HOLLYWOOD -- The ground rules of Terence Trent D'Arby, widely hailed as the most exciting newcomer in pop since Prince and Madonna, were supposedly non-negotiable. He agreed to sit and chat for a few minutes. He might even stick around as long as a half-hour if he felt comfortable. But everything had to be strictly off the record. He was in no mood for formal interviews.

That attitude might suggest arrogance, a word not unfamiliar to D'Arby, 26, an American expatriate whose intoxicating musical promise and bold, enigmatic presence have already made him a superstar in England. (Darby performs Friday at the Warner Theatre.)

Rather than arrogant, however, D'Arby seemed shy, almost fragile. His handsome, smooth facial features contrasted with the macho shadings of his trademark black leather jacket and motorcycle boots. He also tended to look at the floor when talking, even though his eyes were already shaded from view by dark lenses.

On stage, he sings with a sweet soul voice reminiscent of the late Sam Cooke, and moves with a sensuality and flash that recall James Brown. In Britain, however, he has made as much of a stir offstage as on.

In an unusually provocative series of interviews last year, he was quoted declaring himself a genius and asserting that his first album was better than the Beatles' historic "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Now his sights are set on the United States, and things are heating up. His critically acclaimed debut album, "Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby," is racing up the U.S. charts. He has been seen on TV: performing on the Grammy Awards show, "David Letterman" and "Saturday Night Live." And all the right magazines are requesting interviews, from trend-conscious fashion magazines to the usual rock journals.

But D'Arby -- like so many other celebrated pop enigmas, from Bob Dylan and David Bowie to Michael Jackson and Prince -- is a man whose only allegiance appears to be to his art.

Like these other sometimes puzzling pop forces, he seems obsessed with nurturing and protecting what he believes to be a unique creative vision, even if that means moving in conflicting and complex ways that mystify even people close to him.

It took about an hour into the chat before he felt comfortable enough to begin talking about himself in any detail.

"You've got to realize that I said a lot of {outrageous} things in England," he said, opening up slowly. "A lot of it was what I truly believed, but a lot of it was exaggerated to make a point. You have to hit people over the head to make them notice, and I did it. I know how to play the game.

"But now I'm worried that a lot of people in America think I am some kind of hype because of all that has been written in England, and I'm very serious about my music and my career. I don't want to be just the latest curiosity."

"The thing is, you get an image, as I have in England, and people get to where they can only see the image," he said. "That's what made me not want to do any more interviews. People miss the nuances, like the genius thing. I was joking. I was making fun of the image I had built up ... the whole arrogance thing ... "

D'Arby paused.

"But I have to sympathize with writers sometimes," he said, smiling slightly. "I was a journalist once and I don't know what I would say about myself. It would depend on what day I was writing. I change a lot. It's not easy to size me up. There are a lot of conflicts inside."

Reporters loved D'Arby from the beginning. For one thing, he seemed like a genuine talent, rather than another passing pop fancy. Plus, he had the kind of colorful background that was perfect for journalists.

Here is how Britain's Q magazine summarized D'Arby's background, an account that largely duplicates the information in D'Arby's British press biography:

"Raised in a severe Pentecostal church family, son of a preacher man and a gospel singing mother ... {D'Arby} moved from Manhattan to Florida to Chicago and finally to New Jersey. {He} attended a school for gifted children, studied journalism, wrote for a Florida newspaper, boxed {in the} Golden Gloves and joined the Army.

"{He} got sent to Germany with Elvis Presley's old regiment, went AWOL to sing with local bands, quit the Army, acquired a German manager and ended up in London where, tricked out in the finest of London street fashion and signed to CBS ... he becomes the London rock scene's favorite adopted black American son since Jimi Hendrix ... "

Some journalists in Britain and the United States have already asked if the history is not just a little too perfect, wondering whether he, like Bob Dylan in former days, perhaps invented a few elements to make his story more intriguing. D'Arby said his past did not matter.

"Say anything you want about me," he said. "The only thing that really matters is what's in the music. Most of the things I read about people are just snapshots anyway. You'd have to spend weeks with me to really understand me, and you wouldn't have the space to print it anyway, so just take what you like from what you've heard."

D'Arby talked at length last year about feeling that he never fit in as a youngster in the United States; about the tight restrictions of his strict Pentecostal parents, how he would have to sneak a radio under the covers at night to listen to nongospel music. As a light-skinned black, he said, he was not accepted by either blacks or whites. He said one of his goals was to be famous before his 10th high school reunion so he could show his old schoolmates he was somebody after all.

The only note of bitterness that surfaced was when he spoke of his repeated rejection by British record companies. "They couldn't see past the obvious," he said. "They looked at me and said, 'Oh, here is another Michael Jackson or Prince. Who needs that?' They couldn't get past the surface similarities and see there was something else there."

Thanks to the media attention and his classy advance singles, there was enough interest in D'Arby by the time his album did come out in England last summer for it to enter the British charts at No. 1.

Reviewers in the United States turned out to be just as thrilled with D'Arby. Rolling Stone gave his U.S. concert debut at the Roxy a glowing review, suggesting he may be one of the people -- like Prince and Bruce Springsteen -- who make a difference in pop. His album ended up making the American Top 10 in many year-end critics' lists.

The LP is such a striking vocal showcase that D'Arby's singing tends to overshadow his songwriting. "If You Let Me Stay" is a rather conventional love plea in an early Sam Cooke style, but tunes like "Seven More Days" and "Rain" are engaging exercises in modernizing the blues. The highlight is "As Yet Untitled," a socially conscious song apparently inspired by apartheid in South Africa. The gospel-tinged tale of struggle and resolve recalls the simple honesty and power of Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." "If You Let Me Stay" was released here last fall as a single, but it got caught up in the rush of year-end superstar products and failed to crack the Top 40 pop charts. A disappointed Columbia Records quickly rushed out a second single, "Wishing Well," and it caught on. The single, a snappy look at romantic innocence that is far more distinctive than "Stay," is on its way to becoming a hit. D'Arby also picked up a Grammy nomination for best new artist of 1987, but lost earlier this month to Jody Watley.

Is D'Arby a sensitive artist or merely an opportunist?

During an interview last year in Britain, he made some blistering charges about how racism in America forces most black singers to downplay their masculinity.

At one point, a reporter asked D'Arby if he will be as outspoken in his charges of racism in the United States as he was while in Britain.

Replied D'Arby: "I'm no fool. I obviously wouldn't say on nationwide TV that I thought America was racist, sexist, homophobic and violent if they asked me why I left {the country and moved to Britain}. I would just say America wasn't a culture I felt comfortable in, too many things wrong, and I'd rather be in a place where I could feel comfortable with who I am, but anybody with any brain would understand what I'm trying to say."

Sure enough, when asked recently on a national TV show here why he left the United States, D'Arby said politely, "I left because I didn't feel as comfortable here as I thought I could feel ... Sort of {like} being a square peg that was being constantly pushed into round holes. I thought there has to be a place where I could develop this different type of person that I am, and eventually I found that place {in England}."

D'Arby was not defensive when later asked about the deliberate mellowing of his views for the U.S. audience. "You don't shoot yourself in the foot before you run a marathon," he said. "Once you get to the point of, like, Springsteen or someone, and people are endeared with you they'll be more open to what you say."