When Kanye West shrugged off a proposed public debate between himself and 50 Cent over whose disc would debut higher this week, it could have seemed like he was backing away from a fight. But it’s obvious from Graduation, his third album, that West’s only real contest is with himself. On his previous, wildly popular releases The College Dropout and Late Registration, West proved himself a talented producer, but only a serviceable rapper. Now, he seems bent on rectifying that — an admirable goal these days, when multitasking usually means spinning off a clothing line or your own brand of beverage before you’ve made a great CD. (Incidentally, 50 did not provide his record for review in time for publication.) Sadly, Graduation doesn’t quite establish West as the supreme double threat he dreams of being.

In hip-hop there’s a beloved tradition of brilliant beatsmiths making flawed but valiant stands at the mic: Diamond D, Pete Rock, the Beatnuts. Like his punchline-dependent predecessors, West stuffs his lyrics with enough humor to occasionally gloss over his wobbly pacing and self-conscious pronunciation. On the sinister, loping ”Barry Bonds” (featuring Lil Wayne), he shrewdly plays upon his well-publicized egotism. ”I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go,” he says, sounding almost casual enough to persuade us. But West is just as often overeager, throwing undue emphasis behind contrived boasts like this groaner from ”Good Life”: ”Have you ever popped champagne on a plane/While getting some brain?/Whipped it out, she said, ‘I never saw snakes on a plane.”’ Contrasted with such corniness, earnest moments like the somber, self-critical album closer, ”Big Brother” — about West’s strained relationship with mentor Jay-Z — can’t come soon enough.

West’s vocal mediocrity wouldn’t be so glaring if the production were more of a diversion. There are no truly tragic compositions on Graduation — though the droning ”Drunk and Hot Girls” could have been half as irritating at twice the speed — but most of the music just seems uninspired. West’s skill in layering keys, strings, and vocals to coax the melodies out of samples is wasted here on loops that aren’t that winning. Only the slow, skewered piano riff of ”Everything I Am,” which borrows from Prince Phillip Mitchell’s ”If We Can’t Be Lovers,” stands out among Graduation‘s found sounds. West notes at the track’s start that he originally offered the blissful instrumental to his buddy Common, which makes you wonder how much of his best material West has given away. Maybe Kanye West the producer and Kanye West the rapper should stop competing and look out for each other a little better. B-
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