He may not want to hear this, but Kanye West reminds me sometimes of P. Diddy: Both made their reps as producers before graduating to star rhymers in their own right, and both know the value of a prominent sample. Yet the similarities grind to a halt there. West thinks creatively, not just monetarily; he has an artist’s head and heart, and a brain full of contradictions, all of which run rampant through his second album, Late Registration.
As its groan-inducing title makes clear, Late Registration is the follow-up to last year’s The College Dropout, which had a sonic and philosophical breadth rare for hip-hop albums. West hasn’t stopped thinking big. Late Registration is more cumbersome and burdened than its predecessor — a little less cohesive, a lot less fun — but it rarely fails to engross at nearly every step.
West’s aspirations are apparent in his choice of co-producer for most of the album: Jon Brion, best known for making Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple sound even more idiosyncratic than they are. Brion is hip-hop’s least likely collaborator since Rick Rubin cofounded Def Jam, but West isn’t aiming for standard rap. Oodles of strings and horns, cocktail pianos, and late-Beatle-period flutes appear as often as fisticuff beats. Forget Diddy, actually: Late Registration taps into the same fusion of street life, quiet-storm R&B, and agile pop on which Quincy Jones made his name. ”Hey Mama,” West’s contribution to the ongoing rap subgenre of maternal tributes, has the warmth and soul of an old Chi-Lites single.
On The College Dropout, West claimed to have no use for school. Now that he’s a multiplatinum star, he throws his diploma-free success in our faces, marveling at his good fortune in ”Touch the Sky” (powered by a sample of Curtis Mayfield’s ”Move On Up”). West can still be funny, as when he sings a snippet of ”Leaving on a Jet Plane” in ”Touch the Sky.” But fame has also made him predictably paranoid, whether warning against a ”Gold Digger” (to a taut, grunting beat and Ray Charles sample) or dissing rappers unworthy of his production expertise in ”Gone” and ”Bring Me Down.”
Yet West redeems himself by being unafraid to beat up on his own Grammy-winning self. He cops to an appetite for women, money, and pot in ”Addiction,” which boasts a lithe, effortless Afrobeat groove. In its first incarnation, as a single, ”Diamonds From Sierra Leone” was a fumble, all defensive boasts. The remix (included here along with the original) features new rhymes about how that African country’s diamond mines take lives. It’s West’s retort to his own ”Breathe In Breathe Out” from The College Dropout, which seemed resigned to the bling life. ”Crack Music” feels like a sequel too — to ”Jesus Walks” — but here everyone’s favorite savior has walked right out the door, leaving behind a black community riddled with drugs. The track isn’t as intense as its predecessor, yet its marching-band rhythm and air of dread stay with you. Even the way West raps the one presumably inspirational verse — that Jay-Z ”went from being a broke man to being a dope man to being the president/Look, there’s hope, man” — feels a little desperate, as if West isn’t sure the power of his words can save those already swallowed up in crime and drugs.
Late Registration has fewer skits than The College Dropout but, ironically, more filler. ”Drive Slow” starts with West spinning childhood stories, but guest rappers overtake him. You wish you heard a bit of West on ”My Way Home,” which consists of a fluid Common rap wed to a Gil Scott-Heron sample. Yet such oddities are of a piece with this fascinating sprawl of an album. West throws our messy, stressed-out, multiculti world in our faces and dares us to make sense of it — and of him.