Kanye West

If Jay-Z and Dame Dash are the Mick and Keef of the Roc-A-Fella fam, then Kanye West is the label's Charlie Watts, the quiet rock behind the roll. Or he was until now. After The College Dropout, he'll never be small enough to fit behind the scenes again. And why should he want to go back there? Though his mentor J-Hova might have been the most skilled and sellable MC around before his supposed retirement, West--the self-proclaimed "first nigga with a Benz and a backpack"--proves here he is a worthy successor. In fact, he may be the true stairway connecting the underground to the Top 40, the bridge between Tupac and A Tribe Called Quest. His beats make dollars, and his rhymes make sense, especially on a pair of tracks early on that find him stuck between the confessional and the collection plate, "Never Let Me Down" and "All Falls Down." West complains on the former that "in a land where niggas praise Yukons and getting paid, it's gonna take a lot more than coupons to get us saved." On the latter he admits that he went to hip-hop hookup Jacob the Jeweler with "25 thou before I had a house and I'll do it again." It's that kind of dichotomy--hating himself for loving the things he should hate--that allows him to straddle the fence, to walk among the playas and the played-out. It also may be why on "Jesus Walks" he concedes, "The way school need teachers/The way Kathie Lee needed Regis/That's the way I need Jesus." And that's the way hip-hop needs Kanye West.

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