Holed up in a Manhattan recording studio with rapper Common, Kanye West is, for once, speechless. Instead of twiddling knobs or scribbling down rhymes, he's transfixed by a TV, or more specifically Halle Berry on BET's 106 & Park. West is jolted back into reality when Common enters the lounge, reminding his buddy that it's time to get back to work.
Their last collaboration on Common's 2005 release Be was a critical success without blockbuster sales. But this doesn't seem to faze West, 29, lead producer on his friend's seventh album, Finding Forever (out in September). Fueled by his own accomplishments, he boasts, ''I let him get first dibs on the beats that I make.'' (West plans to contribute only a few vocals to the project; R&B crooner D'Angelo will also cameo.) Then he adds, rather thoughtfully: ''I don't want anything that I wouldn't want to rap on to be on his album.'' If West is practical, Common, 34, is pensive.
''We may physically leave this world, but can live through our contributions,'' the gregarious rapper says, explaining his CD's spiritual title. He leans over, hits a button, and gives EW an exclusive listen, starting with ''Dancing on the Weekends,'' a haunting song about a lover's lost battle with cancer that samples Elton John's ''I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford).'' To prove the CD isn't a total downer, he next cues up another tentatively titled song, ''Baby Don't Think About It'' a thumping ode to sex. ''I got a lotta work to do,'' he booms, bobbing his head nervously to the music. ''I'm not going to let the album come out unless it's at the A level. I want an A+ from ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.''