Let's get this out of the way right up front: Kanye West is narcissistic and egotistical. That's pretty much accepted as fact at this point. It's not that hard to imagine him sitting in a mirrored room reading his Time magazine interview while watching his appearance on "60 Minutes." But he's still a hell of a producer, an alright MC, and an undeniable force in modern music.
But is he immune to the sophomore slump? In the past year, Kanye has become an uber-personality: he's been all over TV, magazines, radio and the Internet. He filled the spot of the rapper that indie kids are allowed to like when Jay-Z retired. (But then again, who aren't they allowed to like these days?) If you've been even remotely associated with popular culture, it's been nigh impossible for the past 12 months to go through an entire day without at least hearing West's name. But the odd thing is, I've been reading hardly any animosity in the weeks leading up to Late Registration. Usually with an artist this big, there's a sizable force of people just waiting for he/she to fall flat on his/her face with their sophomore record; they were there for Interpol and The Strokes, and I'm sure they'll be there for M.I.A. and the Arcade Fire. But the disdain for Kanye's follow-up to The College Dropout has been kept to a minimum, and even among the people that don't like the record, there's hardly been a strong thumbs down; the most many of them can muster is a simple, "Meh."
But while I was really excited about this record, I'm afraid I'm right on the border of the "meh" crowd after listening to it just a few times. The record starts off strong, even with a track with Adam Levine (of Maroon 5) on the hook (was John Mayer not available?). "Touch the Sky" blasts of with some busy horns and a guest verse from up-and-comer Lupe Fiasco (complete with "Lupin the 3rd" reference). "Gold Digger" sees Jamie Foxx stopping by once again, but instead of aping Al Green, this time around he's on the Ray Charles tip, and the song is much better off. "Drive Slow" is one of the highlights of the album and gives those not in the know what will probably be their first taste of screw music (that slooooow bit in the last 30 seconds). Paul Wall also proves that it's possible for a non-Bun B Houston MC to sound at home on a non-Houston beat (something Slim Thug only half-proved). "My Way Home" with Common (and minus Kanye) is fantastic as well, mostly because it reminds you of how good Be is.
In an interesting move, Kanye puts the Jay-Z-featuring remix of "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" right next to the Nas-featuring "We Major." As usual, Jay comes out on top again, if only because it's great to hear him over one of the best beats this year. "We Major" could be great, except for the fact that it lasts seven-and-a-half minutes and Kanye's next protégé, Really Doe, turns in a less-than-stellar verse. The only really bad song here, though, is "Crack Music," which somehow fails terribly even without a verse from The Game.
Apparently Jon Brion helped produce the record, but you wouldn't be able to tell if you didn't know beforehand. No offense to Jon or anything, I'm a huge fan, but the only songs where it's clear someone besides Kanye hand a hand in the production are "We Major" and "Hey Mama." The rest of the songs sound exactly how you'd think a Kanye West song would sound; the production might be beefed up a tiny bit, but it's nothing that would make you thin, "Dang, Kanye had some help on this one."
The biggest problem with Late Registration though is Kanye's verses; he's not a great MC, but he doesn't know it. Almost all of the beats sound fantastic, just not with Kanye rapping over them. If he would have taken a back seat, like he does on "My Way Home," and let his guests shine more, the album could have been so much better. When Cam'Ron shows up at the end, he sounds like the second coming of Jay-Z after hearing Kanye's weak rhymes throughout the entire album. But it's not all entirely bad: "Roses" is a poignant account of West's grandmother's struggle with illness and the remix of "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" finds Kanye attempting to bring some social awareness to the conflict diamonds coming out of Africa. The rest, however, is typical Kanye: he's got the bravado down pat, he just doesn't have the skill as an MC to back it up.
And of course in typical hip-hop fashion, the album comes complete with a long running time that includes four skits and an intro. While the skits aren't nearly as bad as your typical hip-hop record (they only last three-and-a-half minutes total) they're still somewhat unnecessary and distract from the album. If Kanye would have lost the skits and cut out one or two of the not-so-great songs, he could have slimmed the album down to a lean 55 minutes and made the whole affair much easier to swallow. But as it stands now, Late Registration is still a pretty good, albeit flawed, album, and it's still great to have someone as exciting as Kanye making pop music today.
1. Wake Up Mr. West (Feat. Bernie Mac)
2. Heard 'em Say (Feat. Adam Levine)
3. Touch the Sky (Feat. Lupe Fiasco)
4. Gold Digger (Feat. Jamie Foxx)
5. Skit #1
6. Drive Slow (Feat. Paul Wall & GLC)
7. My Way Home (Feat. Common)
8. Crack Music (Feat. The Game)
10. Bring Me Down (Feat. Brandy)
12. Skit #2
13. Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix) (Feat. Jay-Z)
14. We Major (Feat. Nas & Really Doe)
15. Skit #3
16. Hey Mama
18. Skit #4
19. Gone (Feat. Consequence & Cam'Ron)
20. Diamonds from Sierra Leone