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Kanye Fan said:
The rapper Kanye West is not a man prone to modesty. This, after all, is the 33-year-old who once claimed he would be a leading character in the Bible if it were rewritten and who unabashedly calls himself "the voice of this generation".

Last week, during a 24-hour stopover in London, his healthy sense of self-worth was still very much in evidence. At a private screening of his latest oeuvre - a 40-minute music video entitled Runaway - West took to the stage in black shades and a brown leather cummerbund to tell the select audience that "I am the tree and the people are the branches" before going on to compare his new album to "the abstracted works of later Matisse or Picasso".

The album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, has rapidly become one of the most hotly awaited of 2010, largely because of West's ability for self-promotion and determination to re-establish himself as a credible artist after a bruising few years. In 2007, his mother and manager, Donda West, died of complications arising from plastic surgery. Kanye, on tour at the time, went back on stage a week after her death and broke down in mid-performance. Five months later, West split from his long-term fiancée.

Then, last September, he infamously stormed the stage at the MTV video music awards while the doe-eyed country singer Taylor Swift was accepting her gong and loudly proclaimed that Beyoncé had been unfairly snubbed. The ensuing controversy reached such proportions that even President Barack Obama was said to have called the rapper a "jackass".

"It all fell down around him," says Rich Juzwiak, a cultural blogger based in New York. "Before that episode, Kanye had done a good job of walking the line between cry-baby and attention-grabber. I think people hated what he did to Taylor Swift because of the sense of entitlement it displayed."

West disappeared from the music scene for six months, then spent a further six months working on his new album. Now, he is returning to the limelight on his own terms and seeking to reinvent himself through social networking. In the run-up to the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy next month, the singer has been tantalising his fan-base with a trickle of free downloads via his Twitter feed. Publicly claiming to be weary of fame and of being misquoted by journalists, he has shunned interviews with traditional media outlets, choosing instead to communicate directly with his fans on Twitter with gnomic statements that have attracted almost 1.5 million followers.

In the last few months, West has used Twitter to post images of his diamond tooth fillings, as well as contemplating such thorny issues as the ideal lipstick colour for a woman and why iPads are "sexy". In July, West visited the headquarters of Facebook in California to talk to staff about the inspiration behind his work, before standing on a table in the canteen and performing a cappella raps to the delight of the assembled crowd who swiftly posted camera phone footage on YouTube. He made a similar visit last month to the Rolling Stone magazine offices. The resulting videos went viral. It is, says Ekow Eshun, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a revolutionary strategy.

"It's a really important move," Eshun explains. "I'm fascinated by his use of Twitter, because it's such an honest medium. What Kanye is managing to do is to give a version of himself through this sort of stream of consciousness that allows him to establish a potentially different form of relationship with his consumers because they think they're getting something real and honest. They don't think he's trying to sell them anything. Twitter provides him with another arena for a performance, but it's riskier than a concert because he's opening himself up to ridicule."

West is accustomed to standing out. His parents - his mother was an academic and his father, Ray, is a former Black Panther turned photojournalist - divorced, and West was raised in a comfortably middle-class household and did well at school, later enrolling at Chicago State University where his mother was chair of the English department. He dropped out to pursue a career as a music producer, attracting acclaim for his work on Jay-Z's 2001 album, The Blueprint, before striking out on his own as a solo artist.

His background and clean-cut sense of style (West rapidly became known for his freshly ironed button-down shirts and baseball caps with the bill worn forwards) meant that he cut an incongruous figure on the rap scene. In a 2009 profile for Details magazine, Lenny Santiago, an A&R man for Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella label, remembered West as "a real contradiction".

It is a contradiction that continues to this day. On the one hand, he is a successful hip-hop star whose albums have gone platinum several times over and won him 12 Grammys. On the other, West unapologetically embraces highbrow culture and makes no secret of his obsession with high-end fashion labels - he is often photographed in the front row at fashion shows, wearing well-tailored pieces from Lanvin or Yves Saint Laurent. He has his own clothing brand and last year spent time as an intern at the Italian fashion house Fendi. But whereas other hip-hop stars tend to wear labels as an exercise in brashness and bling, West exudes a sense of refined taste.

"I can bring real culture to pop culture," he said at the Runaway screening last week. "I want to bring style to the mainstream. We talk about the art world and the pop world. I feel convicted [sic] to help crash those worlds together." Runaway, which West directed and starred in, was heavily influenced by film noir and Graeco-Roman mythology and features an extended ballet sequence.

Tracks from his new album contain cello samples and references to Italian Vogue. He is a perfectionist. One of his most famous songs, Stronger, went through 50 takes, required the services of eight sound engineers and wove in everything from Nietzsche, French acid house and mid-1990s animé. The choreographer on Runaway, Yemi Akinyemi, said last week: "This guy is really hard to work for. When it's not perfect, he's not fine. He won't let you sleep, he won't let you go home."

West is no ordinary hip-hop star. In a genre usually defined by social deprivation and towering braggadocio, casual misogyny and rampant materialism, and where lyrics are shaped by the rawness of the streets and the anger of the oppressed, West is a stark anomaly. He is a performer who, in many respects, has become his own performance. "Kanye gives you a mystery to unravel," agrees Juzwiak. "Probably his greatest strength is his performance art. We've become more narcissistic as a culture and he's part of that. His braggy tweets are so openly self-obsessed, but we're self-obsessed as a society."

Is West's Twitter persona a fabrication? "Well, he's clearly not an idiot," says Juzwiak. "There may be some irony in there and that's what makes it fascinating. He's created this internal dialogue."

Eshun places the rapper firmly in the context of pop art: "If you look at pop culture artists like Andy Warhol, they're serious about their work but they've also got enough self-consciousness to play that game of presentation. Kanye is serious about his work, but his work is pop culture and that means part of it is playful, part of it is ironic."

Like Warhol, West seems to delight in injecting what Eshun calls "a polished baseness" into high culture: hence his tweets on Napoleonic furniture and Persian rugs with "cherubic imagery". The Palace of Versailles, he commented recently, is "the shit".

However much his apparent pomposity and self-regard might grate - Time magazine last month compared West's attempt to redeem himself through arrogance to "smoking with cancer" - it brings with it a degree of social conscience. The Kanye West Foundation seeks to encourage Latino and black children to stay in school and the rapper has spoken out about homophobia in hip-hop, comparing the struggles faced by gay activists with the civil rights movement. "Hip-hop is very conservative - the smallest deviation from the norm is dismissed," says Juzwiak. "Kanye challenges that."

According to Eshun: "He's managed to stretch the aesthetic bounds of hip-hop by bringing in some of that unmasculine high fashion." But his challenge to mainstream hip-hop goes beyond the sartorial. When, in 2007, West broke down on stage in tears after the death of his mother, it was one of the first times that a major-league rapper had shown his vulnerability so publicly. His last album, 808s and Heartbreak, was infused with melancholic gloom and a stripped-back sound completely at odds with the boastful machismo of most hip-hop albums.

"Normally hip-hop is about putting up a front, saying how great you are and hiding behind that," says Eshun. "Kanye also says how vulnerable, pained, frustrated and angry he is. All these things combined make him idiosyncratic and highly influential."

But, rest assured, he is more than capable of saying how great he is, too. When, last week, an audience member asked West at the Runaway screening whether he had always known he would be successful, the rapper replied: "Yes, I did." Then, with a knowing smile, he added: "Am I not supposed to say that?"

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