"Wake up, Mr. West!" Bernie Mac yells to open Late Registration, and the command is fitting -- this album is an awakening. More raw than College Dropout, Kanye West's sophomore release puts his vocals on center stage and further develops his identity as a socially aware MC. Sure, he's still the king of club-thumping, sped-up soul sampling, and nobody can juxtapose a slow jam with socially relevant content like West. But the man who has produced the hottest '00s hip-hop tracks this side of the Neptunes is now prioritizing his rhymes over his beats. On Registration, West turns up the consciousness and strips down the sampling, resulting in fewer head-invading, pop-friendly mash-ups and more emphasis on pure, unadulterated Kanye as a lyricist. The horn riff in "Touch the Sky," though forceful, pales in comparison to West's powerful vocal delivery, while "Crack Music" delivers verses so fierce that they make "Jesus Walks" seem piddling: "When our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin/Crack raised the murder rate in D.C. and Maryland/We invested in that like we got Merrill Lynch." The album falters only on "Bring Me Down," where West would have done well to rap straight over the beat and send Brandy's airy wailing back to the soft R&B radio from whence it came. Otherwise, Late Registration is simultaneously progressive (you could practically tango to "Addiction") and classic (many hoopties will bump to the Dre and Snoop throwback "Drive Slow"). Other rappers should take note: Fans appreciate tracks that rely on great rhymes as much as catchy hooks, and West beats the competition by delivering both.
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