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Hip-hop's man of two minds

Kanye West's new album reveals both a loyalty to his genre's conventions and a restless artistic drive.

September 10, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Sounding like a Brecht-Weill ballad Jim Morrison would have enjoyed singing, it describes a bar pickup as a season in hell, with rapper Mos Def playing King of the Underworld. "Love is a dangerous necessity that people seek without regards to where they are," Mos murmurs, invoking Charles Mingus, another musical pioneer whose view of women was, ahem, complex.

Around that central invocation, West slurs out a monologue directed at the drunk hottie he's trying to seduce, alternately insulting her and begging her for some love. He ends up entrapped: "I thought I'd be with you for only one night, Now I'm with this girl for the rest of my life, that drunk and hot girl. . . . man!" How hilarious.

The bliss that does surface on "Graduation" is all in the grooves, which range further than West has ever gone before. Beyond the synth adventure of "Stronger," he samples the German prog rock of Can, the prototypal hard rock of Mountain, the white-girl soul of Laura Nyro, and chestnuts by Elton John and Steely Dan -- and that's just the obvious stuff. He bests Jay-Z's earlier use of Coldplay frontman Chris Martin's reedy pipes and finds the distinctiveness in vocals by soul semi-knowns Dwele and Connie Mitchell. There's a sonic surprise around every corner here -- even the T-Pain track has sparkle -- but the beats never get bogged down.

"Graduation's" intricate musical environments take a while to comprehend, and at times they seem at odds with West's confrontational lyrics. But this contradictory music makes sense when heard as an attempt to express an internal struggle -- between the Kanye West hip-hop made and the West who can't be contained by it or any other genre. It's hard to stop running with the crowd, even for a trendsetter. But West is on the verge, and moving forward.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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