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Sophomore slump?
Kanye Westís class-y return to the top of the charts
Related Links

Kayne West's official Web site

Damien Mccaffery reviews Kayne West's The College Dropout.

Matt Ashare talks about West at the Grammys.

As everyone knows, whether youíre good or bad, no one loves you like your mama. So maybe itís no surprise that Kanye Westís mother has offered the ultimate defense of her sonís hugely ambitious August 30 release Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella). Quoted in a Time cover story, this recently retired chair of the English Department at Chicago State University compared her notoriously egotistical son to the ur-egoist of American art: "Itís like Walt Whitman said, ĎDo I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.í "

Westís multitudinous contradictions were first laid out in early 2004 on The College Dropout, which ended up as 2004ís biggest critical success and its most surprising commercial hit, selling nearly three million copies in the US. Released by Jay-Zís thug-hugging personal imprint Roc-A-Fella, the disc opened with a sing-song defense of drug dealers as a lesson for "the kids" ("We wasnít supposed to make it past 25/The jokeís on you, we still alive") and flashed plenty of bling, blunts, and breasts from there while also taking every opportunity to mock the higher education that West had failed to achieve.

Yet through the partying, the 27-year-old producer and rapper also painted as rich and poignant a portrait of young African-American life as popular music has created. His songs touched on funk, gospel, blues, "Slow Jamz," and a broad sample of hip-hop past and present, a worthy accompaniment to raps that honored the black struggle for success as a search for redemption. On the one hand, this achievement revived the art of sampling in commercial rap (it had come to rely largely on simple keyboard riffs to avoid the hassle of licensing); on the other, it proved that new rappers donít have to be gangbangers to reach the top. In fact, at several points West went so far as to question the rampant materialism that fuels hip-hop culture, not excluding his own burning drive to live larger than life. ("I got a problem with spending before I get it/We all self-conscious, Iím just the first to admit it.") If the discís audacity hinted at Kanyeís supersized ego ó an ego that heís vented in numerous public displays of pouting since The College Dropoutís release ó its moral core expressed the same self-mocking equivocation that bedevils us average mortals.

Which is why as everyone also knows ó at least everyone who cares about American art as a living force ó Kanye Westís follow-up has been the most anticipated album of the year. Time was so inspired by his achievements that it put the question of "race and class" in the headline of its cover story and included a double-fold flow chart of hip-hop history, with Westís photo in the corner looming larger than any other rapperís. The New Yorker tried to limit the hype, running a two-page review that characterized his music as "divertingly odd." And yet even this piece, by Sasha Frere-Jones, called Late Registration "thrilling" (as well as "frustrating") and admitted it was full of "terrific music," a conclusion that over the past week has been echoed in reviews published from Atlanta to Australia. By weekís end the Washington Post was projecting that Late Registration might sell as many as 800,000 copies its first week out, an amount topped this year only by 50 Centís The Massacre.

If you can step back far enough, they make a fitting pair. No matter how many sovereign nations the US invades, our military will never match the global conquests made by our popular culture, and at this moment that cultureís most awesome fighting machine, as metaphorically lethal and technologically sleek as a B-1 bomber, is the kind of hip-hop made by Kanye West and 50 Cent. At one level, the two performers operate at opposite ends of commercial rapís spectrum, with 50ís thug persona inhabiting an area no bigger than a 38-caliber shell casing and Kanye West swallowing 50ís posture along with the rest of African-American popular culture. And yet 50 has dominated the radio and clubs with simple, smooth, half-mumbled raps and ornate, haunting, instantly catchy electro-funk, a combo thatís a close cousin to Westís simple, mid-tempo, nasal flow and ornate, soulful, instantly catchy samples. What they both prove is that commercial hip-hop is no longer primarily about masterful rhyming and powerful flow (if it ever was) but about persona and production.

The shortcomings in Westís rapping are more noticeable on Late Registration than they were on The College Dropout, probably because the disc strains the persona that was so arresting on his debut. As before, his style is characterized by conversational, slightly pleading one-liners whose delivery is as dry as an aging Borscht Belt comedianís. At one point on the albumís first single, he sarcastically informs a "Gold Digger" about her competition, "They gonna keep calliní and tryiní, but you stay bright girl/And when you get on" ó and here the music drops out ó "he leave your ass for a white girl."

Funny? Yes. But gold diggers are the hip-hop equivalent of "take my wife, please." Before, Kanye was able to connect his own rise to the struggles of his peers, and by extension African-Americans in general. But thatís a connection that can work only once. As indicated by its "groan-inducing title" (Entertainment Weekly), Late Registration follows hip-hop fashion by offering a thematic sequel that mostly goes nowhere. Instead, the main moral quandary for Kanye at this point is "why everything thatís supposed to be bad make me feel so good?" Itís a genuine issue in our hedonistic culture, but not half as compelling (or, if you prefer, as "diverting") as the struggle for recognition and respect that has so many powerful race-and-class overtones. Kanye may be the son of a college professor (and of a black single mom), but in mainstream hip-hop, that makes him a double outsider, like the Fugees and Eminem, the last great rap acts to approximate his position and achievement.

So instead, Late Registration maintains its command by upping the ante on the other avenue that Westís outsider status allows him to exploit ó his production. If "Gold Digger" works a tired theme, itís revitalized by the loop of Ray Charlesís "I Got a Woman," whose captivating groove proves how narrow most other rappersí sonic choices are. Like most of songs here, "Gold Digger" was co-produced by Jon Brion, an orchestral-pop maestro who has helped everyone from Fiona Apple to the producers of Magnolia realize their ornate, melancholy visions with plangent strings and horns.

The partnership is unparalleled in hip-hop history, and it proved so daring that West even withdrew four tracks when some fans complained that the album was sounding too white. Some critics have rued that change, but itís symptomatic of the creative tension that fuels Westís career, forcing him to address his base with daring numbers like "Crack Music," which is not just an exposé of the drug trade but a complex celebration of hip-hopís ghetto payback: "Now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammys/Now this dark diction has become Americaís addiction." It all comes home on the loaded single "Diamonds from Sierra Leone." Backed by a sample of Shirley Basseyís James Bond theme "Diamonds Are Forever," the number was gripping enough when it was simply a track about the problems of egotism, but then, after learning about the bloody diamond wars in Africa, Kanye remixed it with lines like "Over here itís the drug trade; we die from drugs/Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs."

Is he going to give his chain back? "Thatíll be the day the same day I give the game back." In other words, Mama said knock you out.

Issue Date: September 9 - 15, 2005
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