There are two things Kanye West would like the world to know right now: He's got a new album coming out soon, and he's trying to become a better person."I was an asshole," he said during a visit to Rolling Stone's offices. "I have been distasteful, I have made loud outbursts, I have been completely immature, I have been a fucking crybaby."
After storming the stage while Taylor Swift accepted a Video Music Award in 2009, West all but disappeared for nearly a year. But he's back and launching a one-man promotional campaign for one of the most anticipated albums of the year — most recently vowing to leak a song online every week from now until Christmas. He has already put out three singles. "Power," "See Me Now" and "Monster," and is promising a five-song collaboration with Jay-Z.
The new album, tentatively due in November, is an exuberant return to the melodic, richly layered, wordplay-heavy style of his first three records — his last release, 2008's 808s and Heartbreak, was a downbeat detour into depressive electro pop inspired by a romantic breakup. "I feel like the light is back and I can make uplifting Kanye West music," West says. "It just got to the point where it was like I almost threw a Molotov cocktail at what my image was and completely burned it alive until I could just go away and rise from the ashes."
West wrote much of the record while in exile. After the 2009 VMAs, he spent three weeks in Japan to get away from the paparazzi, then took an internship in Rome with luxury fashion label Fendi. "I designed clothes — anything and everything in the process," he recalls. "Pulled references, mood boards, fabrics, colors, glasses, shapes and shoes. Walked around Rome and got cappuccinos."
Eventually, he headed to Hawaii to begin work on a new album, with help from three of his favorite artists: RZA, Q-Tip and Pete Rock. "I needed to crash and rebuild," says West. "But it helped to turn me into a better human being in general." After recording 808s in just three weeks, he was eager to return to a more deliberate pace. "He would pull up a song that he may have started on, and we'd really spend a whole day just specifically on drums or the keyboard sound," says Q-Tip. "His thing is just really getting the right colors." Adds RZA, "He wanted to make one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time."
West also reached out to indie singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver. The chorus of Bon Iver's delicate 2009 tune "Woods" serves as the hook in West's "Lost in the World," and he had Vernon sing on 10 or so other songs, including "Monster," in which West raps about the ostracism he felt in the wake of the Swift incident. "There's this cool thing I wrote at the end of that song about the isolation of being seen as a monster," Vernon says.
Songs on the album range from the introspective "Mama's Boyfriend" to more defiant moments. (Possible titles for the record include Dark Twisted Fantasy and Donda's Boy, after his mother, who died in 2007.) One chorus goes, "Let's have a toast for the douche bags/Let's have a toast for the assholes"; he also raps, "The same people who try to blackball me forgot about two things/My black balls." "The album has this very human kind of vulnerability to it, but it's expressed in the most aggressive, in-your-face way," says video artist Marco Brambilla, who has just created a baroque, Sistine Chapel-inspired clip to accompany the first single, "Power." Adds L.A. Reid, president of West's label, Island Def Jam, "His new music has all the edge and melody and mood of 808s, but with the attitude, energy and humor of Graduation and Late Registration."
During a two-hour visit to Rolling Stone's offices, West rapped while standing on a conference-room table, appeared to weep during the instrumental coda to "Lost in the World" and decried society's prejudice against porn stars, a subject also covered on his album.
He also took questions. Is it possible, he was asked, for people to change their nature? "I don't know about people," he said. "But as far as for me, I'm a pretty special person."
This is a story from the September 16th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.