Has any other pop superstar ever accomplished as much with indistinctness? Listening to the opening lines of Kanye West’s third album, it took me a moment to figure out if it was him rapping or one of his many high-profile guests.
As an artist known for exploiting the dichotomies of hip-hop (ghetto vs. ‘burbs, samples vs. live jams, sacred vs. profane), West still gets grief for his phrasing and tone, but in the end these perceived demerits only intensify his paradoxical appeal. He’s more like you than 50 Cent, so “Graduation” might sell more copies than “Curtis,” which has been released the same week.
Until the final cut, “Big Brother,” where he genuflects toward Jay-Z, Kanye countenances no competition, but it isn’t the usual rote boasting. “Who the kids gonna listen to?” he asks pointedly. “I guess me if it isn’t you.”
Responsibility lies heavy on the shoulders of the prophet, and if the resignation and introspection that characterize this very personal album sound pretentious, they’re also more emotionally satisfying. So is the music, which is simpler and sexier — more feminine, you might say. Another paradox? Maybe. Even the elaborate CD packaging by Takashi Murakami acknowledges that West’s pop milieu contains multitudes. But he’s coming into focus, slowly.