On Late Registration Kanye West ventures into the sort of rough psychological waters few MCs dare to tread. Moments of self-doubt crop up, while thorny questions regarding personal integrity and undue entitlement seemingly threaten to capsize West's platinum-plus career. But in the end no one -- especially not the man himself -- doubts that the Chicago producer will overcome these interior storms. After all, he is the chosen one -- a critically ordained, commercially blessed artist who arose from a desert of bling and bang to rescue real hip-hop. And to say West doesn't succeed in this quest isn't to say Late Registration is a failure. It's a beautiful and in some ways groundbreaking album. But it also isn't the masterpiece West so desperately wants it to be.
But as far as pop production, the disc is nearly flawless. It marks a departure from the old-school hip-hop formalism of West's previous work, which reinforced soul samples with frequently sketchy drum patterns and the occasional instrumental accompaniment. Late Registration does have those sort of throwback jams -- "Touch the Sky" interweaves a sample of Curtis Mayfield with a beautiful, prolonged horn solo, while "My Way Home" wallows in the sultry elegance of Rhodes keystrokes and a Gil Scott Heron snippet -- but what ultimately distinguishes the album's production is the addition of Jon Brion.
Best known as the composer of scores for films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brion produces nearly half the album, and though his contributions are subtle -- the disconcerting atmospherics of "Roses" and the rhythmic garnishments of "Heard 'Em Say" -- their cumulative effect is palpable. Late Registration feels more polished than its predecessor; it is a pop album that references hip-hop rather than vice versa. Say what you will about that aesthetic, but it is both stunning and refreshing to hear West in this context.
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As an MC, West is less successful. Much is made of him as the conscious rapper, but he's also hip-hop's foremost narcissist -- an individual humanist only in so far that he is human. Universal themes run through Late Registration -- the unrestrained impulsiveness of "Addiction," the mother-loving tenderness of "Hey Mama" -- but they're too affected and too clichéd to engender actual empathy. Even the chorus of "Addiction" asks a question -- "Why is it that everything that's supposed to be so bad makes me feel so good?" -- that sounds better suited for a spring break episode of The O.C.
Really, West sounds most at home when he's enshrining himself in the sheer hip-hop bombast. Whether we're talking about the celebratory punch of "We Major" or the passive-aggressive braggadocio of "Golddiggers" or "Bring Me Down," it's clear that West believes in himself much more than he doubts. And these tracks do nothing if not confirm that Late Registration is a good album -- and if you're a true believer in Kanye, it might even be a great album. But don't mistake a few hot cuts for a revolution.