Happy 10th Anniversary to Kanye Wests sophomore album Late Registration, originally released August 30, 2005.
A handful of years before we were inundated with the latest news and shenanigans of Mr. Kardashian, paparazzi & gossip magnet, there was simply Kanye West. Producer turned producer-emcee, plain and simple. Even before his first-class tickets to fame, fortune and media infamy were punched forever, Kanye had seemingly always possessed a larger-than-life presence, replete with a super-sized dose of ambition and arrogance. But there was indeed a time earlier in his careerand not too long ago, mind youwhen the quality of Kanyes musical output superseded his cocksure, ubiquitous persona.
Indeed, Kanyes first three albums are fantastic. Each song suite is a masterclass in near-flawless synergy between sonic, lyrical and thematic substance, with Wests unbridled passion and vision the creative lifeblood that courses through the albums excellent tunes.
But somewhere along the way, at least for me, Kanyes music lost its luster and vivacity. Granted, with 2008s 808s & Heartbreak and 2010s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his sound became even more innovative and experimental in many respects, and he was subsequently even more universally venerated by critics and consumers alike. Admittedly, I respect Kanyes aversion to the tried-and-true approach and his commitment to constantly evolving his sound.
However, with his ever-expanding dependence on auto-tune and relatively bland beats, his music has become progressively more insipid, devoid of the vibrancy that defined his earlier work. I find his most recent fare (Runaway and Only One are prime examples) stagnant and boring. However, remarkably, and proof that Kanye has the power to sway even the most skeptical of minds (i.e., mine), I still hold out hope that his next musical move will revive my faith. Naïve optimism on my part, quite possibly.
Kanyes solo chapter of his recording career followed the prologue of a prolific production run in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period during which he served as Roc-A-Fella Records in-house sonic whiz. His earliest production credits most notably include four of the thirteen tracks on label co-founder Jay-Zs universally lauded 2001 LP The Blueprint, solid work that would earn him subsequent collaborations with the likes of Talib Kweli, Ludacris and Alicia Keys, among others. Regrettably, Kanyes all-star production skills actually pigeonholed him with certain expectations and undermined his ability to get a solo recording deal, as it took some time for labels to take him seriously as an emcee. He ultimately remained with Roc-A-Fella, though Damon Dash and Jay-Z were allegedly somewhat skeptical about his viability as a rapper.
The skepticism thankfully proved unfounded. Predicated upon sped-up samples of soul records and razor-sharp rhymeplay, Kanyes 2004 debut solo album The College Dropout was a smash success, on the charts and at the Grammy Awards, propelled in large part by a series of stellar singles including Through the Wire and Jesus Walks. Despite the widespread acclaim his first LP garnered, Kanye refused to recycle the same sonic template on his sophomore album, 2005s Late Registration. Inspired by Portisheads 1998 Roseland NYC Live album, in which the band was accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Kanye decided to branch out into new territories of songcraft, explaining that:
Seeing [Roseland NYC Lives] cover did so much for me. This picture inspired me. I saw it years back, but on my first album I couldn’t afford real strings. So after I won those Grammys, the first thing I did was run to [revered film score composer] Jon Brion, and then I ran and got a string section. Hip-hop never had strings that lush with drums that hard. But Portishead had that. And they sounded hip-hop, and people vibed to that. I said, “OK, what if we do that and I drop my poetry shit on top of it?” [Quoting Anchorman] “Drink it in San Diego, it goes down smooth.”
Kanyes unorthodox collaboration with film composer slash producer Brionrevered for his work with singer-songwriters Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, Dido, and the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind scoreultimately proved fruitful and offered convincing testament to Wests musical adventurism. While humility is an attribute that most would never associate with Kanye nowadays, Brion alluded to his collaborators modesty by suggesting at the time that On your sophomore record, thats the ultimate time to not fuck with the formula, right? And [Kanye] gets mea guy who has never made a hip-hop record in his lifeand gives me half the reins? That is not an egomaniac.
An ambitious and imaginative undertaking altogether, Late Registration possesses far greater breadth and depth than its precursor. But the records expansionism sounds relatively effortless, despite the fact that a great deal of Kanye and Brions creative blood, sweat, and tears made it all possible. The multi-instrumentalism and string arrangements that Brion introduced, the continued commitment to inventive sampling, and the motley crew of guest collaborators make for an expansive, enjoyable delight of an album.
Thematically provocative and introspective, Late Registration seamlessly merges the cerebral with the soulful across its original 16 tracks and 5 skits. As a result, the album boasts highlights in abundance. Riding along a Natalie Cole lifted piano loop and Adam Levine blessed chorus, album opener Heard Em Say is a contemplative and pragmatic meditation about persevering through lifes inevitable hardships and conceding that nothings ever promised tomorrow today. The euphoric, Just Blaze-produced Touch the Sky reworks Curtis Mayfields uplifting Move On Up to incredible effect, and also represents the first time that most of us heard Kanyes fellow Chicago native Lupe Fiasco on record.
The insanely catchy and cheeky Gold Digger is unquestionably the most universally heralded single from the album, and for good reason. Propelled by Kanyes insightful lyrics and Jamie Foxxs solid interpolation of Ray Charles I Got a Woman, the track serves as a welcome public service announcement about the dangers of hyper-materialism, in the same vein of EPMDs 1990 classic of the same name. But interpreted from the perspective of a woman (the chorus was initially written from the first-person perspective of a woman, as it was originally composed for Shawnnas 2004 album, but subsequently dismissed), its also a clarion call for women to avoid settling for lame-duck dudes.
The albums first single Diamonds from Sierra Leone is a propulsive head rush of a tune, though the remix included here eclipses the original, for sure. Kanye somewhat incredulously avoids direct references to the Blood Diamond conflict altogether in the original version and opts instead to document his path to success and the indulgences that arrived with it. However, while guest Jay-Z sticks exclusively to the braggadocio script on the remix with memorable sound bites like Im not a businessman, Im a business, man, Kanye seizes the opportunity to delve deeper into Africas much-maligned diamond trade. Hence, the remix is an altogether more sobering and unabashedly socio-political song, with candid lyrics that reveal Kanyes tortured conscience, such as:
Over here it’s a drug trade, we die from drugs
Over there they die from what we buy from drugs
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus-piece was so harmless
Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless
And here’s the conflict
It’s in a black person soul to rock that gold
Spend your whole life trying to get that ice
Bought a Polo rugby, it looks so nice
How can somethin’ so wrong make me feel so right?
Kanyes verses reinforce that when he devotes his mind to it, he is one of the most verbally astute emcees in the game, forcing his listeners to challenge their own assumptions and rethink what they easily take for granted.
In addition to the more recognizable singles, Late Registration offers a handful of standout tracks including the abbreviated, yet poignant Gil Scott-Heron indebted My Way Home featuring fellow Chicago hip-hop stalwart Common and Roses, Kanyes heartfelt, melodic ode to visiting his sick grandmother in the hospital. Crack Music represents one of the albums most clever moments thematically and lyrically, likening Americas obsession with the dark diction of hip-hop to its drug epidemic. Kanye expands upon a similar thread and contemplates why everything that’s supposed to be bad make me feel so good on Addiction, which reveals glimpses into his more confessional and vulnerable side, particularly where his vices of women and sex are concerned. Toward the end of the album, Gone surfaces as one of the most sonically and lyrically rewarding cuts on the album, thanks to Brions sublime orchestration that evolves as the track progresses and Kanyes eloquently evocative verses, which still stand as some of the strongest hes ever delivered.
A few years after Late Registrations release, Kanye retrospectively described the album as indulgent and poorly put together. Notwithstanding its creators self-critique, from my perspective, Late Registration is Kanyes artistic pinnacle to date and one of the most rewarding hip-hop LPs ever made. Like The College Dropout the year before, Late Registration won Best Rap Album honors and was nominated for (and should have won) Album of the Year at the 2006 Grammy Awards. And though I find much of Kanyes music to be dispensable these days, his sophomore album forever serves as a grand, unequivocal reminder of his genius. Heres hoping that he reignites the creative vitality and musical vigor brilliantly manifested on Late Registration, sooner than later.
My Favorite Song: Touch the Sky