Kanye West stands as a fascinating figure in music today. The Chicago producer-turned-MC blends bourgeois intellectualism with lower-class sympathy, swagger with insecurity. With his 2004 debut, the College Dropout, West tackled a variety of issues -- often with a refreshing two-sided approach -- ranging from B.A.P. extravagance to religion's place in pop culture, and proved he had mastered the ability to fuse hip-hop, rap and pop, creating gorgeous tracks appealing to listeners from diverse musical and personal backgrounds.
West's intriguing relationship with institutionalized higher education explored on the jaw-dropping Dropout melds into disillusionment with forgotten promises to black and lower-class America by various establishments on his latest album, the complex, yet scattered, Late Registration.
In the album's opener, "Heard 'Em Say," both West and Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine repeat, "Nothing's ever promised tomorrow today," over a light and dreamily melodic refrain. Empty promises do recur throughout the album whether they appear in the hospitalized death of a loved one (the haunting "Roses") or frustrations with the wars on drugs and terror ("Crack Music").
In the laid-back "Drive Slow," West revisits his high school past, when flashy cars with custom rims were king, but would only lead to a future of drug dealing and unwanted children. The first single, "Diamonds Are Forever," takes a questioning stance with regards to war torn African impoverishment. But West maintains a well-needed sense of humor with his OutKast reference, "Forever ... Forever ever? Forever ever? Ever ever?"
Late Registration is not without its positive moments of hope, in content and musical production. The shining "Touch the Sky," a typical West-produced track, makes use of a Curtis Mayfield sample and a notable cameo from slick newcomer Lupe Fiasco, all to create a dazzling self-indulgent pop-hop song reminiscent of Dropout's triumphant moments. West has indeed grown as an MC and lyricist, spitting lines like, "I'm trying to right my wrongs, / But it's funny these same wrongs helped me write this song," with the same ease that he produces them.
Still, subtlety and mystery are lost at various moments in the album. "Gold Digger," whose title tells all, features Jamie Foxx still polishing that Oscar and an obvious Ray Charles sample. The message in "Addiction" would be more effective if it weren't so blunt, coming across as an ode to D.A.R.E. West also buffers Registration, like its predecessor, with a gratuitous series of skits satirizing college hypocritical lifestyle, this time following a fictitious fraternity called Broke Phi Broke.
While Late Registration remains a little top-heavy, the penultimate gem "Gone" shines as a decadent yet inspiring work, offering up a hopeful, but realistic, vision. West declares, "I'ma open up a store for aspiring MC's / Won't sell 'em no dream, but the inspiration is free." He resolves to lead by example rather than dish out hollow promises or roundabout diction.
For Late Registration, West enlisted the aid of producer Jon Brion, better known for his work with songstresses Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann. While Brion adds an orchestral extravagance that at times seems superfluous (see the silly "Bring Me Down" or "Celebration"), his involvement allows West to focus more on building the album thematically and lyrically. Late Registration does not possess the freshness of Dropout, but it stands on its own as a solid inner and public exploration, the arriving at a rare, deeply-found rap album, one of the year's best.