Those who complain about Kanye West's ego and flow might as well be dissing the entire history of mainstream rap. From its birth, hip-hop has been about living large despite life's shortcomings, and that includes shortcomings in vocal prowess: the most audacious and unprecedented thing about those first rappers, after all, was that they could command center stage even though they couldn't sing.
Now Kanye West has become hip-hop's prime mover, even though he lacks the lung power and verbal dexterity of your average bigmouth rhyme-slinger. Instead, he makes like Kurtis Blow and offers up star-power (a Type A combination of confident swagger and unhinged melodrama) and an uncanny populist touch (a self-deprecating sense of humor and a great ear for building hooks). He's got smarts (a full awareness of the contradictions inherent in his embrace of family and rebellion, capitalism and revolution, religion and hedonism) and a daring dash of musical originality (deployed first in his samples, later in his collaborations with white-pop maestro Jon Brion to create soundscapes for his second album, Late Registration). Hell, he even boasts what Kool Moe Dee used to call an aptitude for "sticking to themes" -- a talent for rich storytelling that's become conspicuously absent in hip-hop.
So even West's most superficial raps are as engrossing as the polysyllabic word-spray of the underground's illest headz and more outrageous than any thug rapper's scar tissue. That doesn't mean Late Registration is as great as The College Dropout -- part of the problem is that it sticks too much to its predecessor's theme -- but it does suggest that West will create new ways to overcome his shortcomings and take full command of the real stage on this highly anticipated tour. Expect a string section, a full backing band, a superstar the L.A. Times calls as animated as Spider-Man, and a touch of the unexpected.