And no more rapping. West now sang, mostly through the Auto-Tune pitch-correcting device popularized by Cher in 1998's "Believe." As many have noted—including those who speculated he lip-synched during his December SNL performance (for the record, he didn't)—Kanye West isn't really a singer.

The biggest about-face on 808s, however, was in how it was made. It was cut in three weeks in Hawaii, and the bulk of the beats were laid down on a drum machine that dated from the dawn of rap, a Roland TR-808 (hence the title).

All of these departures hint at West's evolution: Beneath his provocateur/control-freak/drama-queen persona, the one that led him to call himself "the voice of this generation," to go off-prompter at a Katrina fund-raiser to tell the world, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," to "spazz out" at awards shows when he failed to win, there was something more primal calling out for attention. Even as West agrees that 808s is his first album as a card-carrying adult and calls it a product of a midlife crisis, he says he's working from "the gut," trying to unleash "the little kid who doesn't have all these voices telling him he shouldn't like it because." For West, that little kid is the true artist.

"First beat I did," he recalls, "was in seventh grade, on my computer. I got into doing beats for the video games I used to try to make. My game was very sexual. The main character was, like, a giant penis. It was like Mario Brothers, but the ghosts were, like, vaginas. Mind you, I'm 12 years old, and this is stuff 30-year-olds are programming. You'd have to draw in and program every little step—it literally took me all night to do a step, 'cause the penis, y'know, had little feet and eyes."

Inspired by his preteen Super-Sexual Mario Brothers project, West makes a pop-Freudian self-analysis. "People ask me a lot about my drive. I think it comes from, like, having a sexual addiction at a really young age," he says. "Look at the drive that people have to get sex—to dress like this and get a haircut and be in the club in the freezing cold at 3 A.M., the places they go to pick up a girl. If you can focus the energy into something valuable, put that into work ethic . . . "

West soon channeled it all into music. Devoting a year after high school to hip-hop, he sold enough beats—many at $200, $250 per to local drug dealers who fancied themselves producers—to get seed money for a move to the Big Apple.

He made his name producing five pivotal tracks for Jay-Z's seminal 2001 album, The Blueprint, in New York's Baseline Studios, where he was an anomaly amid the street-hardened masters of the rap scene. A Chicago whiz-kid geek in jeans, a button-down shirt, and a baseball cap worn with the bill forward, he was "a real contradiction," says Lenny Santiago, an A&R man for Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella label.