Sophomore albums are made to be trashed, especially when they follow hugely successful debuts. And there may be no artist in pop-music history who seems to so richly deserve such a trashing as Kanye West. To call West's behavior over the last year "insufferable" fails to do him justice; to list examples of his egomania -- from Christlike poses struck in concert, to the shushing of his peers at listening parties for his new album -- would leave no room for a review of the much-anticipated Late Registration. It wasn't wrong for us to label him hip-hop's most important artist last year, but those who hyped West now stare in awe at the monster we helped create. (Though West's egomania has been rampant from the get-go; just go back and listen to the ludicrous self-absorption of his first single, "Through the Wire.")
But as the old saying goes, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it." West did it on The College Dropout, creating an album that fulfilled his considerable ambition of becoming "the first nigga with a Benz and a backpack." For an hour or so, the rift between mainstream hip-hop and the indie underground was reconciled by song after great, inventive song that any hip-hop fan could appreciate. And if West sounded more like a producer than a legend on the mic, he still had the year's funniest lines (on "Slow Jamz"), and no MC had come with as much common sense as West did on "All Falls Down" in ages -- if ever.
So while it may disappoint his growing legion of haters, West has done it again -- musically, at least -- on Late Registration. It isn't the genre-busting jawdropper he seemed to promise when his collaboration with producer Jon Brion was announced -- the exclusion of four songs, including one with John Mayer, that were dropped when West's fan base rebelled might have doomed that hope -- but it's something nearly as good: a hip-hop album overflowing with unexpected left-field hooks but also boasting in-your-face beats and an attitude that insures the street will stay on lock.
Brion, one assumes, has helped West introduce more live instrumentation to his sound, which at times brings the album tantalizingly close to the classic-soul samples the latter built his rep pilfering. And while the odd, rococo touches Brion has added to records by the likes of Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann have sometimes seemed overindulgent, such embellishments (assuming they're his) take on new life in a more spare, hip-hop context. The backwards guitar of "Heard 'Em Say," the intertwined synth lines of "Celebration," the dizzily swooping strings of "Gone" and "Late" -- all of it gives the sixteen-bar format a richness seldom heard.
Even boundary-pushing peers like OutKast have accumulated most of their acclaim for musical adventurousness rather than for consistent, album-length achievement. Late Registration succeeds as a complete aural statement, one that reaches back to field hollers and raw blues, and also looks toward a future where hip-hop and European -- i.e., white -- traditions can coexist more closely than ever before.
So how does a guy whose weaknesses as a rapper are still glaringly evident hope to match such invention on the mic? The same way he did on College Dropout: by being unafraid to tackle some of hip-hop's sacred cows. Kanye remains at his best when exploring the allure of materialism and its costs. "Diamonds (From Sierra Leone)" (its self-congratulatory smugness about Helping Africans notwithstanding) and the more tongue-in-cheek "Golddigger" aren't afraid to argue both sides of the issue, just as "All Falls Down" did to such great effect. On "Addiction," West plays a conflicted devil's advocate with a similarly big question: "Why everything that's supposed to be bad/Make me feel so good?" And while there's no "Jesus Walks" here to drive home West's crises of faith, this remains a religious album, the sound of a deeply conflicted man who all but admits that his braggadocio is a cover for spiritual uncertainty. That none of the guests here -- Jay-Z and Nas among them -- walk away with their respective tracks owes something to the interest West's dichotomies create.
Yet it's ultimately Kanye's lyrical shortcomings that prevent Late Registration from being the universally admired effort it aspires to be -- and, indeed, should have been. His Messiah complex and self-pity ("Bring Me Down") don't help, of course, and neither does his now-tired fixation on his unsatisfactory experience with higher ed. But the deeper reason this record isn't the classic it could be is attributable to West becoming something of a crackpot conspiracist.
Such paranoia needlessly limits some of the best and most innovative music of our time -- not because West is speaking truth to power, as he obviously believes, but because claiming that the government spreads AIDS, for example, is utter bullshit. It's reverse minstrelsy that finds a smart man playing to the conceits of the mistrustful urban gallery. That such a sentiment clips the wings of the gorgeous "Heard 'Em Say," which should have been a Stevie Wonder-esque anthem of uplift for the next 100 years, is a tragedy. That West apparently immersed himself in this nutcase philosophizing, in the militaristic "Crack Music," after feeling heat that his new work wasn't black enough, is even more discouraging. So is the fact that critics who know better will give this garbage a pass; such neglect, after all, is a primary reason hip-hop continues to proudly walk around with a black eye and a bad reputation not entirely undeserved.
The overall greatness of Late Registration makes griping about Kanye's solipsism and naive politicking seem like overkill. But if anyone should be able to understand this sort of disappointment, it's Kanye. From Jay-Z, we expect and reward one-dimensional, self-referential brilliance. But from the more artistically ambitious West, we expect more. But surely not more than he expects from himself.