West is quick to explain that he started out as a rapper first, and that the success of his productions got him sidetracked. Now that it’s time to come out as a solo artist, he’s fixed firmly on getting at as many people as possible. And although his early fans may be enthralled with his alignment with rap heavyweights, West is at this point so self-possessed that he’s neither pressed to drop his more famous friends nor race to the studio for the next collaboration. He’s confident that he can have it both ways without compromising his sound or his self. “Pop just means shit that went out and got pop-u-lar,” he suggests. “That don’t mean ‘Backstreet Boys.’” “I think a lot of people like old Madonna songs,” he continues. “Not everyone sits around watching Scarface over and over ’til they get gassed up to go to the club and try to kill somebody.”
The man’s blow-up in 2004 is ensured by a combination of factors, from his label association and the street cred it implies to the way his productions and presence nudge established MCs to inspired performances. The deciding factor in his rise, though, is West himself. He’s unconcerned with trying to jump the giant chasm between being a good rapper and a great one. In his vaulting ambition he’s obsessed with the subtle distinction—never before articulated this acutely in hip-hop—between being the greatest MC and the more subjective assessment of being the best one. West raps because he wants to—not because he needs to—and his aim is to affect the very grain of the music, not merely to get acclaim. That, at this point, is a given.