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Kanye West’s rise to fame had all the makings of a modern fairy tale—call it “The Emperor’s New Flow.” When the superstar producer began rhyming, back in 2003, he labeled anyone who failed to recognize his genius an enemy of hiphop. His relentless propaganda campaign worked: Few questioned the skill of the Roc-A-Fella–backed artist, and the next thing you know, he was all over the place—shows, videos, radio—with people everywhere buzzing about his poetic prowess.

Eventually, a contingent emerged that had the guts to say the man can’t rap, but even it had to acknowledge that West’s production work covered a multitude of lyrical sins—even lines as horrible as “I’m Kan, the Louis Vuitton Don/Bought my mom a purse, now she Louis Vuitton Mom,” from the 28-year-old Chicagoan’s debut LP, 2004’s The College Dropout. Besides, it’s not as if he was the first lyrically deficient producer-turned-rapper the world had ever seen. In fact, when he first emerged, West looked a lot like Puff Daddy. There was the initial dependence on a bigger, brighter star; fascination with fashion and jewelry; and, of course, the overconfidence in his abilities.

Dropout was even West’s very own No Way Out: wack rhymes saved by interesting production. West isn’t the first to do the whole soul-sample-on-speed thing, but he certainly helped bring it to prominence and, now, prevalence. The beats, along with his exploration of the sort of middle-class themes—pop culture! disillusionment with higher education!—that music critics could relate to, earned most of the praise for his first solo effort. The new Late Registration, however, is a different story. West is less like Diddy and more like reserved, brilliant producer/rapper Dr. Dre. Like Dre’s groundbreaking 1992 album, The Chronic, Registration not only is sonically innovative but also includes solid lyrics from guests and adequate verses from West.

Those who blasted West’s rhyme skills will find him much improved. On “Touch the Sky,” a song about his professional and personal struggles built around a horn-saturated Curtis Mayfield sample, West drops this little gem: “Back when they thought pink polos would hurt the Roc/Before Cam’ got the shit to pop/The doors was closed/I felt like Bad Boy’s street team—I couldn’t work the Lox.” OK, he’s still no Rakim, but he has gotten better—and better still, his newfound talent hasn’t gone to his head. West doesn’t show off his wordplay at every opportunity; he slips it in where appropriate. Registration is the work of a man who’s finally realized that just because it’s his album doesn’t mean he has to mark his musical territory by pissing all over it. Kanye has had a wonderful epiphany: Less of him is more.

Dropout explored education, religion, and death, but it was all about how the world affected West. Social issues were relevant only when they gave him an excuse to brag about breaking the commercial-hiphop mold. He rapped about shunning college because he knew it would push buttons; he rapped about Jesus because no mainstream rapper had done it well before; he rapped about his insecurities and then patted himself on the back for being “the first to admit” them. If West went beyond generic hiphop boasts, he did so only to reach a new level of narcissistic navel-gazing.

Hiphop braggadocio is interesting—and tolerable—only when it’s used as a small, sad way for the disenfranchised to grab at dignity: king-of-the-block claims tempered by the diminutive size of the kingdom, for example. West never had that sort of poignancy behind his boasts—he was just a kid with a relative wealth of opportunities who worked hard and became a superstar. But he’s slowly opening his eyes to the woes of others, gradually adopting a view of the world that extends beyond his nose. He’s on TV saying, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He’s speaking out against “conflict diamonds” in a re-recording of Registration’s first single, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” Up there on the rickety stage of megacelebrity, he’s becoming politicized—and unlike, say, Sean Penn, he seems just as surprised by it as the rest of us.

He can still be an asshole, for sure. “Bring Me Down,” featuring Brandy, is all about people trying to forsake him like Christ or something, and “Addiction” is a self-indulgent piece on which he congratulates himself for fessing up to his vices. But counter those with “Roses,” a song about how West’s sick grandmother, a dedicated church secretary, is denied the high-quality medical care available to celebrities. “You know the best medicine go to people that’s paid/If Magic Johnson got a cure for AIDS/And all the broke muthafuckas passed away/You tellin’ me if my grandma’s in the NBA/Right now she would be OK?” he raps over a sample from Bill Withers’ “Rosie.” An otherworldly electronica breakdown toward the end of the track—most likely courtesy of Fiona Apple producer Jon Brion—helps keep things from getting too treacly. Better yet, it’s clear that West didn’t record the song to vent about how much his grandmother’s illness has fucked him up or to be a trailblazer. Instead, he’s channeled his outrage into a clear statement on how the disadvantaged are treated in this country.

“Crack Music” also tackles tough material with unforeseen sophistication. Over hard-hitting percussion and a peppy “la, la, la” of a choir, West talks about how music is the new drug game, the new way to make money and get out of the ghetto. It smacks of Jay-Z’s 10-year-old “Rap Game/Crack Game,” but instead of just comparing the seediness of the two industries, West suggests that music is the black community’s shot at not just riches but also payback. As the track progresses, it breaks apart and becomes a weird tangle of sound effects, then a sermon: “What we gave back was crack music/And now we ooze it/Through they nooks and crannies/So our mommas ain’t gotta be they cooks and nannies/And we gon’ repo everything they ever took from Grammy/Now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammys.”

West’s growth is most noticeable in content, but he’s made strides in other areas as well. Using another producer to enhance his sound was a pretty humble, grown-up move. So was bringing in a huge cast of guests who could’ve easily shown him up, including Nas, Common, the Game, Paul Wall, and a slew of other serious MCs (though not, thank god, hiphop violinist Miri Ben-Ami). On the “Diamonds” remix, West manages to outshine his friend, his mentor, his everything—Jay-Z. In terms of rhythm and rhyme, Jay sounds better over the Shirley Bassey sample, but West analyzes the gem trade and all Jay-Z can do is talk about upholding the Roc name and address the rumors plaguing his business empire. By rattling off the names of his artists instead of bashing De Beers, the mogul missed out on what could’ve been a classic rap moment.

On “Heard ’Em Say,” by contrast, West pretty much lets Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine’s singing and Brion’s strange mix of piano and synth bass line take center stage. He’ll occasionally drop a bomb such as “I know the government administered AIDS,” but he’s not jumping up and down demanding to be heard. “Drive Slow,” featuring Wall, has a down-South flavor and even includes a screwed interlude, but it’s mellowed out with syncopated keys and the horn section that appears on most of Registration. Yet the track is most notable for background vocals so soft and airy that they sound like an instrument themselves, a barely perceptible humming that is a long way from the loud, distorted wailing West once favored.

His magnum opus as a producer, however, is “We Major,” one of the most interesting hiphop tracks in recent years. It features more horns, twinkling keys, and cheesy, oversimple percussion. Together, they become what must be the most free-flowing seven-and-a-half minutes ever to sit at No. 1, something that sounds like an early-’70s Stevie Wonder jamming with a junior high school band’s drum section. Not even a verse from the infamous Nas is a match for the track. Just when the music has almost faded out, West jumps in and shouts, “Can I talk my shit again?” He then brings the beat back up and repeats the same line: “Can I talk my shit again?” It’s a move that’s out of step with most of Late Registration, too brash and arrogant. But by the time West issues it, he’s earned the right to talk his shit as much as he wants.CP