Ten years later, ‘Late Registration’ reveals depths of Kanye’s ambition
Matthew Munhall | Tuesday, September 1, 2015
While accepting the Video Vanguard Award at the MTV VMAs on Sunday night, Kanye West used his speech to reflect on the consequences that have followed every time he’s spoken his mind. This week is a fitting time for West to reflect on the subject, arriving six years since he interrupted Taylor Swift at the VMAs and a decade since he claimed that, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” on a live Hurricane Katrina benefit — two moments that forever altered the public perception of West. Yet just as he seemed to be apologizing to Swift, he veered right, instead calling out MTV for capitalizing on the incident and passionately defending all the moments he’s stood up for artistry and creativity.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna lose after this,” West concluded toward the end of his nearly 11-minute speech. “It don’t matter, though, because it ain’t about me. It’s about ideas, bro. New ideas! People with ideas! People who believe in truth!”
West’s second album, “Late Registration,” which turns 10 years old this week, is the best illustration that a desire for new ideas has always been at the heart of his career. Arriving a year and a half after “The College Dropout,” still one of the most celebrated debuts of the century so far, “Late Registration” was even better and revealed the depths of his ambition. Its release was the moment when West was revealed not to be just a promising newcomer but a pop music auteur, hell-bent on pushing the conversation forward at all costs.
West’s best quality as an artist has always been his skill as a curator, his ability to reach out to the people with the best ideas and incorporate them into his vision. On “Late Registration,” the most inspired move was recruiting Jon Brion, best known for his collaborations with Fiona Apple, as a co-producer. Rather than just regurgitating the pitched soul samples of “College Dropout,” Brion lent orchestral grandeur to West’s productions; his involvement resulted in a rap music “Pet Sounds,” a baroque-inspired album that revels in its rich sonic palette.
This expert curatorial sense extends to the album’s choice of guests. West coaxes out Jay Z’s best verse of the mid-aughts on the remix of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” (with its instantly quotable “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” line) and recruits Nas and Cam’ron for the triumphant “We Major.” He even manages to make Adam Levine’s white-bread croon palatable on “Heard ‘Em Say.”
“Late Registration” explores the contradiction that’s always been at the heart of West’s work. It’s an album where the goofy crossover hit “Gold Digger” — which spent 10 weeks at No. 1 — co-exists with “Crack Music,” a commentary on crack cocaine’s effects on black communities in the 1980s. “Hey Mama,” an ode to his beloved mother and the most affecting track of his career, is followed on the tracklist by the hedonistic “Celebration” (“It’s a celebration, b*****s!”). Yet, West ensures that the album coheres through the sheer force of his charismatic personality, which is at turns funny, sensitive, political, arrogant, self-deprecating and celebratory.
This is not to say that “Late Registration” is a perfect album; in fact, it’s far from it. At 70 minutes, the album runs long compared to the more concise albums that would follow. “Bring Me Down” and “Celebration” are pure filler, while the skits, about a fictional fraternity called Broke Phi Broke, now seem dated.
But none of this stops West from declaring on the final verse of “Gone,” “I’m ahead of my time, sometimes years out / So the powers that be won’t let me get my ideas out.” A decade later, his prediction does not seem so ridiculous. The album is not West’s greatest masterpiece — that honor still goes to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” — but it’s perhaps most representative of his career as a whole: sprawling, imperfect and full of contradictions, yet endlessly compelling, innovative and influential. West’s speech at the VMAs showed that he’s never stopped arguing for his own importance, and when you listen to “Late Registration,” you understand why.