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Kanye West

College Dropout (Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella)

This has been touted as the year's most anticipated release -- less because of what Kanye West has achieved as half of Roc-A-Fella's hitmaking house production team, and more because of what he represents: The long-awaited bridge between hip-hop's over- and underground, he's a guy who admits that he wants to sport both "a Benz and a backpack" and is described as "the future of hip-hop" by Mos Def and many others.

That's a hell of a load for a relative microphone novice, yet West's sometimes stiff delivery masks the soul of a real MC. Over the ominous gospel march of "Jesus Walks," he breaks down a crisis of faith in just two pithy lines: "I wanna talk to God / But I'm afraid, 'cause we ain't spoke in so long." And the amazing "Self Conscious" is a would-be playa's admission that he's seen the Emperor of Bling with no clothes -- and still desires the same suit, in spite of himself.

But like all great albums, College Dropout works equally well for those with no idea of the context. Expanding on West's signature plundering of old soul records, these rich, classy tracks undoubtedly will convince the oblivious to extend his chart reign. Little wonder that the chorus of "Keep the Receipt" taunts, "Does anybody else make hits anymore?" Well, there are those Neptunes fellows, but if this is the future of hip-hop -- smart, funny lyrics with beats you can bang to -- who's gonna complain?

 
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