Kanye knows what works

BY BY BRIAN CHEN
Daily Arts Writer
Published September 10, 2007

Hip hop hasn't had many figures as self-contradictory as Kanye West - his undeniable talent belied by his insecurities, his social convictions battling his braggadocio. But here he is: a walking, talking contradiction sitting atop the rap game.

Upon the release of his debut album, West immediately entered the domain of commercially and critically successful rappers. With Late Registration, he avoided the sophomore slump and delivered another excellent album while expanding his production style. In his third outing, Graduation, West subtly experiments with new sounds and adds refined nuances to his expansive production palette.

In terms of production, West is as sonically inventive as he's ever been. Once known exclusively for his chipmunk sampling, West is now in complete command of his beat-making arsenal, combining melodic samples with several layers of instrumentation. Album opener "Good Morning" stands among the best of West's productions, combining gospel howls, synthesizers and strings, all over a bone-crushing bass.

There's no lack of diversity, either. West's musical influences extend past traditional hip hop. "Stronger," boasting a thunderous Daft Punk sample, finds West venturing into digital techno territory. On the other end of the spectrum, "Everything I Am" uses a soft piano-driven beat, featuring scratches by the great DJ Premier. "Flashing Lights," one of the album's best tracks, contrasts a slow section of strings and an ecstatic chorus of synthesizers playing staccato.

Unlike The College Dropout and Late Registration, where he surrounded himself with greats like Nas and Jay-Z, West is the sole rapper on this album (Lil Wayne, surprisingly, is the one unremarkable exception). On the mic, he has always been average, usually depending on simple rhymes and semi-comic punch lines. For Graduation, West admitted to simplifying his rhymes further to reach a wider audience, and the results are almost embarrassing: "They'd rather give me the 'nigga please' award / But I'll just take the 'I got a lot of cheese' award."

To his credit, the verbal simplification smartly orients the listener's ear to West's terrific production. At times, Kanye even puts away his infamous swagger, shutting his mouth and allowing his beats room to breathe. The change works, though it occasionally wears thin, with the instrumental coda of "Stronger" running about a minute too long.

When West turns the spotlight to his lyrics, the results are unimpressive. The Nottz-produced "Barry Bonds" is an egregious misstep, using a simplistic beat more akin to a freestyle backdrop. The production is inconspicuous to a fault; West lacks the lyrical chops to impress on wordplay alone, rapping, "I'm doing pretty good as far as geniuses go / I'm doing pretty hood in my pink polo." And then there's Weezy's lackluster appearance. Normally, he would eviscerate a track like this, but here he drops an uncharacteristically anemic verse: "I don't front / and I don't go backwards / and I don't practice / and I don't lack shit." Another problem is Graduation's lack of introspection. Here West generally opts for bottle-popping anthems rather than reflections on his own shortcomings.

But to complain about Graduation's lyrical deficiencies would be to miss the point entirely. For hip-hop albums, it's usually a bad sign when the production overwhelms the verbal content. But Kanye West isn't like most rappers, and his albums aren't like most others'. He won't ever make an album like Illmatic or Ready to Die. Rather than lyrical labyrinths, West crafts musical ventures in which lyrics are little more than an afterthought. It's but another of Mr. West's intriguing dualities: he's no lyricist, yet he's found massive success, both commercially and critically.

For all his contradictions, Kanye West is at least consistent: He's three for three.