It’s been said that the only surefire lure when seeking praise is modesty. Someone forgot to tell that to Kanye West.
On “Late Registration,” the much-anticipated follow-up to “The College Dropout” — last year’s double-platinum Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam debut — Mr. West’s penchant for bragging and pretentious preening hasn’t dulled. In fact, he might be more conceited than ever.
After the monster success of “Dropout” and accolades for producing a string of hits for Alicia Keys, Brandy and Roc-a-Fella boss Jay-Z, Mr. West emerged as a darling of music critics, if not the darling of all media.
His well-documented displeasure with the reception of “Dropout” (throwing a fit after being shut out at the American Music Awards and receiving glowing ratings — instead of perfect ones — from trade magazines) were off-putting to many, including some of his fans.
The tendency, at first glance, is to chalk up his tirades to anxiety or self-doubt. But upon further inspection, it’s apparent that his antics aren’t rooted in any deep-seated insecurities. He seriously believes he’s that good. After churning out projects like “Registration,” it’s hard to disagree with him.
It’s also difficult to root against a guy who survived a grisly car wreck and numerous rejections from label executives. With Roc-a-Fella artist and chief executive Jay-Z retiring from the mike and assuming presidential duties at Def Jam, Mr. West finds himself as the flagship artist of arguably the most esteemed record label in hip-hop. It’s nearly impossible not to be a bit cocky in that position.
Aside from that, Mr. West has markedly improved his beats and rhymes since 2004’s “Dropout.” Though it’s his producing gig that butters his bread, he sharpens his witty wordplay on “Registration.” He won’t garner recognition in debates about the best MCs, but Mr. West’s lyrics have always been refreshingly self-effacing, honest and introspective despite his perceived arrogance.
It’s impossible not to crack a smile at lines such as “asked the reverend ‘was the strip clubs cool/if my tips help send a pretty girl through school?’/it’s all I want, like winos want their good whiskey/I ain’t in the Klan, but I brought my ‘hood wit’ me.”
Still, Mr. West’s production savvy is what has made him a star and carries the LP. No longer relying on the sped-up, helium-voiced soul samples that became his oft-aped trademark, Mr. West’s work on “Registration” has put him in the upper echelon of hip-hop producers. Already one of the better new-school beat-crafters — along with Just Blaze, the Alchemist, 9th Wonder and J Dilla — he can at least kneel at the throne of the holy trinity of pioneering hip-hop producers: DJ Premier, Dr. Dre and Marley Marl.
Jon Brion, hailed for his production on projects for Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, came aboard here to help buff out the rough edges. His presence is beneficial but also a hindrance. The album’s sound is high quality but perhaps a bit too glossy, losing a bit of the grittiness that made “Dropout” so captivating.
Nevertheless, the West-Brion partnership definitely clicks, especially on “We Major.” With its jubilant horns, neck-snapping break-beat percussion and a synth-heavy “Purple Rain”-esque reprise, Mr. West declares his intent to take listeners “back to school.”
Undoubtedly the LP’s crown jewel, “Major” is guaranteed to evoke some sort of reaction, whether it’s head-nodding or outright dancing and singing along. It’s replete with a cameo from hip-hop messiah Nas — remarkable in itself because Nas, the one-time nemesis of Jay-Z, had to obtain the Def Jam honcho’s OK for a guest appearance on Mr. West’s CD.
Mr. West also gets another notable guest appearance from a surprisingly soulful Adam Levine of Maroon 5, who pops up on “Heard ‘Em Say.” The hazy “Drive Slow,” featuring West protege GLC and white-hot Houston rapper Paul Wall, expertly utilizes the same “Wildflower” loop made famous by 2Pac’s “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug.”
In his typical fashion, Mr. West hyped “Registration” by claiming that the state of hip-hop, and music in general, was dependent upon his album. It may be more than just a boast, not mere grandstanding and bravado. Excluding a few weak tracks, the album has obliterated any notion of a possible sophomore jinx. It just might push “Kanyeeze” into another stratosphere of superstardom — one where he’ll no longer have to do his own cheerleading.
Tarron Lively is the deputy editor of the Continuous News Desk.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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