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Learning Verve

Kanye West Avoids Sophomore Slump On His Confounding Follow-Up

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/31/2005

Kanye West is the oddest sea horse in hip-hop right now. Face mask-wearing MF Doom looks like every other trick-or-treater next to West. Kool Keith? Just another dude with too much porn downloaded to his desktop. West even makes human peacock Andre 3000 look like just another fussbudget with more closet space than Cher. And though West himself dresses like he’s always on his way to meet up with Buffy at the country club and is even less threatening than the Black Eyed Peas, he is one different kind of dude. Normal MCs have beefs with politicians, loudmouthed critics, and each other. But at whom—make that, what—does West flip his middle fingers? Higher education.

The college bashing floating through 2004’s The College Dropout felt like both completely misplaced anger and a sarcastically passive-aggressive leitmotif. It grafted a half-assed, cheeky narrative onto Dropout’s young-adult saga, dropping background story fragments around the songs’ emotional roller coasters. The return of the higher-education hating on West’s new Late Registration (Roc-a-Fella) is odder than finding a skunk in the freezer. Sure, recurring motifs have been a part of hip-hop since Prince Paul first found the record button, but West’s fixation with college as a fruitless investment—emphasis on its price—is flabbergasting. Dropout sold pretty effing well and even earned West two handfuls of Grammy nominations and two awards. The constant reminders that a traditional education plays no role in shaping his musical mind are starting to feel like rubbing your face in his innate gifts—especially when what they produce are as instantly playful as Late.

As with most products of autodidacts, a glint of laziness runs through Late. West’s source palette sounds like a crate full of Rhodes piano lines, plinking keyboard ruminations, happy horn sunbursts, hip-swaying handclaps, fuzz-tone guitar flourishes, warm double bass, and gospel choir surges, as if all he did was raid the collection of a childless uncle who hasn’t bought a new LP since 1977 when he threw his last really happening cocktail party. These are starting points—Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” Otis Redding’s “It’s Too Late,” Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”— that are effortless catalysts for conviviality, a bubbly adventure that starts at the Ramada Inn lounge on Saturday night and finishes up at home sometime Sunday morning.

The touch of producer Jon Brion—whose handling of such concept-driven singer/songwriters as Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and Badly Drawn Boy is a sympathetic complement to West—is light throughout, merely tickling out something already present in West’s ear: an unabashed knack for mainstream pop. And Brion may be the guy who put the fatwa on West’s signature soul-vocals-sped-up-to-chipmunk hooks: Late relies less on West’s sonic quirks and more on his layering, resulting in a disarmingly dense affair. Strings and a vocal choir lurk behind the stripped-down kick-drum of “Crack Music” and swell to the fore on the hooks. A wash of Rhodes and sleepy bass float underneath West’s string of beat-anticipating hard consonants in “Roses” before the song blooms into a shambolic breakdown. West loops a jaunty bit of folk-rock acoustic guitar and voice to trace the easygoing spine of “Hey Mama.” A brassy horn salvo sets the roller-skate jam pulse of the discofied “Touch the Sky.” Jamie Foxx—blues hollerin’ better than he has any right to—sets up the Ray Charles sample that puts a serious bottom in the hot-pants strut of “Gold Digger.” A dewy piano fugue sets up even dewier vocal cooing from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on “Heard ’Em Say.” And in Late’s moment of head-grabbing amazement, West and Brion thread together a string-section into the opening bars of Redding’s “It’s Too Late” to form a plush tapestry in “Gone,” over which West, Cam’Ron, and Consequence trade verses.

As great a producer as West is, though, his rapping is just pedestrian. West possesses a pleasant, conversational midrange and the generic American accent endemic to the Midwest—he even ironically emphasizes slang and street talk in his raps, as if he realizes it sounds unnatural coming from him and has to put it in air quotes. He sounds like anybody—no doubt a good part of his genre-hopping, crossover charm—but this common-guy patina sometimes strangles his witty, offbeat word games and corkscrewing rhymes (such as these, from “Crack Music”):

How we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer
You hear that? What Gil-Scott was hearin’, when our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin
Crack raised the murder rate in D.C. and Maryland
We invested in that, it’s like we got Merrill Lynched
And we been hanging from the same tree ever since.

That West even bothers to address politics—drugs diluting militancy in “Crack Music,” the diamond trade and Sierra Leone’s civil disputes in “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” his recent coming out against hip-hop’s homophobia—separates him from his mainstream hip-hop kin, and hints at the direction in which he is moving. Like another college dropout-turned-producer wunderkind, West doesn’t shy away from speaking his sometimes confused, sometimes unflappably proud mind. Like that other crossover genre-hopper, West favors a cinematic touch to his production, and particularly loves the sound of a simple piano figure leading into a charismatic beat. And like this DJ/producer-turned-pop personality, you get the impression that West is both his own harshest critic and biggest fan. You see, West isn’t just the most peculiar hip-hopper rocking the radio dial right now, he’s cutting his own idiosyncratically rudderless path to pop like Moby—which means that while Late Registration isn’t West’s Everything Is Wrong or even Play yet, its promise only cranks the expectation for what his mind hatches in the coming years.

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