Kanye West knows from vainglorious.
In the 18 months since the release of his chart-topping, Grammy-winning debut album, "The College Dropout," West has become as well known for his egotism as for his critically acclaimed music ("Jesus Walks," "All Falls Down," etc.). The 28-year-old rapper and producer is hardly diminishing that reputation with the arrival of his second album, "Late Registration."
Just consider some of his recent comments about the album's place in the pantheon.
"Music hasn't been taken this far in years -- since Stevie [Wonder] did it. Since Prince did it." (USA Today)
"I wanted to change the sound of music." (Billboard)
"I think this is the best-produced record. Ever." (Newsweek)
Hey, kids: Papa's got a brand new brag!
But for all of West's boastful talk, he backs it up pretty capably. With its blend of stunning, symphonic hip-hop/soul and engaging lyrics that veer from socially conscious to caustic to crass (sometimes in the span of a single, self-contradictory verse), "Late Registration" is audacious, ambitious, adventurous and awfully good. Borderline great, even.
But it's not quite a classic a la Wonder's "Innervisions" or Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times" -- or, for that matter, De La Soul's "3 Feet High and Rising," the 1989 hip-hop album that broke sonic and thematic ground.
For one thing, West -- a fine writer and outstanding producer who may be rap's Quincy Jones -- is not a great vocalist. His diction has improved, and so has his timing. But his flow isn't in the same league as that of Jay-Z, Nas or Common, all of whom take guest turns on "Late Registration."
The album is badly in need of an editor, too: With 21 tracks and a running time of about 75 minutes, it's bloated, from the Rolodex-length guest list and the dueling versions of the first single, "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," to the pointless and braggadocious "We Major," which drags on for more than five minutes . . . before the coda!
The album also features a senseless series of skits about being broke -- weird, given that the obsessive West spent a reported $2 million on production, missing multiple deadlines along the way. Originally scheduled for a spring release, the album should have been titled "Really Late Registration."
What the album lacks in self-discipline and cohesion, though, it makes up for with generally compelling lyrics and a complex, consistently rewarding soundtrack.
Discarding the sonic formula that made "College Dropout" such a success, West brought in an unlikely collaborator in co-producer Jon Brion, best known for his orchestral work with the artsy pop singers Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple. Brion added swelling, freshly recorded strings and other instrumental flourishes to West's drum loops and distorted samples -- and the result is arresting.
On the brooding "Crack Music," a gritty gospel sample, a marching-band beat and some brassy punctuation frame West's slow, seething screed about crack in the black community ("We invested in that, it's like we got Merrill Lynched / And we been hanging from the same tree ever since") and hip-hop's role as the new drug of choice.
"Roses" alternates between a tinkling lullaby and Patti LaBelle- and Bill Withers-fueled gospel as West laments his grandmother's decline while railing against a health care system that penalizes her for not being rich and famous. The endearing "Hey Mama" pays tribute to West's mother (a recently retired English professor) over a "la-la-la"-ing, folk-song-sampling, vibraphone-ringing backing track.
The foot-stomping, kinda misogynistic "Gold Digger" features Jamie Foxx channeling Ray Charles, as well as a raw sample of the real Genius's "I Got a Woman." "Bring Me Down," on which West and the R&B singer Brandy both sound more than a little paranoid, features a massive wall of symphonic sound that would make the equally paranoid producer Phil Spector proud. And "Addiction" is a psychedelic, Latin-tinged, Etta James-sampling reflection on West's own vices: Women, weed and money.
Alas, West -- otherwise so honest -- doesn't fess up to his adulation addiction.