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West connects with heart and sophistication

Kanye West

“Late Registration” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

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POP crossover isn’t always a bad thing. The Beatles made music that appealed to people who loved rock and those who had little tolerance for it. Johnny Cash did the same with country music, Bob Marley with reggae and so on ... down to Kanye West and hip-hop.

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The rapper-producer’s “The College Dropout” hit pop and rap last year with the impact of a winning three-point basket in the NBA playoffs. This even more ambitious, superbly crafted follow-up, due in stores Tuesday, could connect even more strongly.

Working with pop sophisticate Jon Brion, the album’s co-executive producer, West packs each track in this joyful collection with elements that make you spend your first time through the album marveling at the sonic features alone, from Otis Redding samples to sweeping string arrangements.

Then come the rhymes, including such clever delights as “choosey"/"Ruby Tuesdays,” “ladies/Mercedes” and “porn star"/"foreign car.”

Finally, there are the themes, which range from the tenderness of a possible last visit with grandmother in the hospital to the marvelous mischievousness of the self-explanatory “Gold Digger” (sample courtesy of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”) to the social consciousness of “Crack Music,” about drugs’ impact on ghetto life.

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Though the man who gave us “Jesus Walks” last year clearly isn’t a thug, he’s no choirboy. In the best moments here he’s not just speaking about life’s contradictions but struggling with them.

West deserved the album of the year Grammy for “Dropout,” but he had to settle for just a nomination in the year of Ray Charles. But with this album he becomes the favorite to go all the way this time.

Robert Hilburn

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Albums are rated from one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).


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