Kanye West is the man of the hour


August 30, 2005


The hype has been considerable: Last week, a cover story in Time -- a rare honor for any musician other than Bruce Springsteen or Bono -- declared him "the smartest man in pop music."

During Live 8 in June and the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, his performances were among the most anticipated. Retailers hope his second album will be the best-selling disc of 2005. And we're not even considering his own nonstop bragging.

Nevertheless, as the much-anticipated "Late Registration" arrives in stores today, it's hard to deny that Chicago's Kanye West has done it again.

Some skepticism is justified: In terms of his delivery as a rapper, West scores between a "B" and a "B-." He is sometimes overshadowed by his own guests, including free-styling fellow Chicagoan Common, whose West-produced "Be" remains the best hip-hop album of 2005, though "Late Registration" follows as a close second.

The four skits are pointless distractions and a tired hip-hop cliche. And the 28-year-old West's self-promotion does get tedious. Among the many boasts here: "I forgot better s--- than you ever thought of" and "I'm ahead of my time/ Sometimes years out."

This self-trumpeting has a place in the hip-hop world, where it seems designed as a deterrence machine asserting that this well-behaved, impeccably groomed buppie is as dangerous and well-armed in his own way as notorious b-boys such as 50 Cent. But West is the only one who doesn't realize he's reached a level where bragging is superfluous.

If "Late Registration" isn't quite the stellar achievement of the intensely personal "Through the Wire" or the inspired "Jesus Walks" from last year's triple-platinum "The College Dropout," it does confirm West's standing as the brightest star in hip-hop today, thanks to a broad musical vision that crafts indelible hooks from the orchestral arrangements of co-producer Jon Brion (best known for work with Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann) and impeccably chosen soul samples (see list on Page 37).

Just as important are the lyrics, which continue to provide a more vibrant, honest and well-rounded view of the African-American experience than any gangsta rap record, touching on complex issues of politics, family and religion as well as the thug life and the joys of mindless partying.

Witness "Gold Digger." At first, the track seems to be a pandering assault on the money-grubbing "bitches and ho's" berated by so many misogynistic rappers. "Now I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger/But she ain't messing with no broke niggaz," West raps, but he turns this attack inside-out in the last verse. After urging women to stand by their working-class men, he criticizes a brother who finally "makes it into a Benz out of that Datsun" only to leave his black girlfriend "for a white girl."

Showing that his political consciousness is evolving -- no doubt stemming from his college professor mom and Black Panther father -- West delivers a new version of "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" that questions the exploitation of workers in Africa's diamond mines. It's hard to imagine Diddy or 50 Cent thinking for a second about the source of their hip-hop bling.

The politics aren't always well-informed. "I know the government administers AIDS," West claims in "Heard 'em Say," repeating a dangerous conspiracy theory that detracts from his much more valid questioning of the hypocrisies of the war on drugs and the war in Iraq. "Crack raised the murder rate in D.C. and Maryland/We invested in that/It's like we got Merrill-Lynched," he raps in "Crack Music," before going on to ask, "Who gave Saddam anthrax?/ George Bush [has] got the answers."

Right or wrong, consistent or contradictory, superficial or substantive -- and he is all of these at times -- West should be lauded for struggling with issues beyond his own resume and his wallet, and for fearlessly sharing his emotions on tracks such as "Hey Mama," a moving tribute to his mother that has been a mix-tape favorite for several years, and "Roses," where he stands at the bedside of his dying grandmother and realizes that his fame and fortune are meaningless in the face of the fragility of life: "I asked the nurse, 'Did you do the research?'/She asked me, 'Can you sign some T-shirts?'/B----, is you smoking reefer?/You don't see that we hurt?"

In the end, "Late Registration" gives listeners plenty to think about while providing one of the most joyful rides hip-hop has ever produced. West knows that sometimes we all just need to groove --"Right now I need you to mute all the monologue/All that talking is gonna give me a Tylenol," he declares in the good-times anthem "Celebration" -- and in the end his biggest talent is to make life, with all of its ups and downs, seem like a party that shouldn't be missed.

Kanye's musical alchemy

Kanye West isn't the first hip-hop producer to make magic by altering samples from classic soul tracks, incorporating pop vocalists and unexpected lifts from other genres, or using left-field elements such as sawing violins and tinkling grand pianos.

West's genius as a musical chef rests in the ingredients he chooses, and in how he mixes them together in ways that seem fresh and unique. Here is a look at some of the elements in the complex stew of "Late Registration."

Adam Levine of lite-popsters Maroon 5 (who stole the 2004 best new artist Grammy from West) adds soulful crooning while the gorgeous piano is sampled from Natalie Cole's recording of "Someone That I Used to Love."

Guest rapper Lupe Fiasco lends bombastic shout-outs, while the track revolves around the undeniable horns from Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up."

Actor Jamie Foxx channels Ray Charles on a signature vocal hook, while Charles himself provides a sample from the classic "I Got a Woman."

Samples Hank Crawford and adds rappers Paul Wall & GLC.

Common does the too-short guest rap, while the perfectly chosen sample hails from Gil Scott-Heron's "Home Is Where the Hatred Is."

Features a one-line hook from rapper the Game and a performance of "Since You Came in My Life" by the New York Community Choir.

Built on a sample of "Rosie" by Bill Withers.

Sublime vocals by R&B singer Brandy combine with a full orchestra recorded at Capitol Recording Studio in Hollywood.

Incorporates bits of Etta James' take on "My Funny Valentine."

West's mentor Jay-Z drops by for a cameo, while the inspired sample is Shirley Bassey's recording of "Diamonds Are Forever."

Features guest raps from Nas and Really Doe and a sample of "Action" by Orange Krush (also heard in Run-DMC's "Sucker MCs").

Built on a sample of Donal Leace's "Today Won't Come Again."

Samples the deep dusty "Heavenly Dream" by the KayGees.

Built on a minimal piano melody and featuring samples from "It's Too Late" by Otis Redding and raps by Consequence and Cam'Ron.