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Photograph by Sarah Friedman

Westward Ho: Kanye West lost the sped-up Chipmunk samples and subbed in pianos and strings.

The Cost to Floss

'Late Registration' documents Kanye West's conflicted new world

By Todd Inoue

HOORAY for the Internet. Lord of the Rings geeks can get laid, forgetful spouses can overnight anniversary gifts and intrepid desktop sleuths can download the new Kanye West record, Late Registration, weeks before its official release. Kanye's thick book of A-list production credits and Grammy nods for his first solo album, College Dropout. ensured that his new record, officially due out Aug. 30, would spring more leaks than a rusted radiator. Without a lot of effort, the album miraculously popped on hard drives worldwide to the joy of intrepid file traders and hip-hop cyberhacks. Except me, of course.

Kanye is able to thrive where other producers-slash-rappers don't. Kanye doesn't outsource his material to the point of distraction. He makes sure his slice of cake is the biggest. To point: he convinced the Game and Jamie Foxx to sing the hooks on "Crack Music" and "Gold Digger," respectively. Just the hooks. That's pull. That's nerve. That's Kanye.

Late Registration shouldn't work—his mumbled, lackadaisical vocal and tendency to overproduce his songs puts hip-hop heads on the fence. Maybe, but saying a Kanye West track is overproduced is like complaining there are too many lights during Disneyland's Main Street Electrical Parade. Kanye's work thrives off the glitzy bells, whistles and swooning string arrangements. Nobody beefed about Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name," Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A)" or John Legend's "Ordinary People"—all West creations.

Late Registration shows Kanye exploring the soul—both the music and his inner being. Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, P.T. Anderson movie scores) co-produced Late Registration and reined in some things and exploded others. West's love of the piano is fully fleshed, perhaps a leftover from the John Legend sessions. The most noticeable shift is the disappearance of the sped-up soul samples, a Kanye staple, and in their place are string sections that swoon like a James Cameron movie.

A couple of spins through and the dominant impressions emerge. He's an eclectic accepted into a world of big spenders. He's giving in to temptation but struggling to navigate the moral land-mine field spread out in front of him. The single "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" describes the scenario of affording iced jewelry yet feeling guilty for all the lives and limbs lost from diamond harvesting. "Touch the Sky" distills his past three years over a joyous Curtis Mayfield sample from "Move On Up." "I'm trying to right my wrongs but those same wrongs help me write these songs." "Addiction" reduces the conundrum down to a simple equation: why does everything that's supposed to be bad feel so good? Then the clouds form on "Bring Me Down," a dis track that features R&B singer Brandy.

But as the platinum plaques pile up, it's difficult to sympathize with certain aspects of West's troubles. "Gold Digger," "Celebration" and "Bittersweet" bring up ancient stereotypes of trifling females stalking guys for loot. But just when these songs could make Late Registration appear like Maxim guest-editing the Robb Report, he drops dedications to his mother ("Hey Mama") and a sick grandmother ("Roses").

But that's Kanye, the biggest conflict diamond of all. The song I wanted to hate the most—"Heard 'Em Say," a duet with Maroon 5's Adam Levine—is probably one of the best opening songs on any album this year. On paper, it sounds ridiculous (Maroon 5 sucks!) but Levine drops plinking piano and fey vocal over a doubled-up beat as Kanye spits hot fire. Simple and elegant and it works.

Is any record worth risking a lawsuit from record companies? Late Registration is, but the labels need not worry. The album will debut at No. 1 anyway.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the August 31-September 6, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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