Kanye West – Late Registration

Kanye West
Late Registration

Ever since hip-hop began as the manifestation of the frustration brewing on crime-ridden and poverty-stricken streets, it has played the role of the ugly stepchild to rock in the mainstream. Obviously, the mainstream has recently fully embraced hip-hop as a marketing phenomenon, granting the genre full musical legitimacy in the process. However, no rapper has achieved the same level of universal, cross-cultural acceptance of, say, the Beatles – until now. Kanye West long ago conquered such musical outlets as MTV and Rolling Stone, but with the release of his sophomore album, Late Registration, he has taken an even bigger bite out of the market. After making the cover of Time Magazine, Kanye has received widespread positive reviews in such diverse arenas as USA Today (receiving a perfect four out of four possible stars) and, yes, even DOA (receiving a non-enumerated glowing review).

The fact that Kanye has achieved widespread success with the MTV crowd is not remarkable; that he has done so with enough tact, inventiveness, and intelligence as to garner the respect of the disparate indie and black-suit crowds surely is. Kanye has always been a notable hybrid: part backpack producer, part charismatic MC, and part artist (in the old-fashioned sense of the word). West has thus far delivered an impressively consistent product that appeals simultaneously to those looking for a good time and brightly-colored music videos and to those looking for innovation and substance.

Interestingly, though he has flirted with the extremes, West has yet to tread too heavily in blatant misogyny and unapologetic glorification of crime (though the “I’ll be gone to November / I’ve got packs to move” line in “Jesus Walks” came close), instead coming up with either more personal or more creative subject matter. The resultant rhymes are sometimes dirty, often brilliant, and always witty. The duality of fervent self-aggrandizement with the occasional self-loathing that most famously characterizes indie hip-hop also makes for frequently interesting interactions among songs and albums, and this is perhaps one of the footholds on which indie hip-hop fans can situate affection for the man.

The album itself is more accomplished, if not necessarily better, than 2004’s The College Dropout. “Heard ‘em Say” immediately distinguishes Late Registration as a very un-mainstream album: bouncing percussion underlies a fluttering piano melody. That’s it. No huge bass, no buzzing Lil’ Jon synths, nothing. After a brief rumination on discrimination by West, the hook is sung by – of all people – Adam Levine of Maroon 5 fame. The move is a subtle appreciation of the dynamic truth of the problem, and what easily could have become a black-pride parade turns instead into a brief and extremely effective song. “We Major,” at an audacious seven and a half minutes, predictably cashes in on the “told-you-so”-inducing success of Kanye’s confident debut without actually being dull. The beat sounds remarkably like something MF Doom would concoct on albums like MM…Food?, all cheesy horns and skipping drums. “Drive Slow,” a slow-mo jazz number, features a curious guest spot by Paul Wall. The man who brought us “Sittin’ Sideways” delivers a breathtaking performance, rising to the challenge of rapping alongside one of Kanye’s best verses. The highlight of the track is when Wall blurts: “A young Houston hard-hitter all about the skrilla / ridin’ some candy-coated crawler like a caterpillar” in one breath. Incredible.

One of the strongest points of The College Dropout was its singles; “Through the Wire,” “All Falls Down,” and “Jesus Walks” were all potential single-of-the-year candidates last year. Thus far, “Diamonds (from Sierra Leone)” and “Gold Digger” keep the bar high. “Gold Digger” in particular is an ingenious song incorporating Jamie Foxx’s best Ray Charles impression into the beat. The song showcases Kanye’s razor-sharp wit and new-and-improved flow; West rides the beat flawlessly. Like all the best pop singles, “Gold Digger” drills itself into your head and festers, refusing to leave until you play the song at least a dozen more times.

In the end, though Late Registration is far from perfect (“Celebration” is, in every respect, an awful song), it showcases a Kanye West that has managed to improve on last year’s stellar debut. He wisely avoids the ubiquitous chipmunk-soul vocals, which had become dangerously close to becoming Kanye’s most distinguishable asset, and instead finds a more nuanced production style, replete with more diverse instrumentation and more layered beats. This is, no doubt, creditable to producer Jon Brion, who lent his indie sensibilities to the Louis Vitton Don. And this time, instead of highlighting Roc-a-Fella’s insecurity in their investment by loading the album down with as many other rappers as possible, the guest spots supplement his excellent flow with equally excellent visitors (see: Jay-Z, Cam’Ron, Common, Paul Wall, and The Game). The result is remarkably consistent and almost infinitely enjoyable. Fans of music of any kind should at least investigate Late Registration; you might just find out what all the hype is about.