That's West, for you. He's complex and contradictory, equally obsessed with the profound and the superficial, and not always able to distinguish between the two. You can hear it on his new sophomore release Late Registration, in which he worries about his ailing grandmother one minute ("Roses") and revels in a night of drunken grab-assing ("Celebration") the next. West is fascinating because he uses his imposing pedestal to attack hip-hop homophobia and the shallowness of bling culture, but he's also a young egomaniac who's thoroughly enjoying his multi-platinum ride.
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Like Sly Stone in the '60s, Stevie Wonder in the '70s, Prince in the '80s, and - at least for a brief moment - Lauryn Hill in the late '90s, West is a black popular artist who's also a creative visionary. At heart, he's a sonic architect like Dr. Dre, with only an ordinary flow as an emcee. But unlike Dr. Dre, he has something to say. Even when that subject matter is as tired as the get-yourself-a-pre-nup warnings of "Gold Digger," West's sly wit wins you over: "I ain't saying she's a gold digger/but she ain't messing with no broke niggas."
His feel for vintage R&B surfaces on the moody "Drive Slow" and the luxurious "Heard 'Em Say" (which actually makes Maroon 5's Adam Levine sound soulful), and "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" is audaciously majestic, from it's melodramatic Shirley Bassey sample down to its thumping beat. Like the legends he emulates, West is programmed to go for broke, and if he sometimes acts like he's doing us a favor by sharing his genius with us, that's because he is. •