Neil Drumming
February 27, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Posing for a photo shoot in designer shades and pricey Prada shoes while negotiating on the phone with Jacob ”the Jeweler” Arabo, producer-turned-rapper Kanye West isn’t exactly giving off a revolutionary, Chuck D vibe. From this vantage, the studio whiz responsible for Alicia Keys’ ”You Don’t Know My Name,” Ludacris’ ”Stand Up,” and Jay-Z’s ”Girls, Girls, Girls” resembles any other bling-blinded MC with that gaudy Roc-A-Fella chain hanging from his neck.

But West, 26, insists that even though he may ”love jewelry and diamonds…the way they sparkle,” he can still see — and combat — injustice, poverty, and racism through his songs. ”My whole theory of music is message and melody,” says the Atlanta-born, Chicago-bred B-boy whose papa was a Black Panther and whose grandparents fought for civil rights. ”I’ve got cough medicine mixed with Kool-Aid. Whereas some other [politically minded] artists are like cod-liver oil.”

If fan response is any indication, West has got the right mix. His debut album, The College Dropout, is the most buzzed-about CD of the moment, spawning two hit singles, ”Through the Wire” and ”Slow Jamz” (a collaboration with Chicago rapper Twista) and selling almost half a million copies its first week out. Dropout, a clever modern-day meditation on ”40 acres” politics, showcases West’s trademark blend of sped-up soul samples and traditional musicianship, along with his distinctive off-kilter rapping.

As a producer, West sweetened the sounds (and careers) of hip-hoppers as diverse as Talib Kweli, Scarface, and, of course, Jay-Z. And he remains highly in demand (”I have my hands in a lot of projects,” he says. ”I’m working with Janet right now”). But the self-professed ”rap baby,” who’s been rhyming since third grade, wasn’t content just creating hit records for others. West eventually persuaded Roc-A-Fella to let him make his own album, and in 2001 he began crafting Dropout. Work was suddenly interrupted in October of 2002, however, when he was involved in a car accident that almost killed him (”Thank God I ain’t too cool for the safe belt,” he raps on Dropout). But West barely even paused to recover. With his face bruised and swollen and his broken jaw wired shut, he went back into the studio to record what would become ”Through the Wire,” the catchy, Chaka Khan-sampling smash that documents his harrowing experience.

West finished the album last year, and anticipation has been building ever since. Now audiences are responding to his refreshing honesty and earnest lyrics: ”Wire” has climbed to No. 15 on Billboard’s Hot 100, while ”Slow Jamz,” a raffish R&B tribute/send-up with Twista that West sings on and produced, recently hit No. 2 (the track appears on both Twista’s Kamikaze and West’s CD). Dropout packs all the promised ”Kool-Aid” you’d expect from a well-connected wunderkind: memorable hooks, melody-laden beats, and plenty of guest appearances. But from the anthemic antimaterialism of ”All Falls Down” to the gut-wrenching gospel of ”Jesus Walks,” the album also harks back to a more spirited hip-hop era. ”I say f — -the police, that’s how I treat ’em,” rhymes West on the former track. ”We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom.”

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