For as otherworldly as his ability as a producer was, nobody wanted Kanye West to be a rapper. Yet, ‘Ye’s 2004 debut act, “College Dropout,” served as an all-inclusive slap in the face for those who found his rap venture untenable. His lyricism was distinctly unique, the content was equally thought-provoking as it was humorous, and his overall persona was a much-needed relief for the hip-hop genre. The album was a resounding success, instantly imposing its belonging among the musical hallmarks of the ‘00s and ingratiating West into the sphere of rap’s most acclaimed.
It was a debut so astoundingly rich and filled with promise that it led many to wonder how West could possibly do better on its follow-up.
Yet, just a year later, “Late Registration” arrived and pacified the pessimistic. West’s follow-up album didn’t just avoid the proverbial “sophomore slump” but “Late Reg.’s” all-encompassing mastery made the widely-acclaimed “Dropout” appear as a mere rough draft.
More than any other in West’s collection, “Late Registration” is complete. And not only due to the inclusion of beautifully orchestrated classical backings (more on that in a minute) or the sheer display of command over a musical genre that was in dire need of a new voice. Beyond that, what this album completes is a depiction of West, the person.
The irony is quite amusing. The very man whose outward personality has proven a heatedly divisive subject among today’s sphere of music and pop culture (he is either an extraordinarily egotistical brute or a complex, misunderstood soul, no in-between) provided a wholesome portrayal of himself on the album that ascended him to stardom.
And so, on the eve of the album’s 10-year anniversary, we take a look back at how “Late Registration” offered clarity into the enigma that is ‘Ye.
We’re paintings … the oil don’t dry ‘til we die
Who is Kanye West?
Prior to “Late Registration’s” release in 2005, many felt “College Dropout” had provided the clearest answer. He was a brash-with-a-backpack, producer-turned-rapper whose beats were incredibly unique, fun and soulful, but not much else.
Just when West had been placed in this box, he disintegrated it. After watching the listless “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” West grew enthralled with the lavishly orchestrated score and instantly sought out for its composer, the eccentric multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion.
After developing a relationship with Brion, West promptly assigned him as co-producer of “Late Registration.”
At the time, Brion was about as far off the hip-hop radar as one could imagine. His most notable popular music works included a heavy involvement in the production of Portishead’s hit album, “Dummy” as well as his aid in the evolution of Fiona Apple’s calm cabaret on her debut album, “Tidal” to the grandiosity that was her widely-acclaimed follow up, “When the Pawn … ”
Yet, West’s desire for “Late Registration” to be a cinematic masterpiece overruled any notion that Brion’s inexperience in the genre made him ill-fit.
“On your sophomore record, that’s the ultimate time to not fuck with the formula, right?” Brion told MTV in 2005. “And (West) gets me — a guy who has never made a hip-hop record in his life — and gives me half the reins? That is not an egomaniac.”
The inclusion of Brion was a ground-breaking venture for creativity in hip-hop as a whole. Yet it more so served as the birth of West’s transformative and envelope-pushing epoch, paving the way for later experimental works such as the retro, synthpop record “808’s and Heartbreak” and the synth-crashing “Yeezus.”
All throughout “Late Reg.” Brion’s influence can be heard distinctly. The 30-layered, cinematic dramatism that backs Brandy’s vocals on “Bring Me Down” was almost entirely of Brion’s doing as are the surly violins featured on the campy “Celebration.”
The track “Gone” was originally a stripped-down and soulful “Dropout”-esque track until Brion encouraged West that the tumid, playful strings would be a fitting inclusion; and a few of the album’s subtleties — such as the polyphonic keys on “Heard ‘Em Say” — have Brion’s fingerprints all over them.
West had widescreen visions for “Late Reg.” — hence the eventual grand follow-up performance that was “Late Orchestration” — yet without Brion, the cinematic element that proves so crucial to the album would be rather airy.
God, how could you let this happen?
Kanye’s recent declaration of his presidential campaign set for 2020 can be seen as comical, sure. But could he successfully pull it off? Certainly. Perhaps this belief is blindly influenced by my degenerate-level fandom, but for personal sake, I’d suggest it is because I have always been keenly aware that West’s political ambitions have been rooted throughout his musical catalog.
On no album is this more prevalent than “Late Registration” where, rather than combatively discharging his views over the course of a song — a feature that finds commonplace among most conscious-based rap — Kanye tailors his strong racial, socioeconomic and political views with inclusive tales of his personal experience.
He bemoans the income-based disparity of proper medical care on “Roses,” while evoking the emotions he held while beside his grandmother’s deathbed. On “Heard ‘Em Say,” ‘Ye laments the lack of opportunities afforded to black males while growing up in his hometown Chicago. And even the scathingly funny hit-single “Gold Digger” tells a deeper tale about American materialization as West depicts a relationship overtaken by lust and greed.
The highlight of this politically-driven content are the tracks “Drive Slow” and “Crack Music.” Broken apart by a brief interlude from Common on the Gil Scott Heron homage, “My Way Home,” these two tracks serve as a collective portrayal of West’s ideologies on both a local and national scale.
“Drive” features the sulky, southern drawl of rappers Paul Wall and GLC to accentuate the song’s plea for the youth to fight temptations of sex, drugs and money and simply enjoy their early years of life. While on the martial “Crack Music,” West shames political leaders for their role in the disintegration of the civil rights movement, blames them for perpetuating the false notion of a post-racial society and accuses the U.S. government of fueling the crack epidemic throughout black America.
And just when you thought West’s radical sentiments would end there, “Diamonds of Sierra Leone” takes on the global issue of child labor in Africa and its bloody diamond mining industry.
Granted, ‘Ye’s radical voice was sprinkled throughout “Dropout” — most notably on “Spaceship” and “Jesus Walks” — but on “Late Registration” we find him refraining from the subtlety. These aforementioned tracks eventually paved the way for later maximalist works such as “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” where West puts forth a more brash and merciless tone than that on “Late Reg.”
Can I talk my shit again?
What would a Kanye West album be without an appearance of that infamous ego of his? Thankfully, we don’t have a damn clue.
Amidst the politically-charged content and self-reflection, “Late Reg.” still boasts ‘Ye’s unapologetic bravado. “Touch the Sky” is as uplifting as its title may suggest. Using a slowed-down sample of Curtis Mayfield’s groovy “Move on Up,” a joyous West stops to reflect upon his ascension to that of a self-acclaimed “hip-hop legend” and offers a peek into his — at the time, growing — status as a fashion-forward artist.
On the aforementioned “Bring Me Down” ‘Ye boasts, “They gon have to take my life before they take my drive” whilst touting his unparalleled self-sufficiency as an artist and going on to strip down those who previously bore wariness toward his potential.
On the Nas-featuring “We Major” (best described by Noisey’s Craig Jenkins as an “eight-minute champagne toast”) West sounds gratified as he brags about his arrival to success while pausing to cerebrate on those who failed to make it out of a similarly poverty-ridden background.
Kanye West is a complex figure, but for those willing to listen, “Late Registration” offers a wholesome answer to the oft-asked question of who he truly is. And admittedly, there is no concrete definition.
Even when trying to subcategorize the album as I did above, a few key moments were left out: the tear-jerking ballad, “Hey Mama,” which pays tribute to his mother and would later serve as a memorialization in the wake of her passing in 2007 and the mystical “Addiction” which unveils ‘Ye’s inner strife to resist his nagging, unethical desires.
No interpretation is cemented when it comes to Kanye West, but perhaps revisiting his most revealing album a decade later is the best way to reach some sort of conclusion. For as he fittingly put it in the fourth verse of “Gone”: “I’m ahead of my time, sometimes years out / but the powers that be won’t let me get my ideas out.”