Don't believe the hype: College dropout's sophomore album sounds great, less filling.
When Eminem began to bland out a couple of years ago, Kanye West was there to step into his place as the most interesting mainstream rap artist. Jay-Z had the flow, but West, like Eminem, had the content. West was conflicted, prickly, and self-deprecating like Eminem, but he wasn't an outsider. He was an insider, pulling mainstream rap and bohemian counterparts together in a third-way path he alone was creating.
It took Eminem three albums to sound ordinary, but West has gotten there in two. On The College Dropout, West was a conceptualist, confessor, provocateur, and idea man. On this so-far overpraised follow-up album, he's become something close to what his mildest doubters always suspected: an ace producer moonlighting behind the mic.
West is still a brilliant producer. The best, most immediately memorable parts of Late Registration are musical: the rubbery beat and watery piano loop on "Heard 'Em Say." The languid Dirty South goes jazz-hop groove of "Drive Slow." The pairing of Ray Charles sample and stomping beat on the single "Gold Digger." The way West slices and dices a sample from Otis Redding's version of "It's Too Late" across "Gone."
But lyrically, despite the late-blooming conscience of "Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)," this is hardly the same guy who pulled an entire genre into new territory with singles like "All Falls Down" and "Jesus Walks." Instead, this is West working genre tropes, seeing how much interest he can pack into a standard-issue hip-hop mama tribute, littering the album with accomplished but purposeless guests rather than orchestrating them for cumulative effect. -- Chris Herrington