The second release by the most obnoxious, egotistical and self-centered hip-hop artist in the history of obnoxious, egotistical and self-centered hip-hop artists, Late Registration is neither the classic Kanye West would have you believe nor the disappointment detractors desperately wanted. The twenty-one-track album (including five throwaway skits) manages to mostly avoid any real lows. But bereft of undeniable classics such as "All Falls Down," "Jesus Walks" and "Slow Jamz," the album sits uncomfortably in the middle -- uncomfortable because it is so obviously striving for something better.
After a quick reprise of the opening skit from his 2004 debut, College Dropout, "Heard 'Em Say" opens the album with Adam Levine of Maroon 5, the first uncomfortable guest appearance in a long line of uncomfortable guest appearances. Levine has a competent but totally soulless voice. How much better would this song be with the suspiciously absent John Legend? Brandy doesn't fare any better on "Bring Me Down," one of the album's weakest songs, and Consequence and Really Doe give weak performances on "Gone" and "We Major," respectively. Even stranger is how bad the Common appearance is on "My Way Home" (that Pale Horse section is painful). But the really awkward guest appearance is from Nas. He gets lost in some weeping horns that are the exact opposite of what Nas is supposed to rhyme over, and half of his verse is about how he shouldn't be rhyming over it. And did Jay-Z just say he would support Memphis Bleek no matter how poorly his music does? That's just emasculating right there.
But the guest appearances are not the point. Kanye is making a statement with this album. I think. Or maybe not. Either way, having a muddled statement is better than his ignorant ravings on his last album about how bad college is. But his attempts at insight here are elementary at best. When he talks about politics, like on the incongruently scored "Crack Music" and the remix of "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," it sounds like someone gave him a five-minute rundown on the issue before he started writing. When he attempts to make a personal or social statement, such as on "Addiction" and "Hey Mama," the inventive beats far surpass the commentary.
Which leads to the biggest problem with Kanye, and the one that will always prevent his universal acceptance: Dude isn't an emcee; he's a singer. He rides a beat for melody, not rhythm, and he crafts his wordplay around the beat, not around his thoughts or stories. That's why "All Falls Down" was so good: It was written without a beat in mind. When he uses this new method, he doesn't succeed at singing, basically because his voice can't carry a song. Unlike other rappers with equally grating voices, his cadences can sound forced and awkward instead of playful or illuminating, and it's difficult to follow his words rather than get caught up in his unfortunately annoying voice.
Despite all of this, the record succeeds because of the instrumentals. "Touch the Sky" pulls out the soul horns Kanye's been flirting with his whole career, and it sounds like a great Be-side (why didn't Common jump on this?). Even better are "Addiction," which sounds like Etta James on heroin, and especially "Drive Slow," where Kanye's already syrupy laid-back jazz meets Screw. The collaboration with Jon Brion has been much hyped (he earned a co-producer credit). It's somewhat difficult to know what Brion brought to the table (other than a better knack for arrangements), but I like to think he helped with the great strings on "Gone" and the superb vocal mixing on "Roses."
Unlike What's Going On or the Bible, both of which Kanye has compared his latest offering to (which one is more blasphemous?), there is no statement here, no point. And yet it still so obviously aspires to those heights. Undoubtedly, Kanye West thinks his new album can be the best hip-hop album of all time. But because he has nothing real to talk about, because he isn't crafting protest songs or timeless morality tales, the music shoots off into the atmosphere with nowhere to arrive. So the album's only ambition is to be good -- well, not just good, the goodest ever. That's pretty much what it achieves.