CHICAGO—Kanye West was sipping a mixed drink through a straw, and his loose tongue was even friskier than usual. The occasion was a listening party a few days ago at a Chicago recording studio for his third album, “Graduation” (Good Music), due out Sept. 11.
West has already written, performed and produced two multimillion-selling albums, “The College Dropout” (2004) and “Late Registration” (2005), but he is not satisfied. For him, music is a Darwinian eat-or-be-eaten competition, and not just because record sales, and hip-hop sales in particular, are plummeting. Billboard reports that rap is down 44 percent since 2000, and 33 percent this year.
So Sept. 11 is viewed as D-Day for rap’s resurgence. Not only is West’s album out that day, so is “Curtis,” the third album from another hip-hop artist who used to move big numbers, 50 Cent.
In a bit of chest-thumping sales promotion, 50 Cent has said he’ll quit if he doesn’t outsell West. At the listening party, West wouldn’t take the bait. “Fifty is one of the good rappers,” he said. “He can’t retire.”
Instead, the 30-year-old artist who grew up on the South Side picked a good-natured fight with Justin Timberlake.
“He was the No. 1 black artist” last year, said West, who is not colorblind, just envious of the singer’s crossover success. Like Timberlake, West wants kids, teens, hipsters, nerds, moms, dads and grandparents all dancing to his music.
“People like (Timberlake),” West declared. “People don’t like me.”
The audience of a few dozen listeners laughed, then West amended himself. “People either hate me or they love me, because I say what I feel.”
No argument here. West rarely filters what’s on his mind, and he infuses his ultra-savvy pop ingenuity with a raw intimacy unusual for a mainstream star. That proclivity for saying exactly what he feels also makes him a lightning rod for controversy.
Last year at the MTV Europe Video Music Awards, West bum-rushed the stage and threw a hissy fit when he didn’t win for best video. In 2005, he watched footage from the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans while hosting a benefit concert on live national television. After giving an impassioned, off-the-cuff assessment of the heart-breaking images, he blurted out, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
West’s polarizing bluntness is also the key to his success. He’s every bit as tough on himself as he is on the U.S. president. In the opening verse of one of his best new songs, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” West assesses the state of his world: “I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny/And what I do? Act more stupidly.”
If “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” was something of a confounding single when released several months ago, with its downbeat tone and angry vocal, it makes perfect sense tucked inside the album. It sits in the middle of “Graduation,” the centerpiece of a journey from late adolescence to adulthood that becomes progressively darker.
“Good Morning” opens the album on a sparse, pensive note, with a wordless backing choir and a static cowbell beat, before West rouses himself with some caffeinated, comedic wordplay. “Good morning, look at the valedictorian/Some are scared of the future while I hop in the DeLorean.”
The “graduate” ventures into the world intent on conquering it. At first he’s all about humor and assuredness. By album’s end, he’s clinging to harder-won virtues such as resilience and perseverance.
Riding a Steely Dan sample, “Champion” showcases West’s increasingly confident delivery. Cockiness flows. With each track, the music becomes harder, denser.
This is an album steeped in keyboard tones, in all their richness and variety. “Stronger” stomps over Daft Punk’s synthesizers and Timbaland’s drum programming. “Good Life” is exactly as advertised, and should propel any number of fall school proms. Even West’s throwaway lines are worth a laugh. “Them seasoned haters give me salty looks,” he raps, pauses a beat, then adds, “Lawry’s.”
“I Wonder” amps up the soul-fired feel of West’s early productions to stadium-rap levels. In the center of it all, a hint of doubt creeps in. “And I wonder if you know what it all means?”
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” turns a dark corner, and the album loses some of its high-spirited buoyancy. Thick Gothic organ and a raspy cameo from Li’l Wayne put an ominous spin on the boastful “Barry Bonds.” Even more sinister is “Drunk and Hot Girls,” a woozy descent into West’s particular idea of hell: being stuck with the wrong person for a lifetime.
“Flashing Lights” takes West’s keyboard madness to the dance floor with a classic South Side stepping groove. “The Glory” glories in ebullient old-school soul. But “Homecoming” falls flat, the album’s biggest misstep, as Coldplay’s Chris Martin coos over a cornball piano riff.
Such superstar window-dressing is designed to expand West’s audience, and the rapper sometimes pulls his punches lyrically to serve the same ends. West is talking less these days about changing music as he did on the first two records and more about communicating in a universal language to a wider audience. “I tried to keep it real simple and straight to the point,” he said at the listening party.
That simplicity sometimes causes West to sacrifice specificity, the soul-baring detail that distinguishes his best music. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” resonates because West struggles openly with his shortcomings, and so does “Everything I Am.”
“Damn, here we go again,” he sighs on the latter song. “People talk so much (expletive) about me in barbershops they forget to get their hair cut.”
Wearing his flaws rather than brushing past them, West is at his best, never more so than on the closing “Big Brother.” It’s the only song on the album where the music feels strictly like a backdrop, a gray wash that exists solely to frame West’s rap. Even as he pays tribute to the hip-hop mogul who put him on the map, Jay-Z, he recounts the slights and embarrassments he suffered at his hands.
For every triumph, there is a scar to show for it. Cocky, shoot-from-the-hip loudmouths don’t come much more vulnerable.