Great albums have a way of making the personal seem universal. Accordingly, much of the genius of Kanye West's debut The College Dropout lies in the way West lets listeners feel like he's telling their stories as well as his own. Sure, the specifics are likely to be different. It's not as if many Iowa farm kids stay awake at night worrying whether they'll ever be able to make the transition from multi-platinum producer to multi-platinum rapper. But the album's broad outlines encourage a direct, personal emotional connection between listener and artist. Who hasn't felt like an underdog, unfairly written off and oppressed by society's rigid expectations (school, work, marriage) and often warped values?
But as everyone from Eminem to Jay-Z has learned, it's only possible to play the underdog for so long. Among its myriad other values, The College Dropout was a masterpiece of sequencing, sonic consistency, and emotional arc. West's follow-up, Late Registration, is every bit as ambitious as its predecessor, but without Dropout's strong narrative, it's less successful in realizing that ambition.
Where Dropout flowed as seamlessly as a good book, Registration is all over the place. It's an inspired, unwieldy mess overflowing with lyrical and sonic ideaslike the strange yet hypnotic mashing of jazzy film-noir atmospherics and screwed-up narcotic funk on "Drive Slow"that amply reward repeat listening. Just as Dropout did with "Through The Wire," Registration boasts a musical X-ray of West's constantly expanding head. Rooted in the kind of larger-than-life emotions that can only be conveyed adequately by sampling a Shirley Bassey-sung James Bond theme, "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" captures the manic exhilaration West describes as being akin to "Vegas on acid." It's a song about the world racing along way too fast, about the kind of scary sustained high that seems like it'll never end, and it echoes the less ambivalent joy of "Touch The Sky" and "We Major." Its Jay-Z-blessed remix, meanwhile, reiterates one of the recurring themes in West's music: the tension between criticizing consumerism and feeling powerless to resist its temptations. West is the kind of preacher who has no problem letting everyone know he's one of the biggest sinners in church, and his self-deprecating, humanizing take on spirituality helps explain why he's managed to smuggle Jesus onto the hip-hop charts, and ride socially conscious rap to multiple platinum plaques.
Late Registration offers an embarrassment of sonic riches and savvy sampling, but it also tends to be sloppy and sentimental where West's debut was delicately bittersweet, and it's awash in the gloppy, over-the-top symphonics that replace Miri Ben Ari's slashing, tastefully employed electric violin. In the end, Registration plays like a brilliant first draft, flawed and uneven, but radiating humor and heart. A true perfectionist, West has set the bar so high for himself that even falling a little short of it, as he does here, still qualifies as a triumph.