Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pure West

Kanye West
Score: 7

Ego is a double-edged sword for Kanye West. On one hand, it compels him to push himself further in craft, commercialism, performance and influence. Yet it can push people away, into the "haters" camp.

West has a reputation for overreacting when things don't go his way. At the MTV Europe Music Awards last year, he stormed the stage to protest his loss in the Best Video category. He argued that "Touch the Sky" deserved the honor because it "cost a million dollars, Pamela Anderson was in it. I was jumping across canyons." Desperate to make people underSTAND, he said, "If I don't win, the awards show loses credibility."

To be sure, West is a man of passion. He works hard, and he demands compensation for that work in the form of recognition, be it awards, special treatment, flattery, respect, privileges, money or sex. When he doesn't get it, that fire inside him blazes hotter, and he vows to prove he's worthy.

The pattern plays itself out on Graduation, his third studio album. Unlike on The College Dropout or Late Registration, he allows the schoolhouse concept to quickly unravel, forgoing the skits as well as the Voice of Authority that opened those albums. Instead, Graduation reveals itself to be a chronicle of the rapper's ups and downs in the world of fame.

"The Good Life" finds him in a celebratory mood. Over a buoyant banger abetted by T-Pain and a Michael Jackson sample, he hails the pleasures of the high rollers: the stacks of bills, the bottles of liquor, the blowjob at 30,000 feet, the Ferrari, Vegas, the chick-magnet status.

But there's a downside to this fame thing. Now the paparazzi's all over him ("Flashing Lights"), and people dis him out of jealousy ("The Glory," "Everything I Am"). To make matters worse, his hook-ups haven't gone according to plan ("Drunk and Hot Girls"). He fears he's cursed to pick up the same type of woman, the one who downs drink after drink on his dime, then dances with her girlfriends but not with him, then makes him drive them all home, then persuades him to stop at the drive-through, then distracts him with her queasiness to the point that he almost crashes the car. Still, he declares, "That that don't kill me / Can only make me stronger" ("Stronger").

Now, West isn't the greatest rapper in the world, and his shortcomings in that department are more evident on Graduation than on any of his previous albums. He even recycles his Klondike rhyme from Late Registration. But he compensates for his weaker points --- though he might claim to have none --- by loading the album with samples and guests. This, in effect, gives it the feeling of an all-star cast. "Homecoming" features Chris Martin of Coldplay, "Barry Bonds" has Lil Wayne, "Drunk and Hot Girls" taps Mos Def, "Good Life" trots out T-Pain and gets an extra shot of pep from Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T."

Additionally, West is first and foremost a producer (Common's Be, John Legend's Get Lifted), so everything outside the lyrics sounds fantastic. The samples are deftly employed, often with West's distinctive pitch shifting, which assimilates them into the whole. Elton John and Mountain are just two squares on the same quilt.

"Stronger," built on the back of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," provides a good example of some recurring elements on Graduation: clockwork beats, pitch shifting, heavily manipulated vocals, a robotic sheen of synthesizers, beautiful cohesion. It adds up to a compulsively listenable sound.

You don't need to tell that to West, though. Even in the arena of hip-hop, where braggadocio is often part of the game, he stands out. In "Barry Bonds," he does more than liken his steady stream of hits to the towering home runs of the maligned (and now indicted) slugger; he identifies with the man himself: Bonds, a superstar at the top of his game, someone with power and longevity who's openly scorned because of his attitude. Bonds steps up to the plate, slams one over the fence and receives no more respect than he did before. West knows what that's like.

Appropriately, the song features Lil Wayne, who displayed some swollen pride of his own when he declared himself the best rapper alive after Jay-Z's retirement in 2003 but before his return in 2006.

Fortunately, West is not a man without humor, which makes it easier to accept his ego. In "Barry Bonds," for instance, when he claims that he's among the top five MCs, he tempers his boasting by poking fun at himself: "You could get behind me / But my head's so big you can't sit behind me."

It's common for rappers to pay tribute to a fallen MC; it's less common when the MC's living. West recognizes this and dedicates "Big Brother" to Jay-Z. The ode bumps with a beefy guitar riff, handclaps, strings and dramatic synths. As if turning pages in a photo album, West pinpoints moments in their shared past: hanging out at the mall, him too shy (shy!) to show his idol the beats he made; playing his "lil' songs" for Jay-Z, who bobs his head and says proudly, "That's you?"; reveling in sold-out shows; feeling held back when he's blocked from joining Jay-Z at Madison Square Garden; burning with determination, the hunger steeling his voice even as he comes to the present day.

He calls it sibling rivalry, always reaching for the bar Jay-Z set, always finding a higher bar above it. He recalls a day when he was sure he'd topped his mentor: "I told Jay-Z I did a song with Coldplay / Next thing I know, he got a song with Coldplay / Back of my mind, I'm like, 'Damn, no way.' "

What shines through "Big Brother" --- and the rest of Graduation, for that matter --- is the honest emotion. "If you admire somebody, you should go ahead an' tell 'em," he raps, "people never get the flowers while they can still smell 'em."

He might broadcast arrogance, but a lot comes with it.