video games. I went to art school and got scholarships. I still drew on it, but I started using it more for music."

A few years later, he came across Chi-Town beat behemoth No I.D., who was producing for Common (going by Common Sense) at the time.

"[No I.D.] let me come to his crib, and Common had come over," he recalls. "[Common Sense's] 'Take It EZ' had just come out and I was like, 'Oh, sh--! I'm finnin' to get signed!' [No I.D. told me,] 'Yo, you need to sample off of records.' When I found that out, it was all over."

To the contrary — it was the beginning. Kanye started cooking up the heat in the studio, taking pieces of old soul songs and molding future hit soundscapes such as Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and Beanie Sigel's "The Truth." The rap thing had to be put on the backburner after he moved to New York. There his career was guided by longtime friend Kyambo "Hip Hop" Joshua, who just so happened be A&R at Roc-A-Fella Records.

"With a manager like Hip Hop, I got a much better direction," West recalled last year. "N---as tried to put shiny suits on me as a producer. I feel like I'm one of the focal producers that brought this soul back — how a lot of people got soul joints now. ... I feel I could rhyme better than a lot of muthaf---ers that have deals, but I feel like I can produce. ... I've got the potential to take it there."

And that he has. Since last summer, besides working on "Izzo" and four other cuts off of The Blueprint for Jay-Z ("We're working on Hov's new album right now," West says), Kanye has crafted tunes on every Roc-A-Fella release, including Cam'ron's current LP. He's also been in the lab with Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Nelly, Trina, Lady May and Scarface, Knoc-Turn'Al and the Cash Money Millionaires, to name a few.

After being courted by a few labels as an artist, West chose to stick with his home base, the R.O.C.

"I was always confident in myself that whatever I put my all into, I could do it," he says of stepping into the ring as a rapper. "I always believed in myself. When I had wack rhymes, I thought they was hot."

Apparently some other people think he has what it takes: Ludacris, Jay-Z, Scarface, Mos Def and Freeway have all agreed to appear on his debut, which he's trying to finish now.

"My job is to break down the barriers and show music is just music," he says. "On one hand, I've got a knowledge of my heritage; I got a pretty good background, I've been to school. But on the other hand, I like strippers. So do I not talk about strippers because I'm educated? Do I not talk about education because I like strippers? Nobody can pigeonhole me and determine what I talk about."




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 Jay-Z
featuring Kanye West
"Never Change"
The Blueprint
(Roc-A-Fella)
   Photo: MTV News


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