Kanye West is almost as good as he thinks he is
Guess it's time to finally explain why Kanye is the man and, additionally, why Late Registration is actually an improvement on the (still awesome) College Dropout.
First, two big changes from the first album that make up at least half the difference:
1) Forget the endless, 10-minute orgy of unedited inarticulacy that closed Dropout. Instead, the amazing song "Gone" (more on this below) gives in to 30 seconds of silence, followed by two disciplined bonus tracks: "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," the first single that emerged when it still seemed like the album would meet its original June release date, and "Late," in which Kanye half-sheepishly, half-arrogantly apologizes for taking fucking forever to put out this follow-up.
2) The skits are actually funny this time. Kanye may still have his anti-education grind on, but he's focused his aim this time on frats. And we can all agree that frats are stupid. Best line: "Do you remember when your mama walked into the room and pretended she was the Christmas tree?"
So: about this whole arrogance problem some critics seem to be having. Since when has hubris annoyed writers accustomed, for the most part, to taking Jay-Z's walking on water and the Game's comparison of himself with MLK Jr. totally in stride? Maybe it's just that those two rappers tend to cut loose on their tracks but give relatively gracious interviews (esp. given that Jay-Z now has a corporate empire to run), while Kanye transfers his persona straight from track to interview. And I'm still not sure why his claims that he's single-handedly saving hip-hop are that much more arrogant than the dour, self-righteous backpackers of the 90s we don't have to take seriously anymore, who showered everyone who wasn't them with scorn. But whatever; dismissing this album because Kanye can't live up to his own hyperbole at all times is like refusing to listen to Franz Ferdinand because they get radio play. It's annoying for a certain kind of music fan, and I sort of sympathize, but it's totally irrelevant. Beulah thought they were better than Bob Dylan, but I think we're all over it.
Anyway: from its opening on, Registration is quite clearly a more collaborative album than Dropout. The most publicity has (rightfully) gone to Jon Brion, but before we even get there consider opening song "Heard 'Em Say." Here, Kanye puts his diciest collaboration (with Adam Levine of - shock/anger/disgust/etc. - Maroon 5) first (it's also presumably standing in for that John Mayer track that didn't make the final cut). It sounds like both of them, with the hook quite clearly ready for soft-rock if Kanye doesn't use it, but it meshes perfectly with him. Where Dropout kicked off with the epic, Broadway opening-number blast of "We Don't Care," Registration has nothing to prove, and starts off soft.
The next number, "Touch The Sky," is bombast like you'd expect. But it's not Kanye; it's the other crate-digging 70s-soul-sample hot-touch producer, Just Blaze, and it's a perfect example of his exuberant knack for digging out perfect horn lines and recontextualizing. Then comes "Gold Digger," the currently ubiquitous single, which is sonically on the light side and features another reference to Geico (dude really likes his Geico references, I guess). Then there's a skit. And then the album proper takes off.
What follows is basically an uninterrupted string of musical experimentation between West and Brion. Those familiar with both their work should be able to easily pin down which sounds belong to whom - they're so distinctive in their production choices. Generally, the foundations belong to West; mellotrons (and mellow/distinctive keyboards in general), subtle percussive touches, weird electronic sounds, and string arrangements belong to Brion. Together, they expand each other's musical worlds way faster than they would've working seperately. "Roses" might've made a decent Aimee Mann song, what with its minor-chord keys and general melancholy, but it's a killer when you add Kanye's substantive bitterness about his grandma dying and wailing back-up singers. It goes the other way on "Drive Slow," which could've been a rote salute to aimless teenage driving without Brion's melancholy support (which, incidentally, also makes an oddly appropriate back-up to the guest turn from Paul Wall, a dude who has absolutely nothing in common with Kanye's progressive streak but does manage to pull out a line like "The disco ball in my mouth insinuates that I'm balling").
Kanye's flow will never be perfect, which may be why he's the only rapper I can actually remember whole verses with and lip-synch along (my ineptitude with remembering lyrics and complicated flow is staggering). Occasionally he's downright retarded, as in the otherwise touching "Hey Mama" (whose sentimentality gets a big boost out of Brion's funky electronic bassline and Kanye's exultant whoop which starts each verse) when he proposes, re black poetry: "Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni/turn the page and there's my mommy," and also on "Crack Music," which proposes that the success of rap music with white audiences is some kind of bizarre revenge or counter-effect of the 80s crack epidemic, which was all the fault of white people. But West is always himself, personable, honest, and generally entertaining (his goofy threesome proposal at the end of "Addictions" is a classic). Speaking of lyrics, Jay-Z provides one of two indelible, must-hear moments on the album on "Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)" with the year's most dramatic introduction of any guest in any context: he doesn't wait for a full-blown intro, just jumping in right as Kanye asks (in the voice of his haters) "What's up with you and J, y'all OK, man?" "YUP!" yells Jay, as the music drops out: "I got it from here, 'ye, damn!" What follows are some of the most compelling 1:13 of the year.
And that other indelible moment. "Gone" is the summation of everything this album does right. In 5:30, West balances an effective soul sample against his own rapping, Cam'Ron's meaningless but fun wordplay (aside: so when did Cam'Ron becomes a surrealist anyway? One second dude is making stuff like "Hey Ma," where a compelling reason for a young lady to hook up with him is because they have their love of alcohol, smoking, and car ownership in common, which leads to a chorus of "We gonna get it on tonight," and the next he doesn't make any sense. But try not being entertained when he says "Be gone, I don't need you. Poof! Poof!"), GLC's virtuoso rhyme-stream/narrative, and Brion's incredibly dramatic, swooping string arrangement. It pushes rap production further than the last two years of the Neptunes' career.
To sum up: fuck the hatas. Kanye has made (as of this writing) the best album of two respective years. Ignoring what this says about my boredom with the current music scene, that's one righteous achievement. It's hard to tell how long he can keep it up (har har): maybe another unlikely producer collaboration is in order? In my dreams, he hooks up with Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, The Delgados) and makes the most overblown CD of any genre ever. In the meantime, ignore the boringness of his work with Common et al. This is the real thing.