If you are like me, you couldn’t wait to hear the new Kanye West album, and you downloaded a leaked version two months ago. You felt guilty, but one listen to a rough cut of “Hey Mama” and you forgot all that. You spent hours holed up in your room singing, dancing and getting choked up over Mr. West’s simple sincerity. With a line like “mommy I’m gonna love you till you don’t hurt no more / and when I’m older you ain’t got to work no more,” this song captured a universal feeling of love while inhabiting a gorgeous musical space; it was perfect, or so I thought.
Then Kanye hired Jon Brion, added even more background vocals, soaring synthesizers, a little twinkle bell and an outro consisting solely of West repeating “mama, mama, mama.” These are the marks of genius. Kanye West, more than anything, is a man with undeniable drive. He would never settle for just a great song; with Late Registration he repeatedly reaches for the level of legendary.
With the sequel to last years phenomenal College Dropout, Kanye is no longer trying to revolutionize rap music, he’s here to create a whole new genre. Though he doesn’t quite blaze an entirely new path, he lights the way; showing us what might be some day.
Songs like “Hear ‘Em Say”, which features the vocals of Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, transcend the hip-hop community while still holding onto the soul. That’s something Kanye has always been aware of, re-injecting soul into what was an increasingly lifeless genre. “Gold Digger” and “Addiction” reveal Ray Charles and Etta James to a whole new generation, without relying too heavily on the sped-up vocal samples that West popularized.
What Brion brings to this work is the flourishes with which almost every song ends; things don’t just fade out, they work themselves out. The Fiona Apple producer combines with Kanye to delve deep into the melodies to get everything they can out of each note. Sometimes they overdo it, “We Major” runs past 7 minutes, but their immense effort is what is most visible and in the end what makes this a better album than College Dropout.
Lyrically, Kanye is far from being the king of Roc-A-Fella, but most are too quick to claim that superior rappers could do these songs better. The fact remains that Kanye appeals to the masses precisely because of his faults, like when on “Addiction” he admits; “everything that supposed to be bad makes me feel so good.”
In his unsureness, his trepidation to say anything too revolutionary or too nasty, lies his greatest and most frustrating asset. There is a passion in this guy that comes to the surface only occasionally, he never lets himself completely go, and will often regress to tired clichÇs of hip-hop. Yet he is wholly aware of this hypocrisy. Recently on MTV he came out strongly against all the gay-bashing (himself included) in rap music and then during a live concert on NBC he labeled the government’s relief efforts in New Orleans as “racist” towards African-Americans.
Kanye covers up his insecurities with a fake-bravado and charm which continue to sell him records and earn millions of fans, but slowly, ever-so-slowly, he is revolutionizing the way America perceives the African-American superstar, inserting a self-consciousness that creates more human, conscious and expressive works of art.