At a time when the genre has grown alarmingly fat, lazy, and predictable, and its biggest stars are all brawn, Kanye West helps mainstream hip-hop reconnect with its brain.
''It's not for me to say what's missing in hip-hop," the Chicago-raised West told the Globe last year. ''It's for me to do what's missing in hip-hop."
And who knew that Adam Levine, lead singer of the soul-lite pop band Maroon 5, was what was missing in hip-hop?
That's Levine singing the deliciously sweet hook on ''Heard 'Em Say," the opening track on West's superb new album, ''Late Registration," out Tuesday. On the song, West raps about the capriciousness of life and the need to make the best of every day.
Leave it to West to team up with someone as unlikely as Levine, whose group beat the rapper for the best new artist Grammy. Then again, West is all about breaking the mold in dramatic ways, and doing the unexpected -- such as teaming up with producer Jon Brion, best known for the moody shadings of Fiona Apple's 1999 album, ''When the Pawn . . . " Another sonic inspiration for ''Late Registration" is Portishead's darkly atmospheric, and hip-hop-influenced, 1994 debut, ''Dummy."
Clearly, the success he has enjoyed since his 2004 debut, ''The College Dropout," hasn't made West reluctant to continue taking professional chances. Of course, his biggest risk was an audacious move from twiddling knobs as a top-shelf producer for such artists as Jay-Z, Ludacris, and Alicia Keys to bustin' his own rhymes. Still, even the supremely self-confident West couldn't have guessed that his first outing as a rapper would score critically and commercially, and elevate him to one of the current kings of hip-hop.
More than 3 million albums and three Grammys later, ''Late Registration" is one of the year's most anticipated albums. Of course, such declarations have been overused into meaninglessness, but when it concerns West, it's almost an understatement.
That's because West is the rare rapper who has achieved international success without boasting about his criminal record (not that he has one) or sparking headline-generating beefs with his peers (he gets along with everybody). Even more pertinent, West creates music that explores spirituality, exposes his insecurities and contradictions, showcases a wicked, but not hateful, sense of humor, and allows rap to regain some of its lost diversity in terms of subject matter. (He's also championed the career of R&B singer John Legend and helped fellow Chicago rapper Common return to stellar form with his latest CD, ''Be.")
On ''Late Registration," he's got more on his mind than bemoaning the burdens of success and fame -- a staple of sophomore CDs. Instead, on ''Touch the Sky," West rhymes, ''I think I died in that accident 'cause this must be heaven," referring to his near-fatal 2002 car accident. Over a sample of Curtis Mayfield's soul chestnut ''Move on Up," West sounds downright ebullient, trading verses with rapper Lupe Fiasco.
As befitting the son of an English professor -- his mother, Donda West, recently retired as head of the Chicago State University English department -- West has a frisky way with words. While other rappers extol their drug dealing pasts, on ''Crack Music," featuring The Game, West raps, ''Crack raised the murder rate. . . . We invested in that. It's like we got Merrill Lynched, and we been hanging from the same tree ever since."
Arguably, the most personal track here is ''Hey Mama," dedicated to West's mother, who became a single parent after getting divorced from West's father when her son was 3 years old. Like Tupac Shakur's ''Dear Mama," it's a love letter to the woman who raised him. He raps, ''Forrest Gump's mama said life is like a box of chocolates, my mama told me to go to school, get your doctorate/ Something to fall back, you could profit with, but still supported me when I did the opposite." It's baldly sentimental, and West never flinches from his emotions.
And West's emotions often contradict one another. ''Gold Digger" begins as yet another hip-hop song about a money-grubbing woman. Jamie Foxx, who first showed his vocal skills on ''Slow Jamz," from West's first album, returns here, still in his Academy Award-winning ''Ray" mode. He delivers an eerily dead-on imitation of the late Ray Charles singing ''I Got a Woman."
But crucially, there's a change in the lyrics. Charles originally sang, ''She gives me money when I'm in need, yeah, she's a kind of friend indeed/ I got a woman way over town, that's good to me." Foxx switches up her intentions with, ''She takes my money when I'm in need, yeah, she's a triflin' friend indeed/ Oh she's a gold digger way over town, that digs on me." Still, instead of a misogynistic rant, the song is more about the stubborn love of a hardworking man, with West telling the woman to be patient with the man even if he has more ambition than money.
West again distinguishes himself with the remix of ''Diamonds (From Sierra Leone)," looped over Shirley Bassey's sultry ''Diamonds Are Forever" and featuring Jay-Z. What could be just another ode to ice instead becomes an indictment of the internecine warfare waged in nations, such as Sierra Leone, for control of the diamond trade.
Calling them ''blood diamonds" and detailing the atrocities suffered by innocents, West raps, ''Over here, it's the drug trade, we die from drugs; over there, they die from what we buy from drugs/ I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless 'til I seen a picture of a shorty armless."
By comparison, other rappers are paper tigers. West is fearless -- so much so that he even has Nas doing a guest turn on ''We Major." That's Nasir Jones, as in Jay-Z's longtime nemesis. For years, the two New York rhyme masters were locked in a fierce rap battle that yielded two diss classics: Jay-Z's ''Takeover" (produced by West) and Nas's ''Ether." Still, Jay-Z, who as president of Def Jam Records is West's boss, knows better than to interfere with West's winning ways.
If ''The College Dropout" was the promise, ''Late Registration," one of the year's great albums, is the promise fulfilled. West has expanded his already adventurous musicality, never falling into the rut that sometimes sinks second albums. Expectations are high, but he surpasses them, eager to please, yet never at the expense of his own creative trip. With talent and bravado, Kanye West keeps finding ways to push and challenge himself, as well as his audience, and the results are dazzling.
Renee Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.