As a hip-hop producer, Kanye West's near-ubiquity -- producing hits for Twista, Jay-Z, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, and Alicia Keys -- isn't surprising; like a hip-hop high-wire act, his productions effortlessly balance walloping, riddim-fueled momentum and supersized choruses with more nuanced samples and deceptively intricate drum patterns. But as an MC, Mr. West's ascent is somewhat of a surprise. With a flow that dips in the middle -- slow and syrupy -- before rising for the inevitable punch line with a gleeful drawl, West sounds more like Bad Boy castaway Ma$e than P. Diddy's other protégé, the late, great Christopher Wallace.
In this age of crunk and gangsta revivalism, it doesn't help West's case that his lyrics betray a certain thematic complexity, alternately accepting and rejecting his peers' conspicuous consumerism and reconciling his middle-class, Judeo-Christian upbringing with hip-hop's nihilistic archetypes.
But West's secret is that he clings to the only rule that matters for an artist: Speak from your heart on what you know. Or, in hip-hop terms: Kanye doesn't front. -- Sam Chennault