Can Kanye save music? It's the sort of challenge that would appeal to a rapper who is launching his latest album and acclaimed single "Runaway" with a 35-minute video, infused with biblical references and featuring himself as the great creator in the drama. "I really feel that I am the tree and the people are the branches," recently observed the man who once appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone as Jesus wearing a thorn of crowns.
Kanye West, 33, would be regarded as preposterous if he wasn't such a talent. Perhaps this was why George W Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, declared that the "all-time low" of his eight years in the White House was not the attack on the twin towers but a seven-word comment from the Chicago rapper. When West spoke out at a televised concert for victims of Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, saying that "George Bush doesn't care about black people", the president winced. In his recently released memoirs, Mr Bush recalled how he told his wife Laura that being called a racist by West was "the worst moment of my presidency".
The president's pain was due more to the nature of the accusation than the identity of his accuser, but the fact remains that West has a rare if dubious gift for provoking a reaction. Twice he has invaded stages at major awards ceremonies to seize the microphone and challenge the result. In the latest such incident, in 2009, he humiliated the country singer Taylor Swift by saying she was an undeserving winner. In the ensuing uproar, Barack Obama, taking West less seriously than his predecessor, was overheard referring to the rapper as a "jackass".
West gave credence to that theory when, after the Bush memoirs were made public, he claimed to empathise with the former president because he too – following his Taylor Swift comments – had been caught up in a media storm. "The poetic justice that I feel, to have went through the same thing ... now I really more connect with him on just a humanitarian level." (In response, Bush mispronounced his name, telling Matt Lauer, host of NBC's Today Show, "I appreciate it. I don't hate Conway West.")
Yet "Ye", as he is known in rap circles, can get away with all of this because his music is special. He has won a dozen Grammys and his last three albums have been American No.1s. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his latest production, was recorded in Hawaii and made at a cost of $3m. It has been greeted with rare adulation by the critics. Giving the album a full five stars, The Independent's Andy Gill described the release as "one of pop's gaudiest, most grandiose efforts of recent years, a no-holds-barred musical extravaganza, in which any notion of good taste is abandoned at the door". The album, West's fifth, features a host of names from rap's royalty, with Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz and Mos Def among those happy to climb on to Kanye's "branches".
Clearly, the music industry needs success stories. "Are we witnessing the death throes of pop music? Take a look around you and the signs are everywhere," claimed a piece by the veteran critic Paul Morley in The Observer this month. For those who are convinced that music is in a parlous state of creative inertia, West could be the saviour they are looking for and that he believes he is. Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph seems to think so. "At once demented and utterly inspired, in this critic's opinion, West is so far ahead of the field, he might as well be in a different field altogether," he wrote this week.
Whether West appreciates such praise is doubtful. If Bush seemed easily wounded by the Katrina barb, West bleeds like a haemophiliac from the merest critical pinprick. At the conclusion to the stunning live show that accompanied his 2005 album Late Registration, during which he thrilled fans with a succession of hits performed alongside a string orchestra to the backdrop of video films of remarkable quality and originality, West indulged himself in a roll-call of obscure bloggers and journalists who had, at various stages of his early career, seen fit to find flaws in his output.
On his Twitter account last week, West was enthusiastically "retweeting" the observation that his "media 'inappropriateness' is refreshing" and comparable to the contrary attitudes displayed by Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Madonna. Kanye has embraced Twitter, on which he is followed by 1.6 million people but follows no one himself, and Facebook. The social networks give him the opportunity to bypass the news media and communicate directly with his fans. In response he receives the kind of unconditional love that parents bestow on tiny children.
He has been quick to embrace victimhood but at times it has been for very genuine reasons. Through the Wire, his first hit as a rapper (having already established himself as a highly skilled producer), was about surviving a serious car crash. When West lost his mother, Donda, following complications in cosmetic surgery, the tragedy drove him to even greater heights in the performance of shows based on his highly acclaimed third album, Graduation.
That title referred to his debut album The College Dropout, a reference to his curtailed study at Chicago State University, where his mother, a professor, had been chair of the English department. West grew up in the middle-class Chicago suburb Oak Lawn – but was born in Atlanta, where his father, Ray, a former Black Panther, was a pioneering photojournalist. The musician's parents divorced when he was three and his mother took him north.
For a rapper, he had an unusual upbringing. He is porous to diverse musical influences, something he demonstrated most clearly on his fourth album 808s & Heartbreak, in which he experimented with electronica and synth-pop. But the roots of West's tree are firmly in hip-hop, as demonstrated by the presence on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of such rap stalwarts as Q-Tip, Pete Rock and Jay-Z, for whom West once worked as a producer.
West sees himself at an intersection of music and art, comparing his creativity with that of Picasso and Matisse and name-checking Mark Rothko on his Twitter stream.
Despite his humanitarian connection with George W Bush, West hasn't buried his political axe. "I treat the cash like the government treats Aids, I won't be satisfied till all my niggas get it, get it?" he raps on new album track "Gorgeous". On another tune, "Power", he refers to "this white man's world" and in the epic video for "Runaway" he cheekily positions himself at the centre of an all-black dinner party, where the evening wear is white and so are the waiting staff. At a screening of the video in London, he referred to hip-hop as "like black semen – anything it connects with becomes black".
Kanye West can't help himself. His self-righteous and often provocative outbursts seem to be a by-product of his belief in his destiny and his frustration at the slowness of others to see his grand vision. But music needs him. As West self-deprecatingly puts it in "Runaway": "Let's have a toast for the douchebags."
A life in brief
Born: Kanye Omari West, 8 June 1977, Atlanta, Georgia.
Early life: Suburban, middle-class upbringing. Attended the American Academy of Art. Enrolled at Chicago State University, but dropped out. Was soon producing tracks for Jay-Z, Janet Jackson and Eminem.
Family: Father was a former Black Panther, and his mother, Donda, an academic. Moved to Chicago with his mother after his parents' divorce when he was three.
Career: Worked as a producer for Roc-A-Fella Records. Released debut album The College Dropout in 2004. His four albums have received numerous awards, including 12 Grammys in total. New album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is receiving rave reviews.
He says: "My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live."
They say "He's a jackass." President Obama on hearing West had interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Awards