In all my pictures lately, I've started smiling," says Kanye West. "Why not? What's the point of looking mean – so I can seem rappish?" West has plenty to smile about: Having survived a near-fatal October 2002 car crash, the twenty-six-year-old producer has resumed his career as one of hip-hop's most sought-after beatmakers, formulating songs for Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name"), Ludacris ("Stand Up") and Jay-Z ("Encore").
On his debut solo album, The College Dropout, West keeps his rhymes upbeat and bling-free, frequently invoking God, joking about producers who try to rap and recounting his accident on "Through the Wire," which he recorded while his jaw was wired shut. In typical West fashion, the album bubbles over with bouncy-yet-soulful hooks and left-field sounds: Guests include Mos Def, Jamie Foxx and the Harlem Boys Choir, and West also makes use of a string section, several soul divas and "Pomp and Circumstance."
West began making beats as a fourteen-year-old in Chicago. Looking for some music to rap over, he started saving his ten-dollar-a-week allowance to purchase an eight-bit sampler. His plan was derailed when he loaned money to a friend of the family, who delayed paying him back. "I remember feeling like he was destroying my life," says the soft-spoken West. "So I went up to his room and I got his revolver. I went downstairs while he was sleeping, and I put the gun in his mouth. I was like, 'You fucking up my career!' I came to find out he was a crack user."
Eventually, West got his sampler, and his big break came when he sold a beat for a track on Jermaine Dupri's 1998 album Life in 1472. After signing a deal with Jay-Z's agent, he became a favorite of artists on Roc-A-Fella Records, creating danceable pop hits out of samples ranging from the Doors to the Jackson 5. Currently, West produces up to three sessions a day. "The accident changed my focus," West says, his jaw still visibly swollen. "The best thing that could happen to a rapper is for him to almost die, right? The last rapper that almost died [50 Cent] sold, like, 6.5 million!"
This story is from the December 11th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.