If anything, Kanye West is too modest. Yeah, he's got an ego or two — he's liable to compare himself to Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Bill Gates and Prince, sometimes in the same sentence. But he pours all that ego into musical ambition. As he says, "I ain't putting nothing out unless I can talk shit afterward." On Late Registration, the Louis Vuitton Don doesn't just set out to create pop music — he wants to be pop music. So he steps up his lyrical game, shows off his epic production skills, reaches higher, pushes harder and claims the whole world of music as hip-hop turf. He aims for what he calls "that Coldplay, Portishead, Fiona Apple style" in his mad quest to explode every cliche about hip-hop identity. Can he get it done? Yes, he can. And like Reggie Jackson used to say, it ain't bragging if you can do it.
West blew up last year with the bling/backpack synthesis of The College Dropout, the preppy-fabulous debut smash that people still can't stop arguing about. For some, Dropout proves hip-hop is in a rut, as an example of what everybody else isn't doing; for others, it proves hip-hop is still evolving, as music nobody outside hip-hop could make. Whatever your pet theory on the state of hip-hop, Dropout gave you a challenge, flaws and all. But Late Registration is an undeniable triumph, packed front to back, so expansive it makes the debut sound like a rough draft. West has turned into a real MC, earning the right to boast about opening a store for aspiring Kanye wanna-be's: "But if they ever flip sides like Anakin/ You will sell everything, including the mannequin/They got a new bitch, now you're Jennifer Aniston."
All over Late Registration, he indulges his sentimental R&B-poet side ("Roses"), his Seventies slow-jam love jones ("Celebration"), his wit ("Gold Digger"), his hard-ass politics ("Crack Music") and his love of Maroon 5 ("Heard 'Em Say," featuring Adam Levine). He calls in the heavyweights: Jay-Z, Common, Brandy, Cam'ron, Consequence, the Game, Paul Wall. But his MVP is Fiona Apple producer Jon Brion, whose previous hip-hop experience is zero. A bold move, yet a brilliant one — Brion brings in live orchestrations and weird instruments as raw material for West's imagination. Give 'Ye a harpsichord and he will make it funky.
If this album has an emotional stunner a la "Jesus Walks," it's "Hey Mama," where West honors his mother, who had to work nights to keep on the lights. It loops a simple la-la-la vocal hook into a soul-sonic force, like Side Two of Prince's Sign 'o' the Times after aliens hacked into it. It's the best family-affair tearjerker since Ghostface's "All That I Got Is You," as West raps, "Can I cry, please?/Gimme a verse of 'You Are So Beautiful to Me.'" He also promises her he'll go back to school, though we'll believe it when we see the tuition check. "Gone" builds a totally mental funk loop out of an Otis Redding groan. Even weirder, "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" flips a James Bond theme into an ominous lament for slave labor in Africa.
"We Major" is the high point, but it's a close call on an album where nothing sucks except the skits. It's a splashy Love Boat disco groove, featuring a guest rap from Nas — a megasurprise considering that West produced Jay-Z's Nas-bashing classic "Takeover." Midway through, the music fades to silence and then West asks, "Can I talk my shit again?" The beat kicks back in and West proudly talks his shit, still going strong as the groove rolls on past the seven-minute mark. After the triumph of Late Registration, he can talk all he wants.