Long on bluster—he even threw a tantrum after losing out to country star Gretchen Wilson for Favorite New Artist at the American Music Awards last November—Kanye West starts his sophomore CD, Late Registration, with unusual humility. On the relatively subdued "Heard 'Em Say," which employs a lovely piano sample from Natalie Cole's "Someone That I Used to Love" and a falsetto-tinged croon from Maroon 5's Adam Levine, he displays more appreciation than arrogance. "Nothing's ever promised tomorrow today," he raps, as if knowing that success like what he achieved with his 2004 debut, The College Dropout (2.7 million sales, two Grammy wins), can be fleeting. But this follow-up actually improves on the somewhat overrated Dropout, demonstrating that West has a few new tricks in his backpack. He has clearly learned from the stellar work he has done as a producer for artists like Common, John Legend and Brandy (all of whom return the favor with cameos here), bringing a more soulful, even jazzy vibe to his hip-hop. Much of Registration boasts a lush, live-sounding feel; in fact, West makes use of real strings and horns on tracks like the anti-haters "Bring Me Down." In signature style, though, he really gives life to the production with his savvy old-school samples: Etta James's version of "My Funny Valentine" on "Addiction," a heady, Latin-spiced number; folk singer Donal Leace's "Today Won't Come Again" on "Hey Mama," a reggae-flavored tribute to West's mother; Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman" on the great single "Gold Digger," which opens with Jamie Foxx channeling the Genius. West even samples a gospel choir on the disc's hardest cut, "Crack Music," which features a socially charged lyric equating the drug crack with the black music that comes from the streets. He may still not be in the same league as some of the best emcees, but West knows how to hook you.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Gold Digger"