BEING NEITHER DUMB enough to fit into the vein of pop rap nor hard enough to leverage the reasonably modest hardships of his young life, earth - altering - producer - turned ebulliently - stylish - rapper Kanye West had to fully engage his tremendous musical skills and develop himself not just as a rap star, but as a pop/art tastemaker and magnetic cultural player. After a few solid years of omnipresence on the charts as beatmaker to the stars, West brought himself to the fore with last year's The College Dropout—a debut that, despite its hype, still felt less than fully realized. Though it contained a wealth of suggestions of West's prospective brilliance, it also felt slightly afflicted by the nervousness of a young man who had to fight his way out from behind the mixing desk. While occasionally shimmering with the sort of future-of-hiphop spark immediately expected from West, often The College Dropout seemed to retreat and advance in equal measures from the edges of hiphop's safety zone, and thus felt a little gunshy. Conversely, the freshly dropped Late Registration sees West in creative overdrive, wielding a potent combination of monstrous hitmaking skill, inspired experimentation, and charisma.

Along with West's now well-rooted sense of creative manifest destiny, the other most dramatic component in the new record's dominance is the injection of co-producer/arranger Jon Brion. Although Brion's presence is not always glaring musically (though there are some clear moments—pendulous string arrangements, sleep-deprived keyboards) his main contribution seems to have been in aiding Kanye to harness experimental elements to build superpop constructions.

Beyond his sterling production, Kanye's flow feels honorably workmanlike and diligently mined from tradition. His rhymes roll with a loopy but tremendously palatable logic and he invests his performances with the attention to detail of a true pop frontman. He has often expressed kinship with the vintage soul geniuses from whom he extracts the bulk of his samples, (in Late Registration's case: Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and many others) and one can easily draw the line between their characters and Kanye's willful, restrained vocal presence.

Lyrically and thematically, West treads a unique line. While some songs adopt the stroke of soul music past, often laying personal, pain-drenched performances over opaque and universal subject matter, others are closer to the life-detail-baring screeds of the most cathartic indierock. He bows these threads up artfully, making both vaguely silly pop confections like "Gold Digger" and itchingly close-talking accounts like "Roses" feel equally natural and essential to the Kanye character. Furthermore, he maintains a wide stripe of his now-famed moral seriousness, particularly on the recast single "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," initially a doubt-riddled look at his rocketing career trajectory and now a pounding attack on the diamond industry. (Though West patron Jay-Z avoids the heavy subject matter during his cameo for his now-constant triumphant self-aggrandizing.)

On "Crack Music," one of the record's most focused moments, Kanye discourses on dressing the essential spiritual medicine of soul (read: hiphop) music in capsules as narcotically addictive as crack, and here can perhaps be found his thesis statement. Just as it has since the dawn of pop music, the pain medicine must be swallowed with a mouthful of sugar.