Sophomore albums are made to be trashed, especially when they follow hugely successful debuts. And there may be no artist in pop-music history who seems to more richly deserve such a trashing than Kanye West. To call West's behavior over the past year "insufferable" fails to do it justice; to list examples of his egomania -- from striking Christ-like poses in concert to shushing his peers at listening parties for his new album -- would leave no room for a review of the much-anticipated Late Registration. We don't regret labeling West hip-hop's most important artist last year, but now we stare in awe at the monster we may have helped create. (West's egomania has been rampant from the get-go, however; just go back and listen to the ludicrous self-absorption of his first single, "Through the Wire.")
But as the old saying goes, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it." And West did it on last year's The College Dropout, creating an album that fulfilled his considerable ambition of becoming "the first nigga with a Benz and a backpack." Dropout reconciled the rift between mainstream rap and underground hip-hop with one great, inventive song after the next. And if West sounded more like a producer than a legend on the mike, he still had the year's funniest lines (on "Slow Jamz"), and no MC had come with as much knowledge as he did on "All Falls Down" in ages -- if ever.
So while it may disappoint his growing legion of haters, Kanye West has done it again -- musically, at least -- on Late Registration. It isn't the genre-busting jaw-dropper he seemed to promise when announcing his collaboration with producer Jon Brion; the exclusion of four songs (including one with John Mayer) that were dropped when West's fan base rebelled might have doomed that hope. But it's something nearly as good: a hip-hop album overflowing with unexpected left-field hooks that also boasts in-your-face beats and enough attitude to ensure that the street will stay on lock.
Brion, one assumes, has helped West introduce more live instrumentation to his sound, which at times brings the album tantalizingly close to the classic soul samples the latter built his rep pilfering. And while the odd rococo touches Brion has added to records by the likes of Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann have sometimes seemed overindulgent, such embellishments (assuming they're his) take on new life in a more spare, hip-hop context. The backwards guitar of "Heard 'Em Say," the intertwined synth lines of "Celebration," the dizzily swooping strings of "Gone" and "Late" -- all of it gives the sixteen-bar format a richness seldom before heard.
Many of West's boundary-pushing peers, like OutKast, have accumulated much of their acclaim for musical adventurousness rather than consistent, album-length achievement. Late Registration succeeds as a complete aural statement, one that reaches back to field hollers and raw blues but also looks toward a future in which hip-hop and European -- i.e., white -- traditions can co-exist more closely than ever before.
So how does West, whose weaknesses as a rapper are still glaringly evident, hope to match such invention on the mike? The same way he did on Dropout: by being unafraid to carve up some of hip-hop's sacred cows.
West remains at his best when exploring the allure of materialism and its costs. "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" (its self-congratulatory smugness about helping Africans notwithstanding) and the more tongue-in-cheek "Gold Digger" aren't afraid to argue both sides of the same issue, just as "All Falls Down" did to such great effect. On "Addiction," West plays the role of a conflicted devil's advocate with a similarly big question: "Why everything that's supposed to be bad/Make me feel so good?"
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And while there's no "Jesus Walks" here to drive home West's crises of faith, this remains a religious album, the product of a deeply conflicted man who all but admits that his braggadocio is a cover for spiritual uncertainty. That none of the guests here -- Jay-Z and Nas among them -- walk away with their respective tracks testifies to just how compelling West's dichotomies can be.
Yet it's ultimately his lyrical shortcomings that prevent Late Registration from being the universally admired effort it aspires to be -- and, indeed, should have been. His Messiah complex and self-pity ("Bring Me Down") don't help, of course, and neither does his now-tired fixation on his unsatisfactory experience with higher ed. But the deeper reason this record isn't the classic it could be is West's transformation into something of a conspiracy nut.
Claiming that the government spreads AIDS, for example, is utter bullshit. It's reverse minstrelsy that finds a smart man playing to the conceits of the mistrustful urban gallery. That such a sentiment clips the wings of the gorgeous "Heard 'Em Say," which should have been a Stevie Wonder-esque anthem of uplift for the next hundred years, is a tragedy. West apparently immersed himself in this crackpot philosophizing -- which he delves into on the militaristic "Crack Music" -- only after having his new work criticized for not being black enough, which is even more discouraging. Worse yet, critics who know better will give this garbage a pass, even though such neglect is a primary reason that hip-hop continues to proudly walk around with a black eye and a bad reputation not entirely undeserved.
The overall greatness of Late Registration makes griping about West's solipsism and naive politicking seem like overkill. But if anyone should be able to understand this sort of disappointment, it's Kanye. From Jay-Z, we expect and reward one-dimensional, self-referential brilliance. From the more artistically ambitious West, we expect more -- but surely not more than he expects from himself.