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Kanye West steps back but still rises above.

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It's no surprise that — impressive sales aside — Kanye West's new album pales in comparison to his first two. Nobody — at least nobody since the Beatles/Stones/Dylan heyday — has made three consecutive albums as momentous as The College Dropout and Late Registration. So a dropoff was inevitable.

An established producer before he took up the mic, West is widely mocked by hip-hop specialists for his shaky rapping. It's true that his bumpy flow and often corny wordplay fall considerably short of such pure MCs as Rakim, Notorious B.I.G., or Eminem. But The College Dropout and Late Registration established West as perhaps hip-hop's greatest idea man: dissecting consumerism and eloquently flipping a Lauryn Hill hook on the self-implicating "All Falls Down," sneaking liberation theology into heavy rotation on "Jesus Walks," meditating on social ills too mundane for lesser rap artists over a dreamy refrain from that Maroon 5 dude on "Heard 'Em Say," subtly yet defiantly offering a humanizing counterpoint to the self-imposed limitations of Dirty South hip-hop on "Drive Slow." This was the work of a brilliant pop artist, one who, for all his bluster, acknowledged a wider range of day-to-day African-American life than perhaps any musician hip-hop has produced.

Graduation, by contrast, is a retrenchment, West's self-absorption consuming his music to the point where he seems incapable of burrowing too deeply into any individual idea not directly related to his own career. On the closing "Big Brother," West assumes that we're interested in a relatively naked but witless five-minute meditation on his relationship with Jay-Z.

As a result, Graduation works almost solely as a compendium of West's more modest but reliable musical pleasures: the funny, self-aware one-liners ("I'm like the fly Malcolm X/Buy any jeans necessary"); the smart samples (Steely Dan on "Champion," Chipmunked Michael Jackson on "Good Life"); the relatable plain talk ("Lauryn Hill says her heart is in Zion/I wish her heart still was in rhymin'"); and the musical grace notes (singing along softly to Laura Nyro at the beginning of "The Glory," singing sidekick T-Pain climaxing "Good Life" with "It's the good life/Better than the life I lived when I thought I was gonna go cray-zay/And now my grandmama ain't the only girl calling me bay-bay").

As modest artistically as it is immodest personally, Graduation still rises above most of a pretty bad year. That it's half as impressive as West's previous albums and still threatens to be the year's best hip-hop record says as much about the state of the genre as it does the immensity of West's talents. — Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

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