New release seals Kanye West's ascendancy

Published September 3, 2005

Enjoy hip-hop phenom Kanye West while you still can, music fans. Embrace his egomaniacal boasts, his self-deprecating candor, his conflicted whiplash from being a newly minted genius. Ten years down Fame and Fortune Freeway, when Chicago's favorite rapper-writer-producer is the biggest star on the planet, chances are good that he won't be so deliciously unbalanced, so real. Money can do things to a man. Red carpets, too.

West, whose 2004 debut, The College Dropout, just pushed past the 3-million-sold mark, can be an arrogant artiste one moment, a regular joe the next. He was folding shirts at the Gap just a few years ago (listen to Dropout's soulful 9-to-5 lament Spaceship); now he's winning Grammys and hijacking MTV. He wears preppy clothes underneath fat gold chains. He hangs with cool dudes Jay-Z and John Legend; he pals around with nerdy alt-poppers John Mayer and Maroon 5's Adam Levine. If the music biz were high school, he would be prom king and head of the debate team.

On his much-anticipated sophomore disc, the equally ambitious Late Registration, West, 28, acknowledges his Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies by seeking production help from Jon Brion, an indie-minded SoCal dude best known for working with art-pop waif Fiona Apple. West and Brion are an odd couple for sure, and as a result of so many contrasting influences, so many ideas, there's definitely some wayward bloat to the album.

Nevertheless, there isn't a more thrilling listening experience now than digging into a Kanye West disc for the first time. No one is as slick at layering gut-check beats and wickedly clever rhymes over such bold ingredients: jazzy piano riffs, curious samples, waves of cinematic orchestration. He understands drama and dramatic tension, but he's also funny as heck. (And good news for bay area fans: West comes to the bay area Oct. 12. Tickets go on sale Friday; see details, Page 4E.)

Memo to MTV: Ditch Diddy and hire West to host next year's Video Music Awards. You'll get a playa, a prankster and a musical prodigy all in one.

West is popular with rap diehards and genre newbies mainly because he doesn't resort to bullets and blood. But just because he's not a thug doesn't mean he can't get tough. He bemoans drug-dealers and crumbling inner cities on the soul-kissed Crack Music, which features the curious pairing of G-Unit rapper the Game and the New York Community Choir. West rips into our shoddy health-care system on the moody, ethereal Roses - Brion's most musically challenging contribution - making a potentially wonky subject downright thrilling: "If Magic Johnson got a cure for AIDS, and all the (poor patients) passed away, you telling me if my grandmother was in the NBA, right now she'd be okay?"

On Diamonds From Sierra Leone, West fully indulges his schizoid nature, rapping about his love of diamonds, the horrific cruelties inside African diamond mines and the current reign of Roc-A-Fella Records, to which he's signed. The head-spinning track is built on a stuttery sample of Shirley Bassey's Diamonds Are Forever and features a show-stopping rhyme by Roc-A-Fella head Jay-Z, a cameo that's reminiscent of Twista's turn on West's first big hit, Slow Jamz.

If West strays from the rap pack when it comes to weapons and ammo, he does dabble in the sex stuff, but usually with some smarts. Dropout's The New Workout Plan was so blatantly misogynistic, it played like a parody, which was the point. Thumping new single Gold Digger also aims for laughs, but there's a curious bitterness there. It's almost as if you can hear West's romantic core starting to crack. He cleverly loops both Jamie Foxx doing his patented Ray Charles impression and Ray Charles himself, both impostor and icon crooning the hook from Brother Ray's I Got a Woman. Over that funky collage, West scolds women who are suddenly loving his wallet: "She went to the doctor and got lipo with the money. She walking around looking like Michael with the money."

Later on, West does an about-face and gushes about a very special woman: his mother. "I know I act the fool, but I promise you I'm going back to school," he promises her on Hey Mama. "You never put no man over me, and I love you for that, can't you see?" There's nothing ironic or smart-alecky or street about it. It's as earnest and sweet as an "I Heart Mom" tattoo.

Not everyone digs Kanye West. There's a swelling group of hatas who feel West is a phony. Personally, I'm a believer. At last year's Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, I shadowed the man at a round-table discussion about digital music and downloading. He sauntered in 15 minutes late, kept his Gucci shades on, and introduced himself thus: "I'm Kanye West. I'm very opinionated, so I can't wait to sound intelligent." Rock star posturing, for sure. But when the moderator started asking panelists, most of whom were students, about their music-buying habits, West pumped his hand in the air like a kid: "I like to buy CDs. The purchase means more when you can hold it in your hands. Of course, I also like to bootleg stuff 'cause I want it sooner."

That might be West's greatest strength: He's an incurable music fan, a lover of rap, rock, classical, and jazz. He wants to do it all. Sometimes, that eclecticism gets him into trouble. Late Registration is sometimes so busy, it ultimately lacks the epic, emotional pureness of The College Dropout, which was not just a phenomenal coming-out party but a brutal act to follow. Nothing new tops the gospel thunder of Jesus Walks or the poignant Through the Wire, on which West rapped with his mouth wired shut, a result of a 2002 car accident.

But there's still no one out there who's doing it better. West reminds me of a young Prince, a young Phil Spector, a young Michael Jackson, startling pop craftsmen who later became cautionary tales. Do yourself a favor: get West while he's hot, and human.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or 727 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic


Kanye West, Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella Records)

Grade: B+


Kanye West will perform Oct. 12 at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa. Tickets $39.50 go on sale at 5 p.m. Friday at the box office and Ticketmaster (813) 287-8844, (727) 898-2100 or www.ticketmaster.com