Superficial or Super Official?

There’s not much I can say about Kanye West the personality that other critics haven’t said.

There’s not much I can say about Kanye West that he hasn’t already said about himself.

One thing I can say is that Kanye is one of music’s most polarizing figures. Yeah, he’s an arrogant bastard who doesn’t fake humility. More importantly, he’s an educated black man with a sense of self-confidence, a rarity in the entertainment industry, where most artists are either hypersexed caricatures or fake thug cartoons. For the lone fact that he is a 3-dimensional hip-hop performer, with all of the contradictions that come with 3-dimensional folks, I give him his well-deserved props.

His debut, College Dropout, remains my favorite album of 2004. Not because of any sort of verbal skill (no, as we all know, Kanye’s not the world’s best MC), but because it had something hip-hop and music in general is missing–heart.   Songs like Family Business and Slow Jamz were well-produced and interesting from a lyrical standpoint, but Kanye possessed a personable quality that turned his songs from something you bop your head to on the radio to something you play incessantly and dissect.   College Dropout provoked emotions.

So, now everyone wants to know what the brother can do for an encore. Even more so, folks want to know if the arrogant Negro will fall flat on his chubby face with the second album.

Not a chance.

Late Registration is easily one of the year’s best releases. From a sonic standpoint, the album is amazing. The production takes a massive step forward, and you’d have to imagine that a good portion of this development has to do with Ye’s decision to put Jon Brion in the co-pilot’s seat. Brion’s previous work had been with moody trip-hoppers Portishead and Certified Crazy Bitch Fiona Apple.

Brion takes swirling strings, horn sections, live bass and drums and Kanye retains his boom-bap. It sounds like a true “meeting of the minds” collaboration between the two producers. With the added production elements, the album amazingly doesn’t lose any of its hip-hop essence, sounding instead like hip-hop on steroids. Recruiting Brion was a great move for West, because the music sustains listeners even when Kanye the MC (or one of his guest emcees) turns in a lackluster performance.

After following through on his promise to be successful, you’d expect Late Registration to be much more of a celebratory effort. But 75% of this album contains music in minor keys or subdued lyrical content.  If you thought there was going to be a party, you came to the wrong house, homie.

Touch The Sky rides pounding drums and a bright horn-filled Curtis Mayfield sample. It’s the album’s one true “party” track, and only slightly sullied by the presence of Lupe Fiasco, the rapper whose rhymes suck more than his name.

Considering the album is jam-packed with guest performances, the cameos are fairly unobtrusive.   Only Jay-Z outright steals the spotlight on the Diamonds From Sierra Leone remix. Kanye drops a tight verse, in which he discovers the horrors of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone and questions whether he feels comfortable wearing diamonds. The song’s production has a dramatic, orchestral sweep.   Hov jumps in mid-second verse and proceeds to obliterate the track.   Jay professes loyalty to his Roc-A-Fella artists, references sampled vocalist Shirley Bassey, chuckles a bit, then says “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”,  quite possibly the hip-hop one liner of 2005.

One of several interesting segues is the Jay-assisted track being followed by a Nas-assisted track.  Remember, Kanye produced Takeover. Mr. “Catch Me, I’m Falling!” himself appears on the laborious We Major, and his verse is the only thing vaguely redeeming there.

Most of the album’s tone is either defensive or melancholy, rare for a hip-hop album, especially with rap’s current hedonism fixation.

Drive Slow might be the first track featuring gold-grilled rapping Caucasian Paul Wall that I don’t hate with every bit of my soul. The song’s cool, relaxed sound has a jazzy, hipster vibe, and I don’t even get mad when they “screw up” the song’s ending and slow it down so it sounds like a tape slowly getting caught in your cassette player.

Crack Music offers an interesting analogy of Kanye comparing his music making with 1980s style coke trade, but what I find most interesting is the connection with the previous track. The moody My Way Home features no Kanye at all.   Common drops a quick set-up verse against a mournful sample of celebrated poet/vocalist (and crack addict) Gil-Scott Heron.  Crack Music then references Heron by name. The whole thing is a very well assembled cluster of music.  Kanye closes by reciting a warped version of The Lord’s Prayer over cascading strings sounding as hazy and bizarre as a crack high.  It’s a musical excursion similar to the ending of  Water by The Roots. although, thankfully, it’s much shorter.

Roses finds Kanye and his family at his ailing grandmother’s hospital bedside. Again, the backdrop is mournful, with Bill Withers’ deep, sad voice floating against a lengthy and uncredited vocal passage from Patti La Belle, one of the few singers who can move you to tears without saying an actual word. Cheering things up is  Hey Mama, the obligatory Black male momma-tribute that sounds heartfelt and sincere. You can’t listen to this song without smiling about Kanye’s admiration of his mom. These two songs reflect West’s ability to paint lyrical pictures of everyday life, a quality lost in the surge of MCs trying to out-ghetto one another.

One unfortunate consequence of Kanye’s College Dropout success is the continuing appearance of  love songs. Much like Mos Def’s recent Modern Marvel, Kanye croons to the ladies with mixed results on several tracks. Addiction features a tasty Etta James sample and is seductive despite Kanye’s messy rhyming.   He repeats the formula in much more vulgar fashion on Celebration.   When even I think that the line “it’s a celebration, bitches” is getting tired, you know it’s time to retire the line.   The candy-pop track simply makes things worse and should have been given to someone like Bow Wow.

Much like College Dropout there’s a sense that Late Registration would be better with fewer tracks. While the first album’s skits did a little bit to connect the story of the album together, they were still too many. The skits continue here and break the album’s overall cohesion. If your name is not De La Soul, you shall not put more than 2 skits on your album. And it shall be so.

If you liked College Dropout, you’ll dig Late Registration.  The two albums are far apart in quality.  The production is cinematic. If you have a great sound system or good headphones, many little instrumental nuances will draw you further in to the experience.  Kanye remains a personable guy. This album’s more human, more witty,  than 90% of hip-hop out there. Although Ye won’t win any rap battles, listening to his voicals is like listening to a singer who may hit a few off notes, but whose overall style makes you appreciate them a lot more than someone who does vocal runs over cold, passionless music. Besides, emcees from Tupac to Chuck D. have made thrilling hip-hop music despite medicore  rapping skills.

Late Registration is not as good as College Dropout, but comparing them may be unfair because the latter set a precedent.  While I’m still conflicted (although not by diamonds from Sierra Leone), I’m sure that Late Registration is a good, often great, album although judicious editing would have made it more so.