Off the Record: Kanye West

Dear Summer,

I know that you’ll miss me. We go together like Nike Airs and crisp tees. But, the school year is upon us again and it’s time for the Off the Record hip-hop column to start up again.

We’ll start the year off by skipping over all of this summer’s hottest releases to focus on Kanye West’s end of summer release of his second album, Late Registration. Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane. Mr. West is his name. Bringing back the Ye and The ROC to the game. Kayne West is an illustrous rapper/beat producer who has generated critical acclaim from all corners, from the hard-core hip-hop heads to the nerdy back-pack crowd. Uniquely charismatic and talented, Kanye’s musical brilliance behind the production boards is what allows him to be such an accomplished emcee.

His understanding of music allows his lyrics and voice to be more like an integral instrument fully incorported into the overall sound of each track than an extraneous element laid-over a pre-made instrumental. Kayne is a very talented man, but not afraid of being immodest, he’d also be quick to be the first person to tell you so. In the summer of 2003, before he even had a single out he self-assuredly told the people at one hip-hop magazine that he was certain that their feature on him was the most electrifying interview they’d ever done. Since the release of his first record, The College Dropout, and his subsequent production credits on a lot of the best songs by most of the best rappers in the game, his ego has only gotten bigger with time. Recently he was reported in Time Magazine to have jubilantly reached the realization that he might be limiting his own potential, by NOT trying to be all things to all people. With such a history in mind, one might expect his second record to be an over-the-top, overdone attempt at creating the best rap album of all time. Instead, what one finds is a treat that is more like the subtle intracacies of a fine blend of tea than the knock-your-socks-off kick of a double shot of expresso.

Listeners can expect a more subdued, mellow and mesmerizing sound than the hypnotic, soulful, sample-heavy sound Kanye is known for creating. Standout tracks include “Addiction” in which Kayne makes his voice the most interesting instrument on the track, half-singing parts of the verse and then following the elongated words with the stacato delivery of the remainder, laid perfectly over the beat. Like many of the songs on this album, “Addiction” manages to paradoxically be simultaneously urgent and mellow. I would give Kanye credit for raising the bar of excellence in the past and inspiring other artists to push the envelope musically, and focus on writing lyrics that are a component to the beat rather than an additive element. On Late Registration, Kayne kicks it up another notch, not stopping to give the competition time to catch up. On “Roses,” Kanye experiments with spoken word-poetry, rapped over a bare-bones melody. In this song Kayne’s lyrics ARE the beat. The music comes in for the hook, but dissipates to allow Kanye to be the dominant element of the verses. His smooth delivery, voice control and intonation often make his voice the most interesting instrument in many songs.

This is just one demonstration of West’s capability to move beyond writing lyrics to the meter of the bassline, to writing his lyrics as part of the melody when necessary. On the album he often switches between half-singing lyrics to the melody to rapping over the bass beat. Although, thankfully, he put music before message on this album, Kanye still packs a political punch. It has been in circulation since mid-summer but the re-mix to “Diamonds…” featuring label boss/businessman/hip-hop legend Jay-Z is still one of the best songs on the album. The song starts with a scratchy, vintage sample of a woman singing “Diamonds are forever […] they won’t leave in the night, have no fear that they might…” over a simple melody. Then as horns escalate in pitch, a palpable sense of urgency is created as the listener waits for the beat to drop and kick into full swing.

As the fast-paced but soulful beat plays Kanye raps, “Come on, this ain’t Vietnam still. People lose heads, legs, arms for real. Little is known about Sierra Leonne, and how it connects to the Diamonds we own.” He then goes on to the hook with a play on words referencing the diamond shaped hand-sign of his record label Roc-A-Fella, saying, “Throw your diamonds in the sky if you feel the vibe.” So, long story short, Kayne doesn’t dissappoint. His album is a treat to the ears, but in a much more subtle way than might have been expected. And come on, anybody who can bring Jay-Z out of retirement to drop some of the finest lines of his career, and then follow that act up by bringing Jay’s former arch-nemesis, Nas, in on the next track deserves to have a little ego. To my knowledge it’s the first time Jay-Z and Nas, two of the best rappers ever to bless the mic, have ever been featured on the same album. To borrow another one of Jay’s lines, I guess sometimes “difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week.” It took Kanye three summers to develop his mic skills to match his well-known production abilities and put out an album that is worthy of the respect of, well, the self-approved Kanye West himself, AND his ego.