A five-carat album

Kanye West’s ‘Late Registration’ arrives right on time

Keri Carlson

The last students to register get the boring classes, the mean professors, the leftovers.

And in music, the sophomore album is not far from the deferred college sophomore.

Often on a first album, the songs have been slaved over and written for years, perfected.

But the second album has pressure to keep the buzz going – to get the record out before popularity has waned. In the rush, artists use the songs not worth putting on the first album – the songs that sound hasty and apprehensive, the scraps.

Kanye West certainly had a lot to live up to in order to defeat this dreaded sophomore slump. “College Dropout” received 10 Grammy nominations and went almost triple platinum. But beyond the numbers, West’s music stood out like a Marc Jacobs diamond in the rough.

Amid the crunked-up club anthems and gangsta boastings, West brought street smarts straight from the suburbs and soul-dug from his parents’ record collection. His signature helium or chipmunk soul samples reflected West’s spirit and sense of humor absent from MTV and commercial radio at the time.

Except for a few tracks, West’s new album, “Late Registration,” sounds surprisingly different from 2004’s “College Dropout” and the recent Common album he produced.

The buttery smooth soul he samples still is at the core of West’s style; but on “Late Registration,” the music gains an extra coating provided by co-producer Jon Brion.

Brion (known for his work on Fiona Apple’s “When the PawnÖ”) adds strings and horns for a symphonic boost. At times, this new layer makes the Kanye-ness less apparent by burying the sample deep. The chipmunk voices are noticeable only upon close listen.

But on other songs, Brion’s presence is slight, if there at all. Instead, West’s samples are the main structure of the song. Unlike “College Dropout,” the samples that create the base of West’s songs are less tampered with.

“Touch the Sky” uses a section from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” The popular song’s peppy horns would seem too familiar in the wrong hands. In West’s, though, the lyrics are in perfect synch with the music and the song soars.

“Diamonds from Sierra Leone” also prominently features a sample. As a sultry Shirley Bassey declares, “(Diamonds) are all I need to please me,” West rhymes about the slavery involved in the diamond trade. “These ain’t conflict diamonds, is they Jacob? Don’t lie to me man,” West pleads.

But West raps about the jewelry politics while wearing a diamond watch. And this is what makes the new Kanye still very Kanye.

Not unlike “College Dropout” where West recognizes “We buy a lot of clothes but we don’t really need ’em / Things we buy to cover up what’s inside / ‘Cause they made us hate ourselves and love they wealth.” But he says this all while pictured in Polo shirts.

West points out the ills of society – in class, race or materialism – but does so in a style that is not aimed to preach but to show that West, too, is affected by these issues. He is unafraid to bare his contradictions.

On “Late Registration,” West constantly switches from being big-headed to humble, humorous to serious, blissful to sorrowful and materialistic to soulful. And no matter how many diamonds he wears, it’s West’s willingness to show all these sides that truly makes him shine.