West's vocal limitations wouldn't be so obvious if his backing tracks weren't so striking. Partially co-produced by Elliott Smith pal Jon Brion, Late Registration takes West's love of soul music to the next level. Smartly dropping his habit of speeding up old vocal samples, West instead layers lines by Otis Redding and Shirley Bassey alongside fluid horn samples, swinging string sections, and funky breakbeats. (Rather than dig up Ray Charles, West gets old friend Jamie Foxx to re-create his Oscar-winning role on "Gold Digger.") The arrangements for "Heard 'Em Say" and "Gone" are as lush as anything Nelson Riddle came up with; "Crack Music" is as darkly luxuriant as Curtis Mayfield's '70s work.
But West remains one of the most intriguing figures in hip hop mainly because he's also one of the most conflicted. On "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" he confronts the consequences of buying bling ("Over here, it's a drug trade, we die from drugs/ Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs"), while on "Touch the Sky" he struggles with excess and ethics ("I'm trying to right my wrongs/ But it's funny these same wrongs helped me write this song"). He questions the government's role in the AIDS crisis, the Gulf War, and the crack epidemic one minute and trashes a girl for not sleeping with him the next. Perhaps the oddest moment comes during "Heard 'Em Say," in which West decries the second-class status of African-Americans in society, and then hires a white soul singer (Maroon 5's Adam Levine) to sing an (admittedly lovely) vocal refrain. West may be the perfect MC for the current age: a man torn between his religious upbringing and his crass, amoral profession, a man trying to have his cake and feed the poor, too, a man who sounds pretty happy as he wonders, "Why's everything that's supposed to be bad make me feel so good?"