Since the release of his debut album, The College Dropout, in 2004, rapper and producer Kanye West has cultivated a reputation for overbearing arrogance. In hip-hop, where no one turns a hair at Jay-Z regularly comparing himself to God, this is a staggering achievement. The trouble is, it's quite hard to find any reason to contradict him. You could, if you were so inclined, debate his originality. His trademark production technique - speeding up old soul vocals to chipmunk squeakiness - was pinched from the Wu-Tang Clan, while the samples on his second album, Late Registration, suggest that West has spent not hours painstakingly sourcing rare breakbeats, but minutes raking through the kind of records drunk aunties ask wedding DJs to play: single Diamonds From Sierra Leone features Shirley Bassey's Diamonds Are Forever, Touch the Sky Curtis Mayfield's Move on Up.
Perhaps you could question West's oft-expressed aversion to higher education, which occasionally leaves him sounding like hip-hop's answer to Steve Coogan's student-loathing alter-ego Paul Calf, and seems to have less to do with any genuine social concern than his own early exit from college. He shows no signs of giving it a rest on Late Registration, which features three more skits about the uselessness of college fraternities.
Still, you would have a hard time arguing that West is less than unique. He is currently the only mainstream rapper willing to tackle politics: the links between the jewellery trade and Sierra Leone's civil war on Diamonds ... , the blunting of black militancy by drug use on Crack Music, inadequate US health care on Roses. His lyrical politicking ranges from dextrous ("Are you hearin' what Gil Scott Heron was hearin', when our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin?" asks Crack Music) to dismal ("I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless," he cries on Diamonds ... , "until I saw a picture of a shorty, armless"). But at least he's bothering to address topics other than how much money he's got and what a laugh shooting people is, which is more than you can say for his contemporaries.
This album's guest list is intriguing, not least because it features French film director Michel Gondry drumming and, on Gold Digger, the odd sound of actor Jamie Foxx doing his Oscar-winning impersonation of Ray Charles next to samples of the singer himself. There is also a co-executive producer's credit for Jon Brion, a producer and musician whose previous clients have included Badly Drawn Boy, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright and a host of other pimped-out thugs who made ice by showing mad love for the gs on lockdown. Brion brings out West's unerring pop sensibility to startling effect. The speeded-up vocals are noticeable by their absence, but virtually every track features an irresistible hook, from Gone's Otis Redding sample to the exuberant Simon and Garfunkel-ish harmonies of Hey Mama.
More intriguing still are the cameos from other rappers. Jay-Z appears alongside mortal enemy Nas; witty, intelligent Common next to the Game, whose big claim to fame is that he's marginally less dim than 50 Cent. It's hard to think of anyone else who could bring such diametrically opposed voices together.
The music offers further evidence of how far outside rap's usual strictures West operates. OutKast aside, mainstream hip-hop doesn't really do ambiguity or irony, but just as West's arrogance occasionally appears to be a protracted joke, Late Registration finds him in thrillingly subversive form, working in the production booth to undercut tracks' messages and shifting their meanings. On We Major, he piles on the backing vocals until Nas's braggadocio is virtually inaudible. On Touch the Sky, he wittily acknowledges the familiarity of the Move on Up sample by humming distractedly along. Crack Music forces its point home with a gospel choir and a punishing beat, but when the Game finally appears, West whips both away. The gangsta rapper is left snarling away over groaning, seasick strings: his hectoring seems oddly powerless and pathetic.
Similarly, Drive Slow's lyrics initially offer a cheerful endorsement of kerb crawling ("turn your hazard lights on when you see them ho's"). Then the track slows down and the vocals turn to sludge. On the one hand, this is a straightforward nod to the odd Texan phenomenon of chopping and screwing, in which DJs play hip-hop at half speed. On the other, it entirely changes the song's mood: what started out as carefree, amoral party music now seems sinister, leering and deeply unpleasant.
Like the rest of Late Registration, Drive Slow suggests an artist effortlessly outstripping his peers: more ideas, better lyrics, bigger hooks, greater depth. West announced the album's arrival in typically retiring style: "It's killing everything out there ... I'm carrying the whole of hip-hop." On hearing Late Registration, that sounds less like rampant egomania than a bald statement of fact.