When Kanye West called in December to talk about being one of Entertainment Weekly's Entertainers of the Year, something seemed off. West just wasn't as interested in going on and on about how great he is. Admittedly, he had earned his bragging rights. His Grammy-winning debut, 2004's The College Dropout, sold 3 million copies and boasted innovative marvels like ''Through the Wire'' and ''Jesus Walks.'' And just when his preening pose started to bore, didn't he make a good case for himself with his follow-up, Late Registration? Even more breathless critical acclaim followed, along with double-platinum sales, another slew of Grammy nominations, and a string of daring provocations, like when he denounced President Bush during a live Hurricane Katrina telethon. Here, on the phone, was another chance to gloat. And sure, he couldn't help comparing himself to the Michaels (Jordan and Jackson), but his heart didn't seem in it. What West really wanted to talk about was his next move.
''Do you think my new video should be 'Touch the Sky' or 'We Major?''' the 28-year-old hip-hop wunderkind wondered earnestly. Go with the first one, we replied. But he wanted enthusiasm! ''The way you answered,'' he said, ''it sounded like there was a question mark at the end.'' West's prenup anthem, ''Gold Digger,'' had enjoyed a great run, living atop the pop charts for 10 weeks with its neon video spinning constantly on MTV. But a follow-up single, the graceful uplifter ''Heard 'Em Say,'' stalled at No. 26, and the album started to lose some of its chart luster. The video, directed by the usually inspired Michel Gondry, was a cheesy dud, and West knew it. So he demanded a second version, an arty black-and-white clip, but it too failed to catch on. The unexpected misses had left him shaken. ''So you think that 'Touch the Sky' could provide the energy to give the album a sales resurgence like 'Hollaback Girl' did for Gwen Stefani?'' he asked anxiously. ''I know I have to come up with some out-of-the-ballpark ideas for the video. I can't miss on this one!''
Cut to a blustery day in January on an Indian reservation overlooking the Grand Canyon the setting for the ''Touch the Sky'' video, which boasts an Evel Knievel '70s story line sending up West's overarching hubris; a rocket ship, motorcycles, a hilarious reference to his Bush comments, Nia Long, and Pamela Anderson. After working late into the evening on day three of the four-day shoot, West bounces into a shabby crew van heading to Las Vegas, where he's staying and picks up where he left off in December. ''What did you think of the 'Heard 'Em Say' videos?'' he asks. Tell him that Michel Gondry's original version, in which the rapper and a couple of cutie-pie kids frolic in Macy's, was an oversentimental disappointment and he nods his head. ''For real? You thought it was bad? Yeah, that's what I thought too.''
Next page: Our Q&A with Kanye