WHEN Kanye West released "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," the first single from his highly anticipated new album, hip-hop radio programmers and fans reacted coolly.
West was stunned.
The song was a stinging look at the abusive working conditions in the diamond mines of Sierra Leone, and the track opens with a teasing sample from Shirley Bassey's version of "Diamonds Are Forever," the lush pop hit from the '70s James Bond film.
It was just the kind of mix of sound and subject that the 28-year-old rapper-producer saw as the next step in his ambitious plan to liberate hip-hop.
In his debut album, last year's "The College Dropout," West showed you could sell millions of records by replacing thug-life cliches with compelling human portraits. This time he wanted to redirect the music of hip-hop as dramatically as he had changed its themes.
His plan for the album, "Late Registration," was to incorporate the arty pop sounds he heard in works by singer-songwriter Fiona Apple and the trip-hop devotees Portishead. We're talking hip-hop with strings, pop music, horns, cellos, violin, exotic guitar noises.
The socially conscious message of "Diamonds" played well, but the music struck most listeners as way too pop and fluffy, lacking the jackhammer beats that define hip-hop.
"They thought it was too white," West said, sitting in a room at Chalice Recording Studios Hollywood last weekend. (He uses "white" referring to pop music and "black" for R&B and hip-hop.) "Others thought the sample was too corny, and I had to listen to them. Mainly, I realized I may be going too fast in trying to open new dimensions in hip-hop. I needed to take one step at a time if I wanted to bring my audience with me."
West returned to the studio and threw out four tracks from the CD he had been working on in L.A. for months with pop producer Jon Brion, who produced Apple's second album. They replaced them with tracks that West describes as more "black." (He's saving the "discards" for his next album, which he's already titled "Graduation Day.")
Most artists might not even admit reworking the album in fear of sounding like sellouts. But the four new tracks aren't a retreat. "Touch the Sky," one of the new tunes, is one of the CD's most uplifting numbers -- and an integral part of what is easily the most exciting hip-hop album this year.
Due in stores Tuesday, "Late Registration" is a 71-minute tour de force that mixes everyman tales with sonic invention -- a record that could change the musical framework of rap more than anything since 1992's "The Chronic" by Dr. Dre. First-week sales are expected to be the largest for any rap collection since 50 Cent's "The Massacre" topped the million mark in March.
West's last-minute retooling offers a valuable insight into his ambitions. He doesn't just want to make great records. He also insists on making hits.
For all his love of the studio, West, who now lives in Los Angeles, says being on stage with fans singing along is the ultimate musical high.
"The feeling is so incredible that you want more of it," he said. "That's what you're chasing in the studio. You are looking for songs that will touch people, tell their story, inspire them, connect with them.
"I can't wait to get back on tour because I'm going to bring an orchestra with me. Imagine that."
Putting up a good front
TWO words are invariably applied to Kanye West: brilliant and arrogant. Which raises an interesting question: If the most gifted hip-hop star since Eminem truly is brilliant, couldn't it be that he's just being honest when he describes himself that way?
West, wearing a Little Milo T-shirt and jeans, chuckled at the question in the recording studio on Highland Avenue. He's all too familiar with the talk about his cocky image
"The funny thing is, a lot of the stuff I said last year about 'my great album' was out of fear. It was my first time out and I was singing 'Jesus Walks' in front of 20,000 screaming people.
"It was like walking into a Las Vegas casino and suddenly winning. Who knows if you'll ever be able to do that again? Deep inside I didn't know if I could ever make another record as unique or meaningful as that first album. I wanted to make sure people saw what I had done and gave me credit."
The credit is already flowing his way for "Late Registration." Time magazine lauds West in a cover story. Rolling Stone gives the CD its maximum five stars. The New Yorker calls it "thrilling." Other rappers, from cult groups to such bestsellers as OutKast, have won praise for innovation, but no one has confronted the thug-centric superstar mentality as dramatically.
That doesn't mean he can't have fun with the music. "Gold Digger," one of the most appealing tracks from the CD, is ridiculously entertaining R&B ear candy that opens with Jamie Foxx's growling vocal treatment of Ray Charles' bluesy "I Got a Woman." No wonder it's already a smash on radio.