Kanye West's Late Registration released ten years ago this week. Noisey's Craig Jenkins looks at the cultural significance of the rapper's sophomore album.
Nobody wanted Kanye West to rap, and when it became apparent he was going to anyway, he made a princely go of it, though not without obstacles. West’s debut The College Dropout’s place in the pantheon of hip-hop classics is cemented: It cleared a land bridge between the conscious rap fringe and the hip-hop’s mainstream center, the likes of which had scarcely been seen since the Fugees’ The Score (not counting Jay Z calling the Roots for 2001’s Unplugged), with a batch of songs that were both thoughtfully political and, wherever possible, crudely funny. It was a great first showing, but there was bountiful room for growth.
Kanye Mach 1 was more sure of his lyricism than his mouth was in its delivery of the lines, and his production technique was singular and engaging but in retrospect, occasionally stifling; drum programming inspired by Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive” and sped up, expertly chosen soul samples created an aesthetic both smartly referential and at times, a mite formulaic. By 2004 it had been a few years since West’s breakout production placements alongside Just Blaze on Jay Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia and The Blueprint made him one of the era’s most sought after producers. He could soldier on as he had before, but the path to enduring greatness is evolution. Kanye had to move on.
They Pray for the Dynasty to End Like “Amen”
Put Kanye West in a box, and he blows it to pieces. After seeing French director Michel Gondry’s lovelorn, languid Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, West became taken with the lushly orchestrated score (as, years later, the enigmatic rapper Jay Electronica would) and pursued the man responsible. Multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion didn’t have a hip-hop background—he played session man and producer for quirky, clever singer-songwriters like Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith and Fiona Apple, notably aiding Apple in inflating the heartsick cabaret of her debut Tidal into the Technicolor bombast of 1999’s When the Pawn…—but he agreed to work with West anyway.
What seemed like an odd pairing quickly bore fruit: Lead single “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” cleverly rolled legendary British vocalist Shirley Bassey’s theme for the Bond film Diamonds Are Forever into a message of solidarity for his Roc-A-Fella Records team. (By 2005, the business partnership between Jay Z and Damon Dash that provided the foundation for the first Roc dynasty had disintegrated, as Dash walked, taking whoever would come with and leaving Jay and Kanye as the label’s main attractions.) The lyricism was tighter, though it remained humored and self-deprecating. The production carried West in an unforeseen new direction, a raised tempo and a driving, pulsating bassline colliding with tasteful live instrumentation (including drums by Gondry!) to present a vision of the Kanye sound at once thicker and more limber than the Dropout material. The video would add a third dimension: the bloody business in Africa that nets rappers their jewelry.
He Got That Ambition, Baby
Riding high off the success of “Gold Digger,” the follow up single that called “Slow Jamz” singer Jamie Foxx in fresh off an Oscar-winning turn in the Ray Charles biopic Ray to essentially reprise the role on the hook, West released Late Registration at the end of August. The new set effortlessly brushed past chipmunk soul’s city limits, outfitting its songs with session players that beefed up the hooks and descended into winding, proggy, orchestral passages, allowing the grooves to breathe and stretch in ways rap records don’t typically plan for. Opening lullaby “Heard ‘Em Say” coasts on a twinkling piano figure cribbed from Natalie Cole’s torch song “Someone That I Used to Love” before three more keyboards swoop in and lift it off to the stars. Later, “Drive Slow” cuts a hard left into a chopped and screwed section after verses from West, Texas rapper Paul Wall, and G.O.O.D. Music 1.0 cohort GLC.
Late Registration’s revolution isn’t just compositional. Four years as an in-demand rap and R&B producer netted Kanye a formidable Rolodex of collaborators, and the album calls in a wide range of them: Brandy, who worked with West on 2004’s slinky “Talk About Our Love,” delivers a sultry vocal on “Bring Me Down” that’s fanned out thin over a 30-piece orchestra. Common, whose excellent G.O.O.D. Music debut, Be, West produced almost in full, gets an interlude of his own in the dark, affecting “My Way Home.” There are also unexpected guests: Kanye puckishly sneaks Nas into the tracklist one song after the Jay Z assisted “Diamonds” remix for “We Major,” nudging the New York heavyweights together at a time when relations between the two couldn’t have been frostier, and Nas delivers a show-stopping verse about not knowing what to write, mirroring the timeless false start to Illmatic’s “NY State of Mind.” Kanye links up with Southern rap impresario Mike Dean for a few mixing jobs and strikes up a work relationship that’s still going strong today. Dropout found Kanye closing the space between the East Coast’s mainstream and underground, but Late Reg’s inclusion of Paul Wall, Charlie Wilson, Mike Dean, the Game, and others set a course for the all-inclusive, post-regional Kanye West sound of the 2010s.
God, How Could You Let This Happen?
Late Registration is the foundation for latter day maximalist Kanye works like Cruel Summer and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in its kitchen sink sonics but also its tone. The album dives fearlessly into the dark of the black American experience, from communities beset by crime gripping restless youth with a lack of opportunities (“Heard Em Say”) through income-based lack of access to proper medical care (“Roses”). Even the scathingly funny “Gold Digger” is hiding the hurt of a couple carelessly destroying each other’s lives to get a leg up. (Kanye revisits the theme frequently: “Gold Digger,” “All of the Lights,” and “Blood on the Leaves” work as a kind of informal trilogy.) The beating heart of the record in that respect is the transition from “My Way Home,” an homage to poet and singer Gil Scott-Heron’s mournful inner city lament “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” to the booming, martial “Crack Music.”
“Crack Music” is Late Registration’s purest collision of Kanye’s black radical consciousness and Jon Brion’s orchestral flair. Over production that effects a college marching band preening at halftime, Kanye methodically walks through the disintegration of the civil rights movement, the rise of the crack epidemic, and hip-hop’s role as coping mechanism and gainful employment in the midst of it all, making bold accusations about United States presidents along the way that more people believe than most might think. (On September 2, mere days after the album’s release, he’d tell a Hurricane Katrina benefit telethon’s nationwide audience that the sitting president “doesn’t care about black people.” Dubya’s thirsty photo ops with black New Orleans youth commemorating the catastrophe’s tenth anniversary suggest he’s still burnt.) In anyone else’s hands, this suffocating display of the totality of post-MLK black oppression might come across defeatist, but Kanye West’s music is about snatching joy and hope out of the bleakest of circumstances. You can hear more of the same years on in Yeezus’ “New Slaves,” a blast of anti-racist vitriol blown to smithereens by a coda promising to keep fighting, if only out of spite.
I’m Ahead of My Time, Sometimes Years Out
Amid the strife and struggle of Late Registration, there’s The Ego. Throughout Kanye’s parallel telling of his own origin story and that of black America as a whole trying to remain afloat in the culture at large, there are times when the artist’s outsized sense of self is his only life vest. The aspirational thrust of “Touch the Sky” starts at the clothes, because maintaining the appearance of greatness is sometimes all we can muster. “Bring Me Down” dresses down everyone who found Ye’s rap gambit untenable (“Made a mil myself, and I’m still myself / And I’ma look in the mirror if I need some help.”), while the nearly eight-minute champagne toast “We Major” gives pause to muse about everyone struggling in the hood who didn’t make it out. Late Registration is the genesis of the nagging discomfort with celebrity that powered the fame machine exegesis of Fantasy and Watch the Throne.
In many ways, Kanye West is an avatar for the black American creative: whip-smart, talented, and full of ideas but constantly weighing what he should say and do against what he feels ideologically charged to say and do. Late Registration is a precarious moment in his ascent where he becomes aware of his limitations but not yet consumed by them. The balance between outsized hope and the pervasive war with machines working counter to Kanye’s growth that Late Registration strikes is unique in his discography. Dropout’s the blueprint, Graduation’s leagues smarmier, 808s & Heartbreak, cynical and jilted, Fantasy and Yeezus, reactionarily spiteful. It’s arguable which of these is the best, but Late Registration is a deeply relatable screenshot of a gifted dreamer’s struggle to defy gravity. Small wonder that when a fed-up tech worker’s public display of her resignation went viral a few years back, it was soundtracked by Late Reg’s “Gone.” The fourth verse of the sprightly Otis Redding sampling proper album closer is the Kanye West ethos distilled into just a few words: “I’m ahead of my time, sometimes years out / So the powers that be won’t let me get my ideas out.”
Craig Jenkins is on the keys right now. Follow him on Twitter.