Last year on his solo debut, College Dropout, Kanye West cut through rap’s standard-issue one-dimensional personae with some refreshing complexity. Neither “conscious” nor a bad-boy chasing bling and bitches, he was a little of both: a hungry soul (“Jesus Walks”) trapped in a body prey to venality (“All Falls Down”). West could pull off the occasional high-minded lyric without risking sanctimony, because he would clearly be the sort of preacher who got caught with call-girls.
This time, Late Registration’s core of mixed emotion clusters around four songs that deal with themes of worldly wealth versus gold-of-the-spirit. “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” starts where College Dropout finished (“Last Call”). It’s another paean to Roc-A-Fella, the label that nurtured him as a producer and signed him where other A&Rs scoffed at his deceptively sloppy flow. The giddy ascending chorus “forever ever ever EVER ever” pledges fealty to Jay-Z’s dynasty, which rescued him from the parlous times when “I couldn’t afford/A Ford Escort.” But when West chants “throw your diamonds in the air,” he’s not really showing off his new status symbols so much as his aesthetic riches, the genius-visionary’s “power to make a diamond with his bare hands.”
The song lives up to this boast and then some. Nobody deploys vocal samples better than West, and here it’s Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” that gets shook down for hidden hooks and latent meanings. The glittering production, laced with harpsichords and strings, matches the lines about “Vegas on acid/Seen through Yves St Laurent glasses”. But what about the title’s reference to “Sierra Leone”? That just got tacked on after the fact, to fit the video, an expose of child-slavery in African diamond mines, and has absolutely nowt to do with the lyrics.
It would have been cool if “Gold Digger” sampled “Goldfinger”. Instead, a Ray Charles loop powers this gritty groove, while (cute touch) Jamie Foxx kicks it off with a faux-blues whinge about a “triflin’ bitch” who sucks up his money and weed. West wryly observes “I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger/But she aint’ messin’ with no broke niggas!” “Addicted” offers a far fresher angle on exploitative heterosex. “Why everything that’s supposed to be bad/Make me feel so good?” ponders West, before launching into a rueful account of a mutually degrading affair that intertwines sex and drugs. The admission “and I keep coming over” is shivered with a hiccup of pained ecstasy, hinting at the double meaning of “come”. The song’s exquisite arrangement lends poignancy to this tale of male weakness and shame: a glisten of (i)Amnesiac(i) guitar, filtered hi-hats, a sampled chanteuse crooning “you make me smile with my heart” (a line from “My Funny Valentine”). “Crack Music” disconcertingly equates the analgesic powers of drugs and music, with Kanye and The Game chanting the chorus – “That’s that crack music, nigga/That real black music, nigga” – over an impossibly crisp military beat. If Black Americans traffic in the best pain-killers around, the song implies, it’s because Black America has the most pain to kill.
It could be that Kanye West’s “honest confusion” anti-stance will become its own kind of schtick eventually. But judging by the mostly-brilliant Late Registration, that won’t be happening for a while yet. He might even make it unscathed to the end of the quintology of conceptually-linked albums of which this album is merely instalment number two.
By Simon Reynolds