Kanye West is still months away from releasing his solo debut, College Dropout, but the star rap producer has already made plans for his next three albums.
"I'm calling the next one Late Registration," he said earnestly. "I've got this song 'Hey Mama' I did three years ago that I'm saving for that one. Then my third album is going to be called Graduation. And the fourth is Good-Ass Job."
Is this an overly optimistic projection of his hip-hop future? Maybe. But given the trajectory Kanye's career has followed thus far, it's not likely his achievements will lag behind his ambition.
Indeed, Kanye is one of Jay-Z's preferred beatmakers, and everyone from Fabolous to Common has employed him to bless their albums with his craft. In just two years, this boy from the Midwest has gone from anonymous producer to one of hip-hop's elite.
Lost in the heat of his production work is his own endeavor as a rapper, which he shows off at length on College Dropout, due August 12 on Roc-A-Fella Records. It's something he's been working on between other work for three years.
"I'm actually laying down the last verse of the last song right now," West said. "I kind of take my time with it. I can't rap as fast as Jay or some of them. So I just take my time with it. It's good focus for me."
As a producer, West has a ubiquitous appeal, working with commercial hip-hop kingpins like Jay and more street-level talents like Talib Kweli, who scored his first legitimate crossover hit with the West-produced social anthem "Get By." Soul-stirring strings, bowing basslines, harmonies and vocal choruses are all elements of classic Kanye productions, and they all coalesce into a bluesy sound that tugs at hip-hop's emotions -- no matter what side of the financial demarcation line an artist may reside on.
"Jay-Z can't be anymore backpack than he is already, and Talib Kweli can't be any more commercial than he is already," West said. "Somehow I fit in the center of them both. I'm not too much either way, so I fall between everything. I'm like the 2003 of A Tribe Called Quest -- I'm A Guy Called West."
On College Dropout, Kanye works with both camps. Jay guests on "Never Let Me Down," the album's closing track, while Ol' Dirty Bastard, a.k.a. Dirt McGirt, screams the hook on "Keep the Receipt. On "2 Days," Kanye matches Mos Def with Freeway and the Harlem Boys Choir.
By being on the mic for himself and behind the boards for other artists, West theoretically faces the unique conundrum of deciding which beats to use for his own projects. But it's not a problem -- he keeps the hottest ones for himself. "I gotta give myself the best chance because I don't really feel like I'm the best [rapper] out there," he said with typical disarming modesty.
In October Kanye suffered a horrendous car accident in Los Angeles, leaving him with injuries that required him to have his jaw wired shut for several weeks. He's fully healed now and even says the experience was worth it.
"I have something to rap about now," he joked, pointing to the song "Through the Wires," which describes the incident.
More of Kanye's work will surface in the coming months. He's produced tracks for radical political rappers Dead Prez, for Ludacris' upcoming Chicken & Beer, and he's busy working with underground rapper Consequence and a new singer from Ohio called Joe Legend.
College Dropout track list: