After West was signed as a Roc-A-Fella rapper, his trademark pink polos and pastel sweaters replaced the button-down shirts. When it came to his own records, he was still all about production and relentless creativity and diversity. He made music that was almost tapestry: West is one of those rare, synesthetic types who actually see sounds—as colors, shapes—and his hearing is freakish. At one point during our interview, he yells to a record-company flack in a distant room, "You might wanna take that out in the hallway. My whole crib is echoing." I hear nothing.

That acuity and attention to detail—and an accident that almost took his life—shaped his rapping style. Driving home from a 2002 recording session, West fell asleep at the wheel of his Lexus and crashed. In the 10 minutes before he was freed from the car, he watched his face bloat in the rearview mirror to almost twice its normal size. Two weeks later, with his jaw still wired, he rapped out his first hit, "Through the Wire."

"I had a style that was over-the-top, overly expressive, and it forced me to just lay back and be a little cooler," he says. "One of the problems with being a bubbling source of creativity—it's like I'm bubbling in a laboratory, and if you don't put a cap on it, at one point it will, like, break the glass. If I can hone that . . . then I have, like, nuclear power, like a superhero, like Cyclops when he puts his glasses on."

They say you can't please everybody, but West's opening trilogy (2004's The College Dropout, '05's Late Registration, and '07's Graduation) came close. Sharing works in progress with up to 30 people, West addressed every criticism, and over a meteoric four years essentially willed himself to cultural-icon status. On a single Graduation track, "Stronger," he went through 50 takes and eight engineers, and wove in everything from French acid house and Nietzsche to couture and mid-1990s anime. The song earned a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance and No. 1 spots on six charts (including the U.S. pop chart—still a rarity for a rapper), and spawned a craze for the Alain Mikli shutter-shades he wore in the video: If not Cyclops glasses, they're certainly West's equivalent of Michael Jackson's white glove.

Once we're upstairs, West invites me to sit at the white dining table that's the nucleus of his vast, sparsely furnished apartment. On his side of the table are a laptop he hops on and off all afternoon (mostly to update his blog, which he takes seriously), a cell phone, and a remote that seems to control everything in the crib. On my side is a scrap of paper with a phone number and the name MARC JACOBS, the creative director of Louis Vuitton, who will be introducing West's sneaker line at Men's Fashion Week in Paris in a few weeks.