War of the words

By RICHARD BECK  |  September 12, 2007

VIDEO: Kanye West, "Can't Tell Me Nothing"

On Graduation, Kanye lives up to his own ego. Again. His last disc, Late Registration, sprawled: it seemed to introduce a new sound on every track, and the harmonic nuances that popmeister Jon Brion brought to the table had the power to surprise. Graduation is much tighter. Kanye produced it himself, and he settled on a sound that is equal parts warm, electronic fuzz and melodramatic orchestral sweep. Strings are trembling all over the place, and every now and then a brass section will leap out of the background. Kanye has always had a characteristic sound, but this is the first time he’s narrowed it to such a fine point.

The first half slowly works its way through the complexities of his professional success till it reaches a hollow, rotten core at “Drunk and Hot Girls.” Here, Kanye sounds as pathetic as the wasted models he’s fumbling around with. On “Everything I Am,” however, he realizes what he’s almost lost. It opens with “Common passed on this beat,” and even though he tries to talk up his solitude as independence, he comes off as an orphan. There’s a devastating little piano line, a melancholy vocal loop, and poignant, understated scratching by DJ Premier. Kanye starts remembering home-town Chicago, the 600 person who were killed there just last year, and though he wants to protest — “Man, killing’s some wack shit” — he knows he hasn’t earned back the platform: “My 15 seconds up, but I got more to say/‘That’s enough, please, Mr. West, no more today.’ ”

It’s the perfect set-up for what comes next. He builds “The Glory” around Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country,” and as snippets like “Can’t study war no more” open the song, you can hear him singing quietly along, not quite sure of the words. It’s the sound of Kanye remembering how excited he is to be making music — to be back as part of a community that can use him. “The hood love to listen to Jeezy and Weezy/And — oh yeah! — Yeezy!” He brings up comparisons to Biggie and Pac, and he does something I’ve never heard before: “I guess after I live, I wanna be compared to Big/Anyone, Big Pun, Big L, or Notorious.” Humility? Who’d have thought?

Yes, Kanye’s one of hip-hop’s better-looking rappers. And he’s arrogant as hell. But you can imagine he really believes what he raps — a trick 50’s long since forgotten. Graduation is big and generous and redemptive. The real difference between Kanye and 50 is that Kanye’s gone back to the church, whereas 50’s an agnostic. As 50 puts it in “Fire,” “You can hate it but face it/B.I.G. and Tupac just ain’t around.” He’s wrong. And Kanye the believer knows why.

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