Kanye West, ‘Late Registration’ (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
“If you talkin’ ’bout classics, do my name get brought up?” This is Kanye West on “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” the single that preceded the release of his second album, inquiring after — or pleading for — the adulation he so nakedly craves. No artist in any genre has ever argued so assiduously for his place in the canon, and perhaps no artist has been more oddly equipped for the position.
A middle-class kid from Chicago with a prep-hop style and an entitlement complex as wide as Lake Michigan, West made his name behind the boards on Jay-Z’s soul-drenched album The Blueprint, then gabbed his way to a Roc-A-Fella chain of his own. Underdogs and dissenters have long thrived at hip-hop’s margins, but backpacker love didn’t sate him — West wanted in. And with The College Dropout, his self-interrogating double-platinum debut, he delivered a masterwork that explored what could happen if the do-gooders got the keys to the mansion. Would they effect change from within? Would power corrupt? Would they redecorate?
In short, The College Dropout was a bildungsroman — not just about West, but about hip-hop itself. And given that West tackled his demons over the best collection of beats on a rap album since The Chronic, it was easy to forget that this very big album came from a man who, just 12 months prior, had been very small.
There will be no such misunderstandings about Late Registration, a follow-up as ornate and bloated as West’s ego. There’s hardly an ounce of humility here — every track aims for the anthemic. On “Bring Me Down,” while Brandy sings dartlike over a swelling orchestra, West laments “hater niggas [who] marry hater bitches and have hater kids.” The aforementioned “Diamonds” turns an ode to the Roc into a remarkable upper-crust musical orgy with a booming Shirley Bassey sample and massive horns and strings that spike in all the right places.
This is thanks, at least in part, to co-executive producer Jon Brion, whose instrumentation gifts have given West the tools to achieve new levels of bombast. Mostly, what Brion does here is indulge West’s longer, harder, bigger impulses, layering tracks with dense instrumentation and justifying the minute-plus space-jam outros — vocal gymnastics on “We Major,” a mellotron-style breakdown on “Celebration” — that sound like they could’ve been lifted from Fiona Apple’s first album.
But West hasn’t foregone hip-hop’s strictures altogether. The breezy “Addiction,” with its skitterstep synths and loose congas, sounds like an homage to early De La Soul. “Drive Slow,” a deliciously tipsy summer anthem, alternately suggests the styles of both the Pharcyde and mannered jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, while the standout track, “Gone,” featuring a blistering verse from Cam’ron, finds West getting indignant over a tough Otis Redding sample: “They claim you never know what you got till it’s gone / I know I got it / I dunno what y’all on.” (West also can’t leave a good idea alone, revisiting the Latin horns from Jay-Z’s “Encore” on “Touch the Sky” and cribbing drum patterns from Dropout’s “Get Em High” for “Gold Digger.”)
Though West showcases a more versatile, eccentric flow than on Dropout, it pales in comparison to his sonic ambition. The offhand conspiracy theorizing on “Crack Music” sounds like the rantings of a teacher who’s run out of facts but is scared to stop talking for fear his ignorance might be revealed. And at times West leans on an aw-shucks quirkiness (“What would you do for a Klondike? / Or two dykes that look Christina Milian-like?”) delivered with the gusto of a man who thinks he invented rhyme.
Once liminal, now integral, West is the person in pop music who is most entitled to overreach and the one most likely to overstep. And there’s no better way to remind the world you made a classic than by shooting for the stars the next time, and missing. “I’m trying to right my wrongs,” West insists on “Touch the Sky.” “But it’s funny / Them same wrongs helped me write this song.” Indeed. Hubris is a bitch.