*** 1/2 Kanye West is hip-hop's square peg. The rapper and producer, whose third album, "Graduation," officially emerges Tuesday from its cloud of hype and controversy, is prodigiously talented and stunningly self-confident; he's earned the love of pop's fussiest insiders and its most casual fans. Yet even in his lofty position, West doesn't really belong.
West is most successful when he feels fearless, getting in the face of his rivals with startling beats and audacious rhymes. But like many artists who move a genre forward, West does care about the rules he breaks, and he loses it a little when he lets those conventions back him into a corner. That's when the misfit reemerges, blustering and ridiculous.
"Graduation" shows West in both modes. That's not surprising, since this album is as much a self-assessment as it is an assertion of superiority. Like a devoted comrade engaged in some cleansing self-criticism, West fully exposes the self hip-hop demands that he be: the pugnacious, narcissistic, bling-grubbing power player with a "head so big, you can't sit behind me." But even as his lyrics on battle cries such as "Stronger," "Champion" and "The Glory" verge on embarrassing self-worship, the music -- and the way the words interact with the music -- reveals another story, of West's conflicted desire to go beyond the hip-hop lineage that generated those very clichés.
To say that hip-hop, not West, is the problem that occasionally drags down "Graduation" may seem audacious on a level that matches West's own bombast. West himself has always bowed to the genre he's taken by storm, his soul-kissed productions reflecting the influence of producers Prince Paul and DJ Premier (who provides artful scratches on this album's standout ballad, "Everything I Am") and his lyrics referencing elders such as his mentor Jay-Z (the closer on "Graduation," "Big Brother," is a loving if Oedipal paean to Mr. Carter). As rap's current crossover king -- the one rapper many listeners who "don't get rap" can embrace -- he must negotiate the tension between his restless artistic drive and his loyalty to the brotherhood whose approval he covets.
Like the art-school kids who invented classic rock by arrogantly refashioning the roots music they loved, West is a flexible child of the bourgeoisie. For all his fetishization of bling, his class mobility manifests itself most clearly in the freedom of his artistic choices. Splitting the difference between intellectual "backpacker" rap and streetwise gangster romanticism, West moves sideways, up and down again in his songs, sometimes playing the satirist, sometimes dead sober.
The one thing he's never been is hard-core. That kind of adherence to machismo, and to purist hip-hop's esoteric slang, would be too confining. So the fact that he bumbles when boasting throughout "Graduation," overdoing what any hard-core rapper would pull off without breaking a sweat, is simply a reflection of his one big limitation: He's just not that tough.
Yet the way that West bumbles is intriguing. It's so consistent throughout "Graduation" that it's hard to believe it's not deliberate. West's persona is not merely boastful -- it's grimly dominant, deliberately overworked, simmering with anger. His attempts to play the hard rapper subtly ridicule that role, though it's not always clear that every joke is intentional.
West sneers his way through "Can't Tell Me Nothing" like Johnny Rotten, a punk who lives to bite the hand that feeds him, and treats the soulful Labi Siffre sample on "I Wonder" like a punching bag, his staccato delivery undermining the lyrics' Don Juan come-ons. On "Stronger," the single that interpolates Daft Punk's much-loved 2001 dance hit, he pushes himself like a runner on a treadmill, always on the verge of losing his breath. His delivery lifts the lyrics beyond their own mundanity.
The dark energy that lends force to many of these tracks, a clear switch from rapturous hits such as "Jesus Walks" and "Heard 'Em Say," recalls an earlier king of crossover rap -- Eminem. Marshall Mathers is West's peer in many ways -- a joker who couldn't be more serious, displaced and mobile because of race instead of class and an innovator in a genre that he must at least partially destroy to renew.
For all of West's publicly displayed love for his mother, whom he immortalized on the buoyant "Hey Mama" from "Late Registration," he also shares Mathers' phobic view of the female sex. Women entice these two artistic free agents, but they ultimately symbolize suffocating confinement. That was the theme of West's monster hit "Gold Digger," despite its shiny party vibe. On "Graduation," the queasy waltz "Drunk and Hot Girls" revisits the bachelor-for-life philosophy in no uncertain terms.