The morning of October 21st, Kanye West woke up in his Manhattan apartment, logged on to his Twitter account and posted, "I have decided to become the best rapper of all time!" That afternoon, sitting in traffic in the West Village in the back of his silver Maybach, West elaborates: "This new music basically just beats everybody's ass. Right now I'm maybe three, or five, spots from the top – historically speaking – with Biggie, Jay, Eminem and Wayne." He gazes through the tinted windows. "I'm not saying I'm the best, I'm just saying it's a goal of mine, and anybody who tries to knock my goals can eat shit."
With the release of his hugely anticipated fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy just around the corner, West is all swagger – as opposed to the apologetic figure he cut in the wake of the Taylor Swift incident at the 2009 VMAs. "I feel like I'm delivering music that people will love now and appreciate in 20 years," he says, adding that he's already broken ground on the follow-up, Watch the Throne, a joint record with Jay-Z. "It's going to be way more awesome than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. My growth in music production and mixing is retarded."
West credits the hip-hop legends he recruited for Twisted Fantasy – including RZA, Pete Rock and Q-Tip – with helping him rediscover his mojo in the studio after he retreated to Japan and Italy in the wake of the Swift affair. "RZA is just a god, man," he says. "If there's anybody I look up to in the game, it's RZA." (Other guests on the record, which was cut mostly in Hawaii earlier this year, include Elton John, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross.)
Despite the fact that West has released half of the album's 12 tracks as singles on iTunes ("Power" and "Monster") or for free through his website ("Devil in a New Dress," "So Appalled"), retailers predict a smash, with at least 500,000 first-week sales. "Eminem's Recovery was on the Internet for two weeks before its release, and it did well," says Christina Amedore-Smith, urban music buyer for Trans World Entertainment. "Fans want the whole package."
The MC has been previewing his new record, out November 22nd, everywhere he can: delivering stunning performances backed by his drum machine and a troupe of ballerinas at the VMAs and on SNL; hosting premieres worldwide of Runaway, the ambitious 35-minute film he conceived and directed around the new album. At a screening in Paris, he broke into tears, and in Los Angeles, he spoke openly about having suicidal thoughts. "I'm basically the most honest person that you'll ever meet, and that's what gets me into trouble," he says. "My ego comes from knowing I can change people's lives, I can make people happy, I can push art forward, and I can crash worlds together. That's what keeps me alive."
Runaway was shot over four days in Prague with a team that included artists Vanessa Beecroft and Virgil Abloh, West's right-hand man. West also collaborated with the painter George Condo, whose work is in MoMA's collection, to create the album artwork. "I'm basically like the [pop artist] Jeff Koons of music," West says. "I'm the head of a team of creators, and I've picked creative thinkers that use their awesomeness to propel my awesomeness."
The film stars West and model Selita Ebanks, who portrays a phoenix-like creature. The rising-from-ashes metaphor clearly applies to West's career resurgence (though the rapper says the idea predates the Swift incident). He's drawn to mythology, which inspired his oversize gold chain he had made depicting the Egyptian god Horus. "I'm into graphics, just like a little kid," he says. "I believe in myself like a five-year-old believes in himself. They say, 'Look at me, look at me.' Then they do a flip in the backyard. It won't even be that amazing, but everybody will be clapping for them."
But it's a real-world character he's been comparing himself to most lately: Miles Davis. "Everything I hear about him sounds so awesome – at no point was he ever letting society or people's opinions beat him down," he says. "I like to bring up the fact that I can't sing, dance or play an instrument, but somehow I made it to the mountaintop of music."
This is a story from the November 25th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.