With Jay-Z's recent retirement, the Roc-A-Fella dynasty seems to be crumbling -- Memphis Bleek's December release flopped, and Beanie Sigel is embroiled in legal troubles. Enter unlikely savior Kanye West, a 26-year-old MC with a clunky flow and an off-key warble that rivals Biz Markie's tone-deaf crooning. West is better known as a producer than a rhymer -- his beats for Jay-Z turned dusty soul grooves into slick modern funk -- but his surprising debut disc, College Dropout, is the most impressive hip-hop CD of the young year. What's his secret? For one: lush, intricate, and unabashedly pop productions that are alternately uplifting (''Jesus Walks'') and jiggle-inducing (''Workout Plan''). More important, the Chicago native shuns hip-hop's tired ''Scarface'' iconography for a broad topicality -- family drama, everyday racism, crappy day jobs, and chasing tail all get equal time. This appreciation of life's minutiae can go too far: The autobiographical ''Through the Wire'' is hip-hop's first, and hopefully last, song about a broken jaw. But West delivers the goods with a disarming mix of confessional honesty and sarcastic humor, earnest idealism and big-pimping materialism. In a scene still dominated by authenticity battles and gangsta posturing, he's a middle-class, politically conscious, post-thug, bourgeois rapper -- and that's nothing to be ashamed of.