Deadlines are a problem for Kanye West, as they are for many perfectionists.




If he weren't beholden to release dates, the Chicago rapper might never finish a project.




"I can keep tweaking it, keep finding improvements, because at the end of the day, all human beings worked on it. It can never be perfect," West said by phone recently.




Perfection may be a mirage shimmering in the distance, but that doesn't stop West from trying to reach it. It's paid off so far with a pair of acclaimed albums that were also commercial smashes: 2004's "The College Dropout" (his debut), and 2005's "Late Registration." West, 30, releases his third school-themed album, "Graduation," Aug. 21 &

if he can bear to call it finished.




"I've been working on this album for maybe a year and a half now," he said. "I'll work on songs for a year. I go back to them, I listen to them more. That way I already know if they're classics and if they'll stick with you. The youngest a song will be by the time it comes out might be four or five months, and the oldest song might be two years old before it hits the actual album. So it's had a chance to stand the test of time in my car before I give it to the world."




Not just his car, either. West tests out new songs on his iPod, in the office, in dance clubs and anywhere else people might listen to his music. Then he makes adjustments based on what he hears, and repeats the process &

as many times as necessary.




"Take a song like 'Stronger,' " West said with a rueful chuckle. "Not that this is a good thing, but I used eight different engineers and had over 30 mixes on it to try to make it right. But that's my level of dedication to delivering the best product possible."




His dedication extended to the video for "Stronger," which is built around a sample of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger."




West says he spent three months making the clip, which is an elaborate live-action homage to the 1988 Japanese dystopian anime classic "Akira."




"I went to art school, and I think videos have the ability to be moving art," he said. "A lot of people don't put that amount of effort into their videos, but I was trying to give the kids more."




West's perfectionism has stirred up trouble, too: He has reacted less-than-gracefully at various awards shows when he hasn't won, for example, and he's not shy about touting his (very real) brilliance as a producer and rapper. Yet his most controversial moment was political. At a benefit in 2005 for victims of Hurricane Katrina, West declared, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."




"People really connected with that," he says of his unscripted bit of political commentary.




Now he's eager to reconnect with people through "Graduation," with messages of strength and self-reliance that he hopes inspire his listeners.




"It's an album full of theme songs," he says.




It's also a departure for West. Bucking the trend toward bloated rap albums padded with skits and filler, "Graduation" comprises 12 tracks and few skits. The slimmed-down profile of the record reflects the music that has inspired West lately.




"I listen to mostly rock music now," he said, citing the Killers, Keane, Modest Mouse and Feist as current favorites.




Those artists also influenced the sound of "Graduation," which West says takes rap in a different direction.




"This album has a lot of synthesizers layered on it, which has never really been done before in hip-hop," he said. "That doesn't make it good, just because it's different, but it's a representation of what I've been listening to.