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Growing by Degrees

Kanye West adds new subtlety, complexity, and Jon Brion to the idea of sophomoric

Kanye West
Late Registration
Roc-A-Fella
Kanye West did not arrive unheralded.

Between his production credits and his Jay-Z connection, The College Dropout was winter 2004's presold hip-hop debut the way Game's The Documentary was winter 2005's. Relative to Jayceon Taylor's bullet holes and career in sales, however, West was pretty anonymous--he lacked that realness thing. But when The College Dropout blew up, the preppy-looking double threat became E! material. Did he worship Christ or Mammon? RZA or Puff Daddy? Backpack or bling? Was he respectful or, oh no, arrogant? Was he put on earth to save hip-hop from whatever? West's jewelry was appraised. It was learned that his sainted mother was an English prof and his absent father a Black Panther turned Christian marriage counselor. He scandalized the scandalmongers by announcing that he damn right had more jam than Gretchen Wilson, then wrote a quasi-apology that had diamonds in it. When he tacked on a verse about Sierra Leone, he was chided for his failure to earn a degree in geopolitics first.

All this celebrity profiling preceded the August 30 release of West's heralded-to-the-nth sophomore Late Registration. Though a few journos obtained clandestine preliminary copies, most got the jump editors demand in the instant-information age via one-shot listening sessions. Old fart me, I just biked over to Virgin at 10:15 August 29--Late Registration was on the sound system, isn't that illegal?--and bought a copy with a knot of collegiate-looking African Americans at the stroke of 11:58. Since then I've immersed--the realistic way, with breaks to let my mind and ears adjust. But I still couldn't tell you whether it's better or worse than The College Dropout, and neither could West. He's too close to have any perspective, he wouldn't tell the truth if he did, and his judgment is so skewed he's crazy about The Documentary and that Common joint he produced.

Statistically, chances are it's worse. Few albums meet the measure of The College Dropout, a winsome thing that performed the rare feat of deepening with overexposure--the samples, the jokes, the skits, all that shallow stuff. While Late Registration may harbor something as brilliant as "All Falls Down," "Slow Jamz," or "We Don't Care"--the wickedest opener since Eminem's "My Name Is," flipping pop morality the bird in a laff riot of racial solidarity and sociological fact--it can't harbor anything as startling, because The College Dropout set the surprise bar too high. Nor can it harbor anything as funny, because if it did we'd already know--like Eminem, West has cut down on the comedy now that he's taken seriously, and let's hope he gets over it. Nevertheless, no reviewer's deadline is long enough to plumb this music. Even the one-dimensional "Hey Mama" tosses off an oxymoronic "I promise you I'm going back to school" before milking West's oft dissed flow to rhyme "chocolates," "doctorate" "profit with," and "opposite," and the epic grandma eulogy "Roses" lauds the extended family and interrogates the hospital system while plucking heartstrings you thought were tougher than that.

In both cases, as is the rule on this record, the rhymes are real good and the music is better--not the samples per se, from the obscure black folkie Donal Leace and a newly unearthed Bill Withers demo, but their contextualization and deployment. "Roses"'s Ervin Pope-Keenan Holloway keyb-and-bass combo is more effective than Withers, but West's prize catch, audibly enriching at least half his new songs, is co-producer Jon Brion. It's silly to marvel over the rap-Fiona Apple hookup--we expect guts and imagination of our saviors, and modern pop's canniest orchestrator acts as West's own personal Bernard Herrmann. Unlike Herrmann, Brion doesn't have to be tweaked or seized to solve a musical problem, because he'll do the job himself, adding an unprecedented third element to West's proven meld of hitbound soul hooks and rhythm tracks made or played. There's never been hip-hop so complex and subtle musically, and no matter how much you prefer simple and direct, some of these songs will absolutely sneak up over the long haul--via the folded-in orchestra of "Bring Me Down," the treated John Barry of "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," the Otis-with-strings of "Gone," the Chinese bells and berimbau that finish "Heard 'Em Say."

Each of these songs offers more exquisite details than I could earmark in twice this space, many of them literary, which the English prof's dropout son rightly claims as his calling. But secret brilliance is more likely to emerge from the sops to his hip-hop base, including several added late. The star-as-shorty reminiscence "Drive Slow" winds down into a dire fog. "Gold Diggers," marked by cognitively dissonant Jamie Foxx-as-Ray Charles backup, lays on misogynistic clichés until all of a sudden the oppressed black male West is defending leaves a non-gold digger for a white girl. "Crack Music" enlists Game (dis Kanye's flow, he dares you) in an unpackable gangsta tribute-critique. The seven-minute starboast "We Major" drags collaborator Nas down into West's self-criticism. And when you think on it, the champagne-party come-on "Celebration" is the most ambivalent big-dick lie ever. I suspect the penis in question belongs to R. Kelly--the narrator is one conniving dude.

Mammon in practice, Christ in spirit--that's neat. RZA over Puffy because RZA subsumes Puffy as West subsumes them both. Arrogant for sure, only that's not why he always samples. Anyway, he's as good as he thinks he is--a backpacker at heart who, like many brilliant nerds before him, has accrued precious metal by following his dream. He wants everybody to buy this record. So do I.

Village Voice, Sept. 13, 2005