It's a packed early-January shopping Saturday in the heart of New York's SoHo neighborhood—despite an icy snowstorm that's frozen the Northeast in its tracks. A man in a tweed overcoat, leaving quick footprints on a snow-blanketed side street, pops out of the crowd, a half-block west of where I wait in front of a luxury loft building. In Swahili, Kanye means "the only one." Celebrity semi-disguise notwithstanding, there's no mistaking who this is.

"You look like a writer," he says warmly through the checkered scarf covering his face, as he guides me through a three-part power handshake.

"You look like a rapper."

"Then I failed," he says with a shrug, eyes, hand, and warmth dropping as he opens the front door, hustles in from the cold, and loses the scarf in the marble lobby. "I was trying to look like an old man."

The past 15 months have indeed put years on Kanye West's life. Even for the 31-year-old workaholic, a man who invented his megastardom by obsessively burning the candle at both ends, they've been long. West didn't just lose, as he puts it, "more than I could ever picture losing": his mother, Donda West, to complications from cosmetic surgery, and his fiancée, Alexis Phifer, to a breakup after six years of dating. He shouldered his loss center stage. In the minds of many, he's lost it completely with his fourth and latest album, 808s & Heartbreak, and his announcement that his new goal is to intern for a designer like Louis Vuitton's Marc Jacobs or Jil Sander's Raf Simons.

The breakdown began a week after his mother's death, when the opening chords of his ballad "Hey Mama" reduced West to tears before 6,000 at Paris' Le Zénith. It hit full volume as 2008's pyrotechnic Glow in the Dark tour cut a mass-venue swath across the globe. Intended as hip-hop's answer to U2-style stadium rock, it was more Samuel Beckett meets Philip K. Dick: galactic backdrops, fireworks, cosmic eruptions, enough dry ice to freeze the Florida Panhandle, with West rapping and dancing alone onstage as an interstellar voyager who has crash-landed waaay out there. As West continued to break down when he performed "Hey Mama," then tearfully freestyled a plea "to be a real boy" now that "there is no Geppetto to guide me" on "Pinocchio Story" (808s' hidden live track), one began to suspect that the real journey and crash were happening waaay in there.

808s went platinum in just seven weeks and showed no signs of slowing two months later, but it polarized fans, critics, and fellow rappers. In 12 brooding, highly emotional, minimalist tracks, West abandoned everything that had taken him to the hip-hop summit. No more wit, wordplay, or skits. Not even any samples until seven tracks in. No more lust or profanity—it may be the first rap CD since Will Smith was the Fresh Prince to appear without a parental advisory.