Within a year Kanye West had gone from a producer unknown to most of the public to one of raps’ biggest stars. As we have discussed before this kind of trajectory usually results in an obvious and produced decline by the next album, the dreaded sophomore slump. But fortunately ‘Ye had not wasted all the good beats for his first release; indeed with things like the “Hey Mama” interpolation on “Jesus Walks” it was clear that his prolific nature meant he songs to spare. If these songs were going to have the impact of The College Dropout, though, he couldn’t just stick with the production style that had made him famous, or else risk a Lionheart. He is was going to have to try something different, and although he had produced his first album by himself, it was here that Kanye West – the man with a notorious ego – showed more of his penchant for creative collaborations.
Enter Jon Brion. We have talked about him before on our entries on Fiona Apple, and it was his work on When the Pawn… and the film score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that had inspired Kanye to bring him on to Late Registration (let’s take a moment again to appreciate Kanye West’s varied tastes). Brion had never been involved with anything involving hip hop before, but bringing in a outsider voice lent Late Registration with a new musical perspective, and the change in musical style that Kanye desired. The samples were still around, and a large portion was still based around soul, but with more intricate samples set to enhance orchestral sounds, and Brion providing backing from string and woodwind arrangements to that celesta sound that is synonymous with lots of indie music.
The result allows Kanye to build many styles allowed a more integrated aesthetic, meaning that although (not including skits) this is around the same length as The College Dropout, the record doesn’t feel its length. His first album might have a more pronounced “narrative”, but this is more cohesive even as it has just as many, if not guest stars (and one song on the album not produced by Kanye). Kanye is often touted for his production, and this is one the best examples, but of all of the records in his discography this is the one that most demonstrates his abilities as a rapper, moving from different styles and delivery to covering a wider variety of topic, including family, drug culture, poverty and even conflict diamonds.
For demonstrating of adjusting his flow for the tone of the song, look no further than the first song “Heard ‘Em Say”, where his voice is as chilled out and relaxed as the track itself, appropriate as it meant to be from the point of view of someone who is asleep. The piano melody and bass line is light and delicate, matched with some high woodwinds sounds, creating a smooth and luxurious beat, and on that beat Kanye talk on trying to keep optimistic in an oppressive and racist society. This track even pulls off the impossible task of making Adam Levine’s voice tolerable to me, so that’s a definite plus. A great song. Exact for that “government administered AIDS” line. A bit extreme, Mr. West.
As a contrast to the relaxed opening, “Touch the Sky” is a straight up celebration song. It’s the only song on the album not produced by Kanye or Brion, instead bringing Just Blaze into the picture, who uses Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” in a way that fits perfectly into the rest of the album (particularly with the strings and the horns). The sub bass is bouncing, the claps are infectious, and it also introduced most of the world to Lupe Fiasco, a great artist in his own right who from the good will of his verse to move onto his debut Food and Liquor with a big peachfuzz buzz.
Heard ‘Em Say: “His job try to claim that he too niggerish now/Is it cause his skin blacker than licorice now/I can’t figure it out, I’m sick of it now”
Touch the Sky: “I’m trying to right my wrongs/ But it’s funny them same wrongs helped me write this song”
The big, celebratory tone continues for what for a long time was Kanye West’s most famous song, “Gold Digger”. Now, let’s be honest, this song and its sentiment are pretty gross (although it was written originally to be sung by Shawnna). Even Kanye has expressed his dislike for this song in recent years, insisting he wrote because he knew it would be a definite hit. But there was a reason this song was and still is popular today; that beat is really catchy! Jamie Foxx, who suffered from impressionitus from 2004-2008, has a short cameo to deliver his Ray Charles voice, but the sample for the most part builds on the original “I Got A Woman” that is enhanced by drums and sax for a bouncy beat still suited for the clubs today.
We move into something more relaxed and laidback with “Drive Slow”. It has a familiar feel with the popular “Wildflower” sample, but the keyboard and woodwind signed combined with the tight sound of the drums really has the desired feel of driving around with the windows down. GLC and Paul Wall both contribute with their own calm flows (the former better here than on The College Dropout) and all here contribute lines that interact with each other and the track in the way that the best features do.
Gold Digger: “It’s something that you need to have/ Cause when she leave your ass she gonna leave with half/18 years, 18 years/ And on the 18th birthday he found out it wasn’t his?!
Drive Slow: “Back when we rocked Ellesses, he had dreams of Caprices/ Drove by the teachers, even more by polices/ How’d he get the cash? The day his father passed away/ Left him with a lil’ somethin, 16 he was stuntin’
The biggest disappointment of “My Way Home” is that it’s really short. It’s definitely more a Common track produced by Kanye, but acts like the opposite side of the previous track, going back instead of going out, political instead of sexual. And this wouldn’t be the first or last time Kanye sampled Gil Scott-Heron. God, why is this song so short?
Just as 2004 told us it was time for the Ludacris feature, 2005 was the year where the year of the Game, and so by extension he had to be on here (although he is having a pretty good 2015). But like Ludacris, he has also been just assigned to do the hook, and it works in both using the artist’s popularity and giving energy to the song. This is the song most away from the album’s sound, more powered by sub bass and prominent drum samples than any strings, though the choral vocals and the light horn in the back do keep it within the wheelhouse of Late Registration. Also this is the same year as Kanye said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, which is particularly potent with lines critical about the administration, and of the previous Bush’s relationship with Saddam Hussein.
After a more aggressive track, “Roses” is Kanye at maybe his most vulnerable position on the album. With the Bill Withers sample “Rosie” emphasised by the quiet tones of Brion’s celesta and acoustic bass, Kanye conveys his confused, angry, scared and ultimately sad mindset in light of his grandmothers near death experience. The closeness of the family in dark scenario also perfectly follows on to the relationship with his loved ones on “Family Business”. It sentiment, percussion and strange instrumentation is also sign for the Kanye to come 808’s onwards.
Crack Music: “When our heroes or heroines got hooked on heroin/ Crack raised the murder rate in D.C. and Maryland/ We invested in that, it’s like we got Merrill lynched/ And we been hangin’ from the same tree ever since”
Roses: “I asked the nurse “Did you do the research?”/ She asked me, “Can you sign some t-shirts?”/ Bitch, is you smokin reefer?/ You don’t see that we hurt? But still
The instrumentation of “Roses” began a lot more intimate, but the opening strings and erupting drums of “Bring Me Down” are pretty cinematic, and added with Brandy’s sultry voice makes for an impressive. It’s essentially another “fuck you” song, though, to those who doubted him in the pre-College Dropout era, and so is not one of the strongest songs on the album (at least compared to the beat of his other answering critics song later). But it still allows Kanye to deliver some decent punchlines (in between implying that those who don’t fancy him must clearly be lesbians).
“Addiction” brings the rare electric guitar into the album, with its melancholic and echoing tone fitting right in with the tone of this section of album, particularly as the tight eclectic bongos are added into the sample. The addiction here discusses here of course of the money, drugs, women variety, but here Kanye uses these topics to flip the normal goals of the rappers of the time, showing them as being a vice they are caught up in. That’s even despite crying its virtues in other songs in the album, and showing himself indulging in those vices in this song; typical Kanye!
Bring Me Down: “There’ll always be haters, that’s the way it is/ Hater niggas marry hater bitches and have hater kids”
Addiction: “What’s your addiction? Is it money? Is it girls? Is it weed?/ I’ve been afflicted by not one, not two, but all three”
We then move on to the first of two additions of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, the lead single off the album. This version is the remix, but Kanye’s verse on this version actually talks about the title in question, that of feeling guilty about his wealth and love of diamonds when they are likely blood diamonds that have been bought in conflict. .Blood Diamond tells me this was apparently a big thing in 2005. Barry’s cinematic original score is of course perfect for what Brion and West have been doing at this point, and with that and the “Ms. Jackson” reference in the chorus creates both an epic feel and one of internal conflict. Then there’s Jay-Z’s verse, who was responding to critics at the time in the wake of his “retirement” and the shake up at Rockafella record (including rumours that Kanye and Jay-Z had fallen out). As a result it definitely moves away from what the song was originally about, but unlike the last time with “Never Let Me Down” Jay-Z does not waste his lines and actually builds upon the sample and ‘Ye’s verse (ending with good night where Kanye began with good morning). It also contains maybe one of Hova’s most quoted verses: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”
“We Major” is by far the longest track on the album, and had the guest power to boot. This song is not particularly focused, but is more an excuse to let each of its stars talk about a selection of topic against an exquisite beat compromised of piano line and a big brass section. Kanye’s contemporary Really Doe doesn’t get much room to impress, mainly relegated to the hook talking about de weed and de homies. Kanye’s verse moves from that focus to talking about how kids in the ghettos are born in the environment to eventually join gangs. Nas is probably the most on-point (though talks more about writing the song than anything else), discussing his own position in the rap industry and its commercialisation compared to when it first started. Also, Kanye’s line “Until you have a daughter that’s what I call karma/And you pray to God she don’t grow breasts too soon” is particularly ironic now that Kanye is a father.
Diamonds from Sierra Leone: “Though it’s thousands of miles away/ Sierra Leone connects to what we go through today/ 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”
We Major: “Projects to’ up, gang signs is thrown up/ Niggas hats broke off, that’s how we grow up/ Why else you think shorties write rhymes just to blow up?/ Get they first car and then IRS show up
Speaking of Kanye and the parental, “Hey Mama” has taken on a more melancholic tone since his mum died in 2007. But the emotion of the track and this moment is still honest and beautiful, talking about how his mum worked to provide for Kanye in hard times, and his feelings that he can never repay her for this (though he will try). The “Today Won’t Come Again” sample makes the song feel both joyous, yet timid and delicate, and the added celesta adds to the youthful tone of Kanye around the one who brought him up. With this song it should be perfectly clear why the death of his mother had such an impact on his art going forward after Graduation (but more on that later in the week).
“Celebration” is an odd song, in the it is both clear throwback to the chipmunk soul samples of The College Dropout and uses the kind of synthesiser sounds that would be the focus on his next album Graduation. As a result the track never really comes together completely, and is the weakest on the album as a result. Still the strings in the latter half still make this a Late Registration number, and the song certainly has the celebratory tone the title would imply.
Hey Mama: “Seven years old, caught you with tears in your eyes/ Cuz a nigga cheatin, telling you lies, then I started to cry/ As we knelt on the kitchen floor/ I said mommy I’mma love you till you don’t hurt no more/ And when I’m older, you ain’t gotta work no more/ And I’mma get you that mansion that we couldn’t afford
Celebration: “Til one day your ass bust through the packaging/ You know what though? You my favorite accident/ So go head pop some Cristal/ For my newborn child cuz now y’all”
That tone extends to the official finale of the album, “Gone”. Over a sample with the recognisable tones of Otis Redding, both Kanye and his guests deliver some fantastic verses over bright pianos and lush strings. Each line is an expression of confidence, with Cam’Ron giving a line that uses deal more times than any person in history, and Consequence showing his anger at friends he thinks might have betrayed him. Kanye’s second verse though might be one of his best, where after a beautiful violin interlude and maybe the rare case of a beat change being both hard and luxurious, and with a final line “Sorry, Mr. West is gone” being his own version of a mic drop to such a great album…
Gone: “But if they ever flip sides like Anakin/ You’ll sell everything including the mannequin/ They got a new bitch, now you Jennifer Aniston”
I guess one problem with that though is how many bloody hidden and bonus tracks this album comes with, some only on certain version . The first is the single version of “Diamonds from Sierre Leone”, which is the better of the answering-the-critics songs on this album not just because this beat continues to be great, but because Kanye piles on one punchline on top of the other (though despite his proclamations he has used ghost writers, I recall him saying). The second is another guest star filled track “We Can Make It Better”, which is definitely more like a College Dropout when it comes to sampling, but compared to “We Major” each of the guests are much more direct in their verses with the short amount they have.
The final bonus track, “Late”, comes with every copy though, and acts as a second ending to the album not just in literal terms, but how the late narrative fits into Late Registration. The electric pianos and strings are a calming conclusion, which both mirrors the beginning of the album and contrasts with Kanye’s frustrations of having slept for too long and missed his major choices. Wait: does this make this entire album a dream all along?
Diamonds from Sierre Leone: “And I’ve realized that I’ve arrived/ Cause it take more than a magazine to kill my Vibe/ Does he write his own rhymes, well sort of, I think ’em/ That mean I forgot better shit than you ever thought of”
Late: “If I can catch the beat then slow down the tempo/ Just throw this at the end if I’m too late for the intro/ Will I make it from the student loans to a Benzo?”
Late Registration surpasses its predecessor in almost every respect, with more ambition, song topics and emotions building upon each other. With Brion and Kanye working together they cultivated a work that with its large accompaniments and diversity of instrumentations still sounds grand and epic today, and is arguably his best record as a result (it certainly is between this one and another coming up for my personal favourite). With this album Kanye had shown he was here to stay, and the final album in the Education trilogy would sound like the big party to this. Even the lyrics were going to take a more personal direction…
What did you think, though?
Kanye West Album Rankings
- Late Registration
- The College Dropout