So this is where Kanye West wants to take hip-hop — beyond the sped-up soul samples that made him famous, beyond his first album’s gospel and R&B influences ... into the orchestra pit.
Fashioning himself on the adventurous “Late Registration” as more of a streetwise composer than arrogant producer-rapper, West piles on lush layers of strings, pianos and horns. Then some more instruments. And a few melodic lines from a choir.
The abundance of sound results from the Chicago star’s collaboration with Jon Brion, a Southern California musician who has scored films, produced for Fiona Apple and had never before touched a hip-hop record.
Together, they have created an album that is musically far more rich and complex than West’s acclaimed first disc, and is easily the year’s best hip-hop CD. Their quirky creativity makes “Registration,” which comes out Tuesday, less instantly accessible than “The College Dropout,” but more rewarding for repeat listeners.
West’s sometimes-mumbly voice is crisper, and his range of topics is again vast and intriguing.
From his perch atop the pop world, West warms up with a few easy crowd-pleasers. Adam Levine of Maroon5 supplies the delicate chorus for “Heard ’Em Say,” a softie of a first song. “Touch The Sky” exuberantly jacks Marvin Gaye’s “Move On Up” with one-liners about the hard life before fame: “Any pessimists, I ain’t talk to them. Plus, I ain’t have no phone in my apartment.”
The sly single “Gold Digger” features Jamie Foxx doing his Ray Charles “I Got A Woman” thing on the hook, and another rather obvious sample, Shirley Bassey’s James Bond theme “Diamonds Are Forever,” gets reworked as “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.”
That track and its remix, both included, feature West at his best — introspective, political and witty.
He raps in the original version about his night of petulance at the American Music Awards, where he lost in the new artist category and complained backstage. In the remix, featuring Def Jam label head Jay-Z, he examines African conflict diamonds: “I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless, til I seen a picture of a shorty, armless.”
West tends toward more such duality in production.
Near the end of the car-celebrating “Drive Slow,” the jazz-infused beat gets stuck in syrup, slowing in the Southern chopped-and-screwed style until the song title comes off as a rather ominous command, from a guy who famously knows well the consequences of car crashes.
And in the odd yet enjoyable “We Major,” the pairing of lyrical heavyweight Nas with the drum break used in Run-DMC’s “Sucker MCs” — a perfect opportunity for some back-to-basics street rap — is nearly overwhelmed by a Brion-style cacophony of twinkling pianos and swelling horns.
West is at his creative peak when focusing on his family through the sweet la-la-laing “Hey Mama” and equally touching “Roses,” which uses a tale of his grandmother’s hospitalization to criticize the state of health care.
Determined to prove he’s his own man, West invites Game to sing the hook on “Crack Music” despite the Compton rapper’s coy rap war with Jay-Z, and doesn’t even rap on “My Way Home,” given over to friend Common for a single magnificently crafted verse. Other guests on the 14 songs include Paul Wall, GLC, Brandy, Cam’ron and Consequence, who delivers a song-stealing verse on “Gone.”
Conducting them all like a hip-hop maestro is West, a virtuoso of beats flaunting his laudable inability to be locked into a single style.