NEW YORK — "This is killing everything out there!" Kanye West exclaimed while listening to his own album, Late Registration. "Who can't hear that?"
And at a listening session for the album in New York on Wednesday, the answer was: No one. Even though the album isn't finished yet, even though not all of the completed songs were played and some songs weren't played all the way through, and even though the video for "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" that he was unveiling actually premiered on television during the event, a large crowd — including Common and a tardy Lil' Kim — packed into a tiny room at Sony Studios to hear and see what Kanye's been cooking up.
"I wanted to take this opportunity to play [the album] and show off," Kanye said unabashedly.
First he played the video, directed by Hype Williams, which opens with a shot of a diamond mine and a subtitled introduction that reads, "When I was a boy, I worked in the diamond mines deep in the dark mountains of Sierra Leone. Children worked there day and night under the watchful eyes of soldiers. Every day we feared for our lives. Our only hope came from when we would sing" — then the sample from Shirley Bassey's "Diamonds Are Forever" kicks in (see " 'Diamonds' Remix: Kanye Raps About Rocks, Jay Raps About Roc").
Throughout the black-and-white clip, there are shots of Kanye walking through Prague in a wool coat, children working in the diamond mines, and skewed versions of the De Beers diamonds commercials where, after the wholesome couple agrees to get married, blood flows from the woman's ring finger (see "Kanye West Shooting 'Diamonds' Video In 'Pray-Goo' ").
Later in the video, the kids are featured underneath the display case in a jewelry shop, then a car drives into it, knocking West down outside of the store. The kids come to his rescue, and they all run into a cathedral together, where Kanye double-fists pianos for the song's finale.
Click for photos of the listening session
At the listening session, a minimally blinged-out West said he expects to catch a lot of flack from people for having Williams behind the lens — because of his flashy, all-style-no-substance videos — but Kanye defended Hype by saying that it was the other people who copied his style who made it into a full-fledged trend.
After the video, West played tracks from Late Registration, including the "Diamonds" remix with Jay-Z, the second single, "Gold Digger" (which features Jamie Foxx) and "Drive Slow," featuring Paul Wall and GLC (see "Kanye, Jay-Z Give An Early Peek At West's Late Registration").
When "Crack Music" (featuring Game) started playing and Kanye thought the crowd wasn't paying close enough attention, he stopped the song and asked the listeners for their concentration. "The lyrics are very good, trust me," he said. On the track, Kanye says the government intentionally spreads AIDS and implicates Ronald Reagan in bringing down the Black Panthers.
'I'mma kill you, n---a, I'mma kill you, n---a, I'mma kill you, n---a' — but saying, 'I'm going to dinner with a white woman' or 'Diamonds come from Sierra Leone' is way more disruptive," Kanye explained. "But I had to get it off my chest."
Then he played "Bring Me Down," which was arranged by the album's co-executive producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple) and has a chorus sung by Brandy. West said he thought it would be interesting to have the former sweetheart say, "I always knew that one day they'd try to bring me down." Brion's other string arrangement on the album is "Celebration," a straight-up party song that Kanye said he particularly enjoyed using a 20-piece orchestra for, because the hook goes, "You know what this is?/ It's a celebration, bitches."
West said he appreciated the broader palette that Brion brought to his music. "[Rap music] is so formulaic: 16 bars, chorus, 16 bars, chorus," he said. "I had just one verse. It was a mad long verse, but that's all I had to say."
After that, it was game time. The first game was peek-a-boo, where Kanye would only play a snippet of a new song because there is a guest on the track that he's not ready to reveal yet. And the second was a guessing game: West played "Heard 'Em Say" and asked everyone to guess who was on the hook.
Someone shouted out Smokey Robinson, but it actually turned out to be Adam Levine from Maroon 5. "They were so big that I thought they'd be less ill, but I heard them rehearsing backstage at the Grammys and he was hitting all them mockingbird notes and I said, I have to get him in the studio.' "
Kanye revealed that his third album will break him out of his underdog-themed titles and be called Graduation, then indulged in some more self-promotion. He dismissed the concept of time constraints when putting a record out: "I won't put music out unless I cold talk my sh--," he said. "I'm the [Muhammed] Ali of this sh--." Then he addressed the press directly, urging them not to be afraid to write as many nice things as they want to about him. "When you had dreams of being writers and writing about the Rolling Stones or Prince ... yes, only Kanye would put his name in that group," he laughed.
"Seriously, how many perfect albums is that under my belt? I'm sorry," he said, before adding, "Actually, no, I don't apologize."
Late Registration is due on August 16.