No Time To Slump: West’s sophomore album is leaner, meaner—and sweeter—than his debut
It’s hard to believe Kanye West can still play the underdog. Yet, even with The College Dropout winning the hearts of critics, rockers, parents, pop fans and—oh yeah—rappers, West never forgets a slight; nobody thought this hotshot producer deserved a turn on the mic, he lost that Best New Artist Grammy, and most of all, nobody believed that anybody—even Kanye West—could properly follow such a stellar debut.
But here we are, and West has delivered a masterful sophomore disc on which every weak rhyme, guest and beat has been ironed out through months of hard work and several blown deadlines. Even West’s greatest fault—that he’s not a top-of-his-class rapper—proves an unlikely blessing. West suffers from plaguing self-doubt, but zeroes in on his weaknesses, always trying to redeem them. The bad-boy behaviors that sneak onto the album—the random bursts of egomania, the private urges on “Addiction”—don’t fester long before he sets about trying to make up for them. And he never feels a need without seeing the consequence, whether he’s weighing his love of trophy jewelry against the workers who suffer for it on “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” or just asking again and again, “Why everything that’s supposed to be bad, make me feel so good?”
Next to the superhuman confidence of guest star and mentor Jay-Z, West’s doubt sounds downright quaint. But it also makes him human. His best rhymes are his most self-deprecating (especially “Gold Digger,” where his wry humor puts him most at ease), and his ultra-sincere songs about his family never ring false (“Roses,” “Hey Mama”). He’s not the best rapper, but he’s the most likable: West the superstar convinces us that success just brings a whole new set of hassles, and isn’t that what we want to hear?
But West’s ambivalence would get tiresome if he weren’t such a sure-handed producer. He acts as his own big brother here, always demanding the best of himself. (Compare the loose, passionate single version of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”—included here as a bonus cut—with the more thoughtful verses of the album version, and then imagine every track getting the same scrutiny.) The album kicks off simply and sweetly with a twinkling piano loop and the falsetto of boy-band star Adam Levine, and from there, West—with help from Jon Brion—extends the “try anything, use everything” pop sensibility that worked so well on The College Dropout. Vibrant Stevie Wonder-ful synths augment the samples, and on “Gone” a string section not only humors but stalks the frontman, pushing his moodiness to new depths.
It’s tempting to guess how Brion, the guest MCs and any number of other influences helped shape this album. But in the end, it’s West’s dogged vision that makes it a success. He never acts before he deliberates, and never leaves a detail unpolished. And most of all, he never takes success for granted, whether it’s the hit singles, the cover of Time or the near-universal embrace he’s received. In one of the mostly modest album’s few triumphant moments, West asks his guest Nas, “We major?” while an almost waterlogged horn fanfare marches by distantly, as if to say, is it all a dream?