Kanye West avoids sophomore jinx with 'Registration'

by Caroline McKenzie | 9/21/05 5:00am

It is somewhat ironic that the two heaviest hitters to guest star on Kanye West's sophomore effort, "Late Registration," unwittingly emphasize the divide between West and the bulk of mainstream American rap. When Jay-Z takes over the second half of "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," he throws down the line -- in typically hotheaded H.O.V.A. fashion -- "I sold kilos of coke / I'm guessing I could sell CDs." On the very next track on the album, "We Major," Nas pops in, spitting, "I heard the beat and I ain't know what to write / First line, should it be about the hos or the ice?"

It is mind-boggling enough that West places the dueling duo of Jay-Z and Nas back-to-back. However, these rhymes should also give listeners pause because they seem to typify the nature of today's generic rap scene. As Jay-Z inadvertently suggests, it's about business more than music at least half the time; in fact, a lot of American hip-hop seems to be recycled nonsense created for the sole purpose of having a music video in which the artist can show off a lot of scantily-clad women and as much bling as possible. Yet radio listeners apparently gobble up the turf wars, the gold teeth and that ridiculous David Banner single, and so it continues.

Nobody is saying that West is guilt-free when it comes to partaking in the more indulgent side of hip-hop; sure, his raps are sometimes about drugs, women, money and whatnot. However, when you think you hear loud thumps in the back of a Kanye West track, it is more likely that you're hearing West beating his chest than wielding a Smith and Wesson.

We can forgive West for his bloated ego because, frankly, he deserves it. His lyrics are consistently fresh, funny and intelligent, and they remain personal and truthful throughout. If anything, West is outrageously honest, to the point of acknowledging his arrogance when he raps, " The international asshole / Who complains about what he is owed?" He adds, "You gotta love it though / Somebody still speaks from his soul."

"Late Registration" proves what was painfully obvious from West's first album: the boy has talent. Still, "Late Registration" does not entirely measure up to his debut. Whereas "The College Dropout" was a tight-knit concept album, with songs that proceeded with beautiful flow and logical clarity, "Late Registration" tries to be a sequel but remains only a half-realized attempt. The back-to-school concept should simply have been forgotten, because the skits are uniformly terrible and the tracks don't really fit into the conceptual storyline in the same way that the tracks on "Dropout" did. Instead, the desire for such a form seems to impede the album, and its presence quickly becomes extraneous.

The album starts off slowly, especially when compared to the hilarious smack on "We Don't Care," the opening track from "Dropout." West acts out his publicly expressed love for pop by featuring Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine on the opener, a twinkly-piano piece titled "Heard 'Em Say." Levine's pretty, high-pitched voice does little for the song, even if the soft rock/rap combo does add a different touch to an already sprawling album.

The second track, "Touch the Sky," also doesn't go much of anywhere. Really, it is an injustice to Curtis Mayfield to sample the classic "Move On Up" in such a dragging manner.

Luckily, the majority of the tracks shine through brilliantly; after the first two mediocre songs, the album really kicks into gear. What follows from this point on is a collection of strong singles ranging from upbeat funk to R&B swing to gritty rap. Although his signature sped-up soul sample is notably absent, West and producer Jon Brion manage to pack in just about everything else.

Jamie Foxx returns as a Kanye-collaborator on the album's second single, "Gold Digger," a swinging piece anchored by Foxx's amazingly powerful tones and -- appropriately enough -- rotating around a Ray Charles snippet. It seems that Foxx brings out West's wit because "Gold Digger" has some of his freshest lines since his Jacko crack on "Slow Jamz." This is followed by the chilled-out "Drive Slow," which is jazzed up by a sporadic mournful solo trumpet. It rocks like a bobble-head doll in slo-mo and cruises through a mellow vibe, and it shines every second of the way.

West's political side comes out on the hard-driven "Crack Music," which features the scratchy voice of The Game backing up West on the chorus. A child-like gospel choir hauntingly harmonizes in the background, and the song eventually crescendos into angry emotional preaching.

West returns with more political punch later on with "Diamonds From Sierra Leone." A tirade against the blood diamond trade, the song is also introspective; it is weighed down by the emotional conflict of rationalizing the fruits of personal success. The album version -- featuring the aforementioned Jay-Z cameo -- is actually much stronger and more thoughtful than the single version that was in heavy rotation on MTV this summer. This should be a pleasant surprise for anyone who thought he couldn't improve on the Shirley Bassey hook and the Outkast-mockery.

The serious nature of those two tracks is nicely balanced by more "traditionally" enjoyable tracks like "Celebration." A coyly humorous track that is impossible not to like, it emphasizes West's lighter side and highlights his snappy way with words. Funky but feather-light, it shows that West can make strong party tunes as well as strong statements.

Clearly, the absolute standout track is the luscious, sweeping "We Major." An epic seven-minute event, replete with groovy horns and harp-like piano notes, the song is held down by an infectious rushing chorus from newcomer Really Doe, with West and Nas chiming in to urge, "C'mon homie, we major." Moreover, just when it sounds like the track is going to come to its conclusion, West busts back in to ask, "Can I talk my sh*t again?" What follows is another two full minutes of the lyricist strutting his stuff, with a haltering echo over absolutely gorgeous production.

Kanye West ends "We Major" by repeatedly asserting, "They can't do what we do, baby." Somewhat unfortunately, he couldn't be more correct; he is a diamond in the rough, and few other American rappers can even touch him. In the end, West can say whatever he wants, because "Registration" just goes to prove how much merit his brash claims possess.