|BELIEVE THE HYPE? KANYE WEST'S LATE REGISTRATION.|
Call me a snob, but I always roll my eyes when major media outlets try to "explain" why some new filmmaker or singer-songwriter is getting a lot of "buzz." By the time Newsweek has discovered the Next Big Thing, most of us have already heard of it and decided what we think. Plus, there's that unmistakably dodderish quality to the
descriptions of that Next Big Thing's unique traits that's as awkward as when the dorky parents in sitcoms try to rap or talk slang -- it's not funny, and it just makes everyone uncomfortable. Please just stop.
That's why it's been slightly odd to see Time magazine and NPR espouse recently about the greatness of Kanye West. They get it kinda right, but it still comes off wrong. Sure, West's "contradictions" are interesting -- on last year's debut, The College Dropout, the producer-turned-rapper wanted bling but he also wanted respect for his sensitivity
and his insights into the African-American struggle. Yes, he's got a big ego while at the same time being hyper-insecure. Yes, he's more "interesting" than 98 percent of the hip-hop out there. Great. But if that's all it was that made Kanye special, remove race from the equation and give him a guitar, and he'd be precisely as exciting as Dave Matthews or Maroon 5. So why the big hubbub?
Sadly, most of the fawning coverage has an underlying racism beneath it -- some mainstream writers seem astonished that a black rapper can sound intelligent. It's like the old backhanded compliment when someone comments how "articulate" a black athlete is in interviews. We honkys expect so little of African-American performers, we're downright amazed when our narrow assumptions get turned upside down.
As a white guy myself, I won't pretend that I'm a perfect person miraculously free of prejudices, but I'd like to think that my love for The College Dropout had little to do with his clear diction. Like the Shins or Eminem or Jay-Z or the Drive-By Truckers, Kanye West doesn't just write songs, he creates a worldview rooted in a personal perspective and recognizable sonic trademarks. The College Dropout had a thematic unity wherein individual tracks conformed to the overall concept -- even the skits worked. Whites tend to have certain impressions about black hip-hoppers -- namely, that they're all immoral thugs poisoned by materialism -- but here was a great-sounding record that grappled with those assumptions. To be sure, West is far from the first African-American to discuss these struggles on record -- the others just don't have his record-making skill to reach a wider, whiter audience. To the media, Kanye West was big news.
If The College Dropout was the voice of an up-and-comer speaking his mind over zeitgeist beats, then his new album, the buzz-heavy Late Registration, is a telegram from the king of the world. The songs are almost uniformly terrific, but the underlying worldview doesn't feel as particular this time. There's much to compensate for that mild disappointment, but Late Registration establishes his superstar persona while moving away from that guy I really liked and felt like I knew. Needless to say, I preferred the Kanye that Time didn't know about.
Dropout followed the adventures of Kanye West as he moved from behind the boards to become a star in his own right, remembering the car accident that almost killed him, dissing the day jobs he used to have, battling with questions of spirituality, trying to get laid, cracking some jokes. He was intensely likable and utterly recognizable -- except for the car crash, most anybody could relate to Dropout's quarterlife crisis with all its youthful pleasures and presumed dramas. It felt inspired without trying to be "inspirational," and he managed to seem like an everyman even though he had buddies like Jay-Z and Jamie Foxx. Although there was swearing, samples and a raw authenticity -- all the things the average listener associates with rap music -- the CD separated itself from typical hip-hop in its subject matter and more pop leanings. His success felt like success for all of us -- he was cooler and better connected than his audience, but you got the sense that he wasn't that different from you.
By comparison, Late Registration is the buddy who moves away whom you barely know anymore. Still sounds like the guy, but now look at him. He's all blown-up; his life is a nonstop party and he's got better-looking chicks around him. When you're trying to get what you want, sometimes you have to incorporate a little charm -- The College Dropout had it in boatloads -- but once you're huge, you don't need to. That's not to say that Late Registration is where West goes all J-Hova on us, but these stellar tunes feel like the diary of a man caught up in his own stardom. Even though he rightly bemoans the diamond trade or America's cruddy healthcare system -- or, more recently, criticizes Bush and the press for their handling of the Katrina disaster -- you miss the small details of living a regular life that suffused Dropout. I'm not bitter about his popularity -- the man deserves it -- but great art connects with people, while celebrity often works to block artists from their common touch.
As for those "contradictions" Time wants to tell you about, they're less evident, too. The lyrical questioning of Dropout has been smoothed down to a more polished set of hip-hop staples: showing love for your mom, boasting that you're gonna stay on top. Granted, very few multiplatinum artists are calling out Reagan and Bush on album -- and he still remembers economic inequality enough to get mad when he sees it around him -- but Late Registration plays out like a luxurious happy ending after triumph is assured and the demons have been slayed.
At more than 70 minutes, it's one long victory lap, but thankfully West has brought enough hooks and guests to keep you happy. Aided greatly by Los Angeles producer Jon Brion (who's crafted some of the best recent scores for movies like I Heart Huckabees and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Kanye may have spent less time writing and rewriting his lyrics, but good god, the music never stops here. Like with Dropout, Late Registration flows wonderfully, its songs sonically different enough to give it pacing and emotional shifts. Even when he uses familiar samples (Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" or "Diamonds Are Forever"), he adds new ideas and beats to them, instead of just pulling a Puff Daddy and letting them carry his lame ass around.
In truth, Late Registration is a pretty gorgeous album. If I'm a little disappointed, it's simply because Kanye West has done better before. Beyond pure ear beauty, he once bounced ideas around about class, race and the dangers of hip-hop's slanted messages, all the while carrying a light touch to undercut his zeal and his bravado. But for all those who get the new album, wondering why some of us love him so much, the answer is all over The College Dropout. The major media shows their love now, but the devotion is more deserving for the last album, not this one. A contradiction, you might say.
Believe the Hype Rating: 6 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.