As if addressing the rumblings (fuelled by a number of award show self-coronations) that hip-hop’s own Willy Loman was starting to outgrow his britches, Kanye West’s post-VMA interview on the eve of his latest album’s release caught the Video of the Year non-winner in a rare moment of humbleness. After dusting off his two-tone saddle shoes to demonstrate his feigned indignation that Snoop snatched the apparently wholly hypothetical “best dressed at the VMAs” award, he revealed that he feels truly blessed (by God, but not in so many words) at how his mystique has miraculously fallen into place over the last few weeks. As though the Higher Power is responsible for organizing the eerie media synchronicity that sees his album released the same week he wins his first Moonman, prepares to charm Oprah’s apostles, and lands the cover of Time. Which calls to mind the two-liner in Shattered Glass where one feature journalist muses over the difference between Time and People and his tipsy companion quips, “Like there’s any difference.”
Sure, Kanye. You’re blessed. Go ahead and act like this hasn’t been in the works since last year’s Grammy nominations came out. (If there’s any otherworldly serendipity to be found on sophomore effort Late Registration, it’s at the tail end of “Skit #1,” which ends with the Broke Fi Broke fraternity’s chant “we can’t afford no gas” the same day oil tops $70 a barrel.) Still, respect must be paid to the man who dared suggest what none of the VMAs’ other myriad, self-righteous Jesus namedroppers (Foxx, Diddy and his T-shirt Synod, and Ricky Martin appraising Joss Stone’s androgynous sexuality with “¡Vaya con Dios!” fawning) would ever admit: that God is a publicist, and Jesus plugs.
With Late Registration, the Time cover and a still-puzzling PR stunt in which he begged the music community to stop using “gay” as an antonym for “hip-hop,” West cements his bid to be emo’s ambassador to the genre, or vice versa. Take note that the album’s first guest slot goes not to his Rock-A-Fella boss Jay-Z or a “returning the favor” Brandy, but Maroon 5’s whiny Adam Levine, who makes like a butterfly singing the delicate chorus of “Heard ’Em Say.” And elsewhere, on “Drive Slow,” West cranks the track speed down to 16 RPM in a furtive nod to the “chopped and screwed” craze (antithetical as it is to West’s chipmunk loops), de-emphasizing the sound’s druggy haze and seemingly aiming for a thoughtful brood. This transgression—or rather West’s defensive preemptivity—also explains why most of the pop-cultural cognoscenti are feeling the itch to rewire his jaw. Witnessing the self-proclaimed underdog/nerd Kanye and his armload of polyester soul samples scale the record charts, letting the rush of instant celebrity go to both his head, and his Ralph Lauren-stuffed closet is like watching Grizzly Man’s Timmy Treadwell stage his own psychological decomposition. In other words, you occasionally want to shake these auto-protagonists, whose motives seem fuelled by paranoia, and demand “What did you expect?”
If nothing else, Late Registration puts these masochistic matters on hold, and the occasional stabs at overblown topicality almost seem like their own punchlines, as when West mutters, “I know the government administer AIDS” on “Heard ’Em Say” or delivers what must be recent pop music’s most paint-by-color, least convincing critique of the Bush Administration on the otherwise swaggering “Crack Music.” Late Registration’s salvation (and, undoubtedly, Kanye’s own) are when it basks in the sunshine after the rain. The revving, swooping buzz of the bassline in the taffy pull-paced “We Major” dances around a torrent of twinkling electric piano glissandos, suggesting what Stevie Wonder’s interminably delayed album probably ought to sound like in a sympathetic world. The Shirley Bassey hook of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” has a coy byplay with Kanye’s “Ms. Jackson”-quoting “forever ever? forever ever?” And if Kanye’s going to continue to spin hits from only modestly reconfigured old school ground folks music, he could scarcely do better than choosing Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” for the golden disco-hustle of “Touch The Sky.” A Late Registration indeed. That shit could’ve been a summer anthem.