It’s amazing how fast time flies these days. I mean, look at Kanye West- just a month ago the whole music industry and music listeners around the globe were eagerly awaiting the release of his sophomore album, Late Registration. At that specific time, when one mentions “Kanye West”, the average listener was all praise for Mr. West and how awesome the first single “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” is. And this is certainly a truism, cause it seems that everyone across all genres of music loves this song- I think of it as the “Hey Ya!” of 2005.
Of course, currently it seems that Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than homes and the mentioning of “Kanye West” has become synonymous with “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” (and the hilariously jilted faces of Mike Meyers and Chris Tucker).
And thus as Kanye the Social Advocate is not as brilliant as Kanye the Musician, it’s a shame that this otherwise powerful album has quickly taken a backseat, as Late Registration for the most part is a major step forward from his solo debut, The College Dropout. With Late Registration, the premier Roc-a-Fella producer has manifested in my opinion a hip-hop rarity: a album that combines a sonic template of dignified elegance against intense beats and lyrics full of Freudian paradoxes and intense self-consciousness.
The album for the most part keeps consistent with the past theme of struggles of the educated life, but where The College Dropout was a frustrating affair (reflected both lyrically and in the album’s all-over-the-map tracklisting), Late Registration is a step beyond and out of reach of West’s contemporaries. And it definitely shows: West features some of his strongest beats yet and blends them wonderfully with live instruments and into more unconventional song structures (for mainstream hip-hop at least) with the help of co-executive producer, Jon Brion.
But enough with the praising, on with the songs. The opening track, “Heard ‘Em Say” is the first display of West’s ability to fuse beauty and sheer intensity with blowing the EQs as he sprinkles a delicate piano melody (lifted from a Natalie Cole recording) and Levine’s soulful falsetto over a thumping, yet subtle beat and bassline. With a profoundly reserved opener in place, the next track “Touch the Sky” screams flair by utilizing bright and punchy horns in a wonderously catchy hook as West proclaims to “I gotta testify, come up in the spot looking extra fly/ For the day I die, I'm a touch the sky”. A breezy Mayfield sample characterizes the verses wonderfully. And while I’m on the subject of vocal samples, it is a pleaseure to note that West successfully drops his trademark method of speeding up vocal hooks of 1970s soul songs before such a practice became a novelty. “Hey Mama”, with its distorted guitar melody and wonderful vocal sample is an innocent and vibrant track of maternal respect that often goes unmentioned for in the world of mainstream hip-hop.
And though Late Registration is much more consistent than its predecessor, West manages to expand his sonic palette with strong success: “Gold Digger” has a strong blues/fat New Orleans jazz vibe; “Drive Slow” with its understated beat and eerie atmosphere owes much to Portishead and Trip-Hop than Roc-A-Fella. “Addiction” meanwhile creates a great smokey jazz vibe as an Etta James sample, crystalline guitar melody, percussion blend together to form a very mellow and pleasing sonic template (However, the best aspect of this song is the sparse crash cymbal that continually fades in and out of the mix).
Songs themselves are arranged differently and Kanye makes a strong point in the ongoing battle between his urges to go platinum and his urges to make innovative and ambitious music. “My Way Home” is the second coming of Common and Kaney’s brilliant album Be. Though only a minute and a half long, Common spits off an intense verse over a persistant keyboard riff and a great Gil-Scott Heron sample that reinforces a bitter portrait of inner city living. Common spits:
“They say home is where the hate is
my dome is where fate is
I stroll where souls get lost like vegas
seen through the eyes of rebel glasses
pray to god that my arms reach the masses
the young smoke grasping graspless jungles
rubberband together in cashless bundles”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, is “We Major”, a sprawling seven-and-a-half minute hip-hop epic in which revolving vocal hook is supplanted with elegant horns, strings, and harp. Plus Nas, not usually known for strong guest spots, drops quite a powerful verse and still is able to sound hard amongst the refined timbre of the track. Lyrically, West’s battle between success and creativity is expressed in the gorgeous heart-breaker, “Bring Me Down.” As melodramatic strings, coupled with Brandy’s soaring vocals and an ascending piano melody reaches an unbridle climax, Kanye in a fit of disgust towards the conflictual nature of rap, declares that “Most you rappers dont even deserve a track from me,” and even more bluntly:
“And everybody wanna run to me for they singley
It's funny how these wack niggas need my help
Walkin around when I couldn’t feed myself
Dog if I was you I wouldn't feel myself
Dog if I was you I'd kill myself”
And though enough praise has been made of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” at this point, easily the darkest song Kanye has done, the best song on the album, and maybe even the year, is arguably “Crack Music” featuring Game. Like the lyricspPowerful, heavy and militant, the beat on this song is simply amazing as it blend wonderfully with a sinister horn line and interestingly enough, a beautiful chorus of “la la la’s” that ascends into hip-hop heaven. West drops some of his most conscious lyrics yet as he attacks the federal governments failure to deal with inner-city drug trades in the most improper manner (“How we stop the black panthers?/Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer/You hear that? What Gil Scott was hearin’/When our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin”). The intensity of the song spirals up and up until midway through it breakes completely and takes a spectacular change in timbre as a frenzy of cold synthesizers and brooding electronic samples create a hellish, Orwellian soundscape that wouldn’t sound out of place from an El-P produced Def Jux recording.
However, this album isn’t entirely perfect. At times, Kanye’s constant inner struggles between material pop success and unabridle ambition can wear on the listener’s patience and feels the equivalent of listening to a spoiled seven-year old egomaniac. And then there’s the skits: the bane of modern hip-hop. Though the recurring fraternity chant is pretty catchy, this is merely just contemptuous filler and bloats the album to an exhausting 21 tracks. In my opinion, the definition of “rapper” doesn’t entail the role of actor and comedian.
This is supposedly the 2nd of Kanye’s grand 4-album anthology and one has to wonder how he will top himself for the next two releases. There was already enough hype riding on this album and I myself was expecting to be moderately disappointed. But I was severely mistaken, this is quite simply a spectacular album that is unfortunately bogged down by some overly-ambitious decisions. In the most basic sense it’s not so much a concept album, but one giant paradox: It’s broad and elegant yet focused and down-to-earth. Commercial, yet socially-conscious. Gorgeous yet gritty. Maybe Hurricane Katrina was just the thing to reduce West’s ego and popularity; he seems to enjoy being the underdog and surprising us all.
Bring Me Down
My Way Home
Diamonds from Sierra Leone
Touch the Sky