Kanye West has sprinkled Miracle-Gro and moisture upon the dry, infertile soil of modern, major-label hip hop. West’s newest, Late Registration, is a work of musical self-conviction and vision that signals a shift as large and profound as Tupac’s grand entrance into the ’90s. Unlike Pac, who changed the fundamental way that both rapping and the rapper were approached, West is a pioneer of the music behind the individual: the sound, the melody.
Hardly a household name until his unannounced explosion into the mainstream in 2004 — College Dropout, Kanye’s vibe was quickly felt all over the radio. From Jay-Z’s infectious “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” to the critically acclaimed Quality by then-underground artist Talib Kweli, West began to gather a reputation as the philosopher’s stone of hip hop: a producer who could take any idea and turn it into gold. Despite his increasing rolodex of rappers looking for his magic, his solo debut, College Dropout, barely concluded production after his near-fatal and now mythologized, car crash in 2002.
Everything that made College Dropout a success both critically and commercially remains on its sequel: the soulful hooks, subliminally venomous and sardonic lyrics and a mix of the political and the material inhabit this large, 21-track beast. The most pronounced difference, though, is the arrival of co-producer Jon Brion — the name behind rock-heavy, occasionally orchestral movie soundtracks like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Brion ornaments songs like “Roses” and “We Major” with choral and stringed arrangements that sound like lost tracks from Stevie Wonder or Fiona Apple (a former Brion client). These rarely heard instruments in hip hop add charm and personality to the music: chimes, jazz organs, horns. Brion’s Mozart-gone-funk classicism mixed with West’s infallible nose for slinky rhythms get as close to old-school beauty as The Roots or A Tribe Called Quest did.
Along with the goose bump-inducing tunes, Kanye West’s lyrics have improved since his debut. While his vocal cadence is still unimpressive, West’s lyrics have become more poetic and complex. In “Crack Music,” he laments problems of drug addiction, recognizes that rap is the musical representation of this strife and reflects on the spread of addiction of both rap and drugs to the white community, “Those who ain’t even black even use it / We gonna keep baggin’ up this here crack music.”
From the politically conscious lyrics of “Crack Music” and “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” West also unleashes the utterly material and misogynistic lyrics of “Celebration” and “Gold Digger.” Underlying this dual attitude is always a self-awareness of the larger paradox black Americans live; a choice between materialism and “selling out” one’s black identity. West’s resolution? Fuck it and live it all. Be smart. Get big cars. Do drugs. Condemn homophobia on MTV. Keep your tongue in cheek and then waggle it at the haters.
Kanye West succeeds as a diverse jockey of both wax and ideas. This album is about rethinking our current situation with race, politics and life. It screams out in celebration of decadence and fun, but takes seriously tragedy and failure. It is an impressive gathering of guest rappers, borrowed samples and other disparate elements. It is a reminder of hip hop’s potential and a benchmark for music to come. And most importantly, it’s great.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars