Seemingly sidestepping any sign of “second album syndrome”, rap’s self-proclaimed Louis Vuitton Don returns with a record that not only lives up to his debut but possibly surpasses it. However, having had but one-and-a-half hearings at an informal London playback – attended by Kanye West himself, granted – a complete conclusion is irritatingly impossible to make. Still, if the puffy-faced producer insists on refusing to allow anyone access to the album before release date, whaddya gonna do?
Moan over, and, presuming what we heard doesn’t radically alter, then, yep, West has apparently done it again. If ‘The College Dropout’ celebrated the art of speeded-up soul samples and inexhaustible drum patterns, then ‘Late Registration’ slows down the sonics while retaining the big-ass beats. And dammit, they’re mammoth. Indeed, what makes this album so brilliant is the absurdly ace drums; this is pure cranium-crushing boom bap at its best. Apparently inspired by ’90s British trip-hop miseries Portishead and aided and abetted by cool composer Jon Brion, West presents an epic soundtrack of swelling soul, grungy horn sections and borderline autistic aurals.
Typically, guest stars are everywhere. ‘Gold Digger’ sees ‘Slow Jamz’ singer Jamie Foxx reprise his Ray role, re-singing Charles’ samples, while the politically subversive ’Crack Music’ borrows The Game for some Public Enemy-style posturing and Brandy really lets rip on the eye-bleeding beats of ‘Bring Me Down’. West has never been afraid to think outside the hip-hop box, but while MIA was apparently ‘too busy’ to collaborate, West has reportedly worked with Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos. Although he refuses to allow the track to be heard until release, it is, according to industry insider types, ‘really great’. But guests aside, this is The Kanye West Show, as the conceited composer chops and screws, chucks 20-piece string orchestras about and experiments with harpsichords, Stevie Wonder samples, mind-spinning beat patterns, major and minor chord schemes, a mellotron and even a metronome.
The only misfire comes with saccharine slowie ‘Hey Mama’, a concept Tupac pulled off in the early ’90s with far more panache. Moreover, hardcore fans may be disappointed that there are far fewer rubbish lyrics to be found – in some respects a large part of ‘The College Dropout’’s charm was the clumsiness of Kanye’s couplets. Also, where ‘…Dropout’ was stuffed full of obvious singles, this time round, the hits are less obvious. There’s no immediate ‘All Falls Down’, ’Slow Jamz’, ’Jesus Walks’ or ‘Through The Wire’. On the whole though, ‘Late Registration’ is a solid set. And by freshening up his style without entirely abandoning it, West still has the rest of the rap world playing catch-up.