Editor’s Note: Wow, I really need to pick up the pace on these posts, huh? Fortunately, though it’s now late July and the last installment of this series came out in mid-May, Kanye still hasn’t released his upcoming album, which may or may not still be titled SWISH; is it possible that I might actually get through his entire oeuvre before it comes out? (No. No, it isn’t.) In the meantime, pretty much all we’ve missed is the possible leak of a rough mix to Reddit, the announcement that he’s expecting his second child with Kim Kardashian, and his Queen-covering June 27 headline performance at the Glastonbury Festival, which probably pissed off your dad. So, nothing new to report, then; let’s talk about Late Registration. But first, remember to catch up on the previous parts of the series: 1 2 3 4. And you can read the following parts here: 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13. There, now you’re caught up. Can I talk my shit again? – Z.H.
The release of The College Dropout in February 2004 firmly ensconced Kanye West as the living legend he had always been in his own mind. The debut album he’d had to fight to get released sold almost half a million copies in its first week; by April, it had been certified platinum; by the end of June, it had gone double. To be sure, even the critical and commercial plaudits being laid at Kanye’s feet weren’t quite able to meet his lofty standards. He didn’t get the coveted five-mic perfect rating from The Source, despite previously telling interviewer Thomas Golianopoulos that he wanted “all or nothing”: “either give me five mics or zero… Either give me my just credit or don’t rate it.” The usual grandstanding aside, however, the early months of 2004 were a period of validation for West. In the same interview with Golianopoulos for his April 2004 Source cover story, Kanye reflected, “Every month I seem less and less arrogant, or less and less cocky, in interviews because I have accomplished something else I said I was going to do.”
But therein laid the tricky part: having set an example as a self-proclaimed genius, Kanye now had to keep accomplishing, keep living up to those expectations; and, unlike with The College Dropout, he didn’t have the luxury of taking half a decade to prove himself. The follow-up album that resulted, 2005’s Late Registration, was thus, perhaps unavoidably, less of a stunner than Dropout: the dazzling admissions essay (to use an appropriately academic metaphor) that got him placed into hip-hop’s upper echelons. But it did amply demonstrate Kanye’s continued musical development, growth–and, yes, even his ability to deliver on those exaggerated promises.
As always with Kanye, though, a large part of that musical development and growth took place between The College Dropout and Late Registration, in his production work for other artists. Indeed, even as Dropout accomplished its primary goal of validating West’s ambitions as an M.C., it also further confirmed his abilities as a producer. His résumé reflects as much: the Kanye West production discography on Wikipedia lists 19 songs for outside artists in 2003, and no less than 35 in 2004. And, now that he was a household name, Kanye could extend his reach further beyond hip-hop than ever before. One of his first post-Dropout productions was a set of three tracks for bona fide pop star Janet Jackson’s Damita Jo, and Ye didn’t hold back for the occasion: the first voice you hear on the slinky pop-R&B cut “My Baby” is his, dropping his own “Kan the Louis Vuitton Don” nickname and bragging, “I’m with my homegirl…who need to hook me up with summa’ her homegirls.” His verse on the track is no more humble, devoting ample time to the luxuries a rising rap star could now afford: “And I’m a big tipper, I don’t need to be trippin’ / This my first real Rolex, it don’t even be tickin’ / This my first pair of earrings I can wear in the shower / Without ’em cloudin’ up in a half a hour / So that basically mean my paper gettin’ mean / Basically mean I’m into better things.”
The never-humble producer is less hands-on with the album cut “Strawberry Bounce” –though he does manage to work in a short vocal sample from his mentor Jay-Z’s “Can I Get a…,” playing the hardness of Jigga’s voice up against Janet’s whispery vocals and the soft, sensual vibraphone tone of Deon Jackson’s “Love Makes the World Go Round.” On the hit single “I Want You,” meanwhile, he goes full Yeezy, with a lush sped-up sample from B.T. Express’ version of Bacharach and David’s “Close to You.” The song also bears the stamp of Kanye’s College Dropout cohort, with co-writing duties by John Legend and live strings by Miri Ben-Ari. Kanye’s work for Damita Jo isn’t a radical departure for him–“I Want You” in particular sounds like “You Don’t Know My Name, Part 2” –but it does show his ability to leave his indelible mark on a production while still accommodating the personality of the client; not unlike Janet’s starmaking work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, it’s a perfect blend of West’s swagger and Ms. Jackson’s playful, feminine sexuality.
Stepping even further into the pop market, Kanye also completed his first official remix in 2004: a Dropout-ified version of Maroon 5’s hit “This Love” featuring, once again, the talents of Legend and Ben-Ari. It’s a fun cut, but notable mainly for what the collaboration would spawn in the future: Kanye and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine would soon strike up a friendship, leading to Levine’s guest spot (and co-writing credit) on the Late Registration opening track “Heard ‘Em Say.”
In the meantime, Kanye still hadn’t left pure hip-hop behind. We got a glimpse of his collaboration with Los Angeles crew Dilated Peoples on The College Dropout: the beat for “Last Call” was originally cut by Dilated member Evidence, then re-orchestrated by West when the instrumental sample of Bette Midler’s “Mr. Rockefeller” didn’t clear. Kanye returned the favor with his work on “This Way,” the third single from Dilated’s third album Neighborhood Watch. The track is a burner, built around a sped-up flute line from husband-and-wife soul duo Jimmie & Vella’s “Old Men” and (for better or worse) an early example of Kanye’s penchant for singing hooks slightly off-key, with a soulful coda courtesy of John Legend. Ye’s verse, a throwback to the woman-trouble themes of his early demo tracks, is less impressive; but then, that’s kind of par for the course for Kanye, who we will see has a tendency to save his best stuff for his own albums and phone it in for his guest spots.
Another early 2004 rap production was the title track for D12 World, the second album by the Eminem-led Detroit crew D12: a low-key beat based on an Orientalist violin hook that, surprisingly, doesn’t appear to have been played by Miri Ben-Ari. Kanye also had the (dubious?) distinction of being one of the few non-Southern producers on the second album by Petey Pablo, contributing one of his less “Kanye”-sounding beats of the post-Dropout era to the hard-hitting homey anthem (or, as one YouTube user describes it, “a love song to your male friends C’MON SON!!”), “I Swear.”
But Kanye’s most interesting work in the months immediately following The College Dropout wasn’t even for an official album release. After featuring former Tribe Called Quest affiliate Consequence on his debut, Kanye produced the bulk of his new associate’s mixtape, Take ‘Em to the Cleaners. The result was a series of great early Kanye beats that I actually hadn’t heard before researching this post. “So Soulful” in particular, with its gospel-inflected live instrumentation and vocals by John Legend, is so good (and so, well, soulful) that it’s a wonder Ye didn’t snatch it up for his own album. Kanye’s introductory verse is, again, nothing remarkable, but it does contain a snatch of self-analysis about his prodigious ego that, in typical Kanye fashion, quickly transforms into a boast: “If I talk to people like they stupid as hell / Do that mean God gone make my kids be stupid as well? / Well, our father, please forgive me / I’m sinner-slash-winner-slash-soul inventor.”
Elsewhere on the tape, “Yard 2 Yard” featuring Kanye’s early Chicago associate Rhymefest points all the way ahead to 2007’s Graduation with its synthesizer-noodling arrangement; while “Wack Niggaz,” a light, non-specific diss track featuring–in yet another example of Kanye’s love for throwing “conscious” M.C.’s on “street”-sounding tracks–Talib Kweli and Common, points back to the self-consciously mainstream sound of his early recordings for “Kon Man Productions.” The lyrics, though, should sound familiar to anyone who’s heard Late Registration: Kanye borrowed a whole half a verse for his own “Bring Me Down,” including the inimitable putdown, “Dawg, if I was you, I wouldn’t feel myself / Dawg, if I was you, I’d kill myself.” More in Kanye’s production wheelhouse was the majestic, Al Green-sampling “Getting Out the Game”–a track that actually made its debut on the 2003 mixtape I’m Good…, though I don’t think we talked about it at the time. Another player’s lament, with some mildly clever couplets from Ye (“And I know that Linda was a hip-hop head / And I know that Linda gave Hip Hop head”), it’s mostly notable for John Legend’s show-stealing, uncanny channeling of Reverend Al on the hook. Finally, “Take It as a Loss” rounds out the Kanye beats with a funky sample of Melba Moore’s 1975 version of Donovan’s psych-pop chestnut “Sunshine Superman.” The song is especially interesting in retrospect for its demonstration of just how far Kanye is willing to dig into his back catalogue for scavenged lyrics: the line “I ain’t really drunk, I just had a frew brews” would resurface again seven years later (!) on the G.O.O.D. Music posse cut “Clique.”
Even on tracks he didn’t directly produce, Kanye’s presence is still felt all over Take ‘Em to the Cleaners: flexing his freestyle muscles on “03 ‘Til Infinity” and dropping some distasteful, fat-shaming verses on the 9th Wonder-produced “I See Now” featuring North Carolina backpack heroes Little Brother. He also clearly played a role in selecting the other producers for the tape–including his friend and peer 88-Keys and his cousin, Devon Harris, a.k.a. Devo Springsteen, who would later devise the initial beat for Late Registration’s lead single “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” And that’s not even to mention Yeezy’s regular injections–after what sounds to have been some industrial quantities of weed–of peerless (off-)color commentary. “We workin’ on some shit right now, man,” he slurs in the introduction, responding to the critics clamoring for new material, “just be quiet–if you be quiet, you–won’t hit–miss nothin’ we come out with.”
The shit Kanye was working on included the likes of “Gettin’ It In”: an album track for Jadakiss, featuring more of the producer’s favored Eastern-sounding strings–created in this case by reversing a sample from Melba Moore’s “The Facade”–and an amusing guest verse that veers wildly from ethnic humor (“I’m with this bad Ethiopian chick, drinkin’ straight-up liquor / I told her I’m ‘Niggerian,’ a straight-up nigger”) to fashion criticism (“Now, is it just me, or do them Uggs / have girls’ feet lookin’ like sheepskin rugs?”) to one of his patented so-lame-it’s-hilarious come-ons (“My apologies, are you into astrology? / ‘Cause, um, I’m tryin’ to make it to Uranus”). Kanye, being Kanye, also can’t resist yet another lyrical reference to his own rising star status: “Niggas try’na figure out since Kan came / Who the rookie of the year, me or LeBron James?” On the other side of the musical spectrum, there was also “Talk About Our Love” and “Where You Wanna Be,” a pair of vintage Kanye soul ballads produced for R&B songstress Brandy; lyrically, though, his contributions to the former were in much the same tradition as “Gettin’ It In,” albeit replacing the chuckle-worthy lines with a non-sequitur (and instantly dated) reference to the 2002 crossdressing “comedy” Juwanna Mann.
Still, “Talk About Our Love” in particular garnered positive reviews, including the obvious comparisons to “I Want You” and “You Don’t Know My Name” (“Where You Wanna Be,” on the other hand, pretty much literally was “You Don’t Know My Name”–just listen to those descending piano chords). The song’s popular music video (see Video 17 in the playlist above), co-starring West and based on his own treatment, further served as a demonstration of his far-reaching creative control. As he told The Source back before the release of The College Dropout, “I’m a whole lot to handle. I definitely am, on every aspect. I’m the video director. I’m the graphics designer. I’m the rapper. I’m the visionary. I’m the music producer. I’m the executive producer. I’m just going to end it off to be poetic: I’m the future of music.” Then, as if to prove his point, he tried to help write Golianopoulos’ article for him: “And put ‘dot, dot, dot, humbly.’”
Back on the hip-hop side of things, Kanye’s production of “Throw Your Hands (In the Air)” by Mobb Deep seems to prefigure his work from later in the decade, with its dark, proggy guitar sample from the Belgo-English “rock orchestra” Esperanto. Some of the credit, however, has to go to another up-and-coming producer, Diplo, who originally made the beat and sold it to Kanye. But this gets to an important aspect of Kanye’s artistry: he isn’t really an obscurantist crate-digger, so much as a cultural magpie with a knack for cobbling together the best bits from everything that crosses his path. Alain Macklovitch, better known as A-Trak, who worked as Kanye’s DJ on tour and in the studio from 2004-2008, recently posted on the popular annotation website Genius to that effect: “Early on, because he sampled the Doors for Jay-Z and things like that, people thought that he knew more about ‘white music’ than most rap producers. But some of those things were accidents. He’s just good at spotting something good. His girlfriend at the time played him the Doors. Kanye didn’t grow up listening to classic rock, but when something falls in his lap, he knows if it’s dope, and knows when to make a beat out of it.”
I don’t know whether Kanye himself discovered “Rose,” the 1974 Lamont Dozier track that forms the basis for his production of “More or Less” by Shyne and Foxy Brown, but it’s definitely a dope sample: a descending guitar riff (I always thought it might have been from Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ “Magic Fingers”) that gives way to eerie, slowed-down and pitch-shifted choral singing. And the electric piano and vocalizations from Eddie Kendricks’ “Intimate Friends,” used for “Another Summer” by the Snoop Dogg/Nate Dogg/Warren G supergoup 213, is at once both essentially Kanye and exactly the type of thing you can imagine the Long Beach G-funk vets rolling their blunts to.
We’ve talked a fair amount in this series about Kanye’s working relationship with Talib Kweli, who gave him one of his first real breaks as an M.C. back in 2002, and for whose Quality album Yeezy made some of his best pre-Dropout beats. Kanye was less well-represented on Kweli’s 2004 follow-up album, The Beautiful Struggle–partly because he ended up poaching one of the prospective tracks, “Get ‘Em High,” for his own album. The track he did ultimately contribute, the Mary J. Blige feature “I Try,” feels a bit too similar to 2002’s “Get By,” mining the same brand of jazzy piano and gospel-inspired vocals to diminishing returns. He fared better on “Sunshine,” his one production (not counting “The Rape Over,” a controversial remix of Kanye’s beat for Jay-Z’s “Takeover”) for the divisive album The New Danger by fellow backpack compatriot–and Kweli’s other half in Black Star–Mos Def: layering another Melba Moore sample (the third in this post!) over a stark, trip-hoppy beat that perfectly fit the album’s spooky tone. Personally, though, I’m partial to “I Got a Love” by (of all people) Ruff Ryders also-ran Jin: a lesser-heard but hugely catchy slice of chipmunk soul, with a hook graciously sung by Mr. West himself.
Better-known on the chipmunk-soul front are two excellent productions from Purple Haze by Kanye’s Roc-A-Fella labelmate Cam’ron. “Dip-Set Forever” is an instant earworm in Yeezy’s now-standard mode, built around an infectious sped-up vocal sample from Chuck Cissel’s “Forever.” And, with its ridiculously soulful sample of William Bell and Mavis Staples’ “Strung Out”–which Killa Cam memorably refers to as “that 1970s heroin flow”–“Down and Out” is frequently listed as one of Ye’s best beats produced for other artists. But, as Kanye himself admitted on his 2006 mixtape Kanye’s Soul Mix Show, it’s actually “one of my favorite beats that I didn’t really do. Brian ‘All Day’ Miller did this beat. And he was supposed to get co-producer credit on it, and then they didn’t give him credit on the album, they just had my name, and everybody come up to me at the party and say, ‘Oh, I love this beat,’ and I would say, ‘Hey, thanks.’”
Yeezy’s tongue-in-cheek admission of taking the credit aside, it’s significant that he was already employing “ghost producers” of his own, so soon after his own come-up as a ghost producer for Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie. Of course, Kanye’s ambitions to create an artistic brand that is (even) bigger than himself are now readily apparent, from his infamous 2013 self-comparisons to Andy Warhol and Walt Disney to his growing participation in high fashion and design through his creative house DONDA. But he was already taking his first steps in that direction as early as 2004: forging a “house style” with a small cohort of other producers that was instantly recognizable as a “Kanye beat,” even if the beat wasn’t actually made by Kanye.
Another step toward the likes of Warhol and Disney–or at least Jay-Z–was the formation of Kanye’s own label, G.O.O.D. Music. An acronym for “Getting Out Our Dreams,” G.O.O.D. is a vanity label for sure, but one with vision and purpose: Kanye’s way of cultivating relationships with fellow-traveling artists and expanding his artistic influence beyond the scope of his own solo projects and productions. Kanye explained to MTV in November 2004, “this year I was able to accomplish all my dreams and I wanted to provide the opportunity for other people to get their dreams out.” As an integral part of Kanye’s sound since the Get Well Soon… mixtape, John Legend was a natural choice to “get out his dreams” for the first release on G.O.O.D. Music. His debut album, Get Lifted, was released at the tail end of 2004, with production duties split between West and Legend.
Like Kanye’s own early music, Get Lifted essentially updates the sound of 1970s soul music for contemporary rap and R&B audiences–though Legend, naturally, leans much further toward the “R&B” side of the equation. Kanye-produced cuts like opening track “Let’s Get Lifted” and hit single “Used to Love U” are the perfect marriage of Legend’s classically soulful voice with West’s knack for big, hooky beats; the music video for the latter (Video 28 in the playlist above) also features an amusing cameo by Kanye as a church choir director with a habit of making eyes at the women in his congregation. Followup single “Number One,” meanwhile, is an example of Kanye’s metatextual cleverness in choosing samples: flipping the Staple Singers’ 1975 hit “Let’s Do It Again” while Legend swears to the girl he’s been cheating on, “I promise not to do it again.” And while Legend sounds smooth as ever on “Alright,” his lyrics’ braggadocio are pure hip-hop, showing the influence of his producer as he warns the woman he’s seducing that if her man rolls up on him, “You better tell him he don’t want it with me.” Finally, closing track “Live It Up”–a co-production by Kanye and Devo Springsteen–sounds a bit like a dry run for Late Registration, with its lush arrangement of live strings–played, of course, by Miri Ben-Ari–expanding on the sample from the Dramatics’ “Love is Missing from Our Lives.”
Speaking of Late Registration, by this point Kanye was already hard at work on his hotly-anticipated sequel to The College Dropout. He’d started recording for the album in earnest in October, after finishing his own tour and his stint opening for Usher’s “The Truth Tour”; by mid-November, he reported to MTV, the album was 75% complete. Except, of course, that it wasn’t: Kanye wasn’t satisfied with the material he’d recorded so far, and ended up pushing the album back from its projected spring release date. Unlike with The College Dropout, we don’t have the benefit of hearing an early leak of what Late Registration would have sounded like at the end of 2004; given how the album would progress, however, it’s likely that he felt it was shaping up to be too similar to its predecessor. “It’s like, how many more sped-up soul samples do you want?” Kanye rhetorically asked MTV News’ Sway Calloway soon before the album’s release. “We gotta push the envelope a little bit. And,” he added, in his customary stream-of-consciousness fashion, “I always wanted to feel like I was rapping at the top of a mountain or something.”
We do know that Late Registration’s biggest hit, the crossover smash “Gold Digger,” was originally not intended for the album at all: he first offered a woman’s-perspective version of the track to his Windy City homegirl Shawnna for her debut album Worth tha Weight, but she passed on it. The Kanye track she did record, “What Can I Do” featuring Missy Elliott, provided another glimpse at the way the producer’s sound would shift in 2005: dominated by live instrumentation rather than samples, with a dark, druggy vibe that reflected the influence of one of Kanye’s more left-field favorites, the English trip-hop group Portishead. It’s also worth noting that “What Can I Do” was another Brian Miller co-production: in seeking a new sound, West was also reaching out to collaborators for inspiration.
2005 would find Kanye producing significantly fewer tracks for other artists than 2004, as he focused on finishing Late Registration. In the aforementioned November 2004 MTV interview, he responded to a question about his upcoming productions with classic Kanye pique: “Whatever happened to artists working on their own shit? …Like Kurt Cobain, what if he’d given [‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’] to…what was that group that made ‘Mr. Jones’? …No. They should have kept it for Nirvana.” He did, however, make time for a few tracks for the Chicago rap trio Do or Die, including the single “Higher,” a kind of throwback to “Slow Jamz” featuring a smooth sample of Teddy Pendergrass’ “You’re My Latest, My Greatest Inspiration” and a video (Video 33 above) in which Kanye appears wearing his own “Dropout Bear” T-shirt. Another song for D.O.D., “Paid the Price,” chops up Shirley Murdock’s ballad “Go On Without You” to great effect, stretching out for a dramatic hook before dropping in drums for the verses and using Murdock’s heavily-manipulated voice as another percussive element. Better yet, a video available on YouTube (see Video 34 above) actually allows us to see Kanye at work making the beat in the studio: a relatively rare demonstration of his virtuosity with a sequencer, his ability to flip beats and compose hooks on the fly.
Another, higher-profile early 2005 production was “Dreams” for The Documentary, the debut album by then-G-Unit member the Game. It’s another marriage of trip-hop influences with Kanye’s soul-sampling style, chopping up a sample of Jerry Butler’s “No Money Down” into a call-and-response with the Game’s namechecks of Aaliyah, Left Eye, Martin Luther King, and of course, Kanye himself. The Documentary released in January, but the single for “Dreams” didn’t drop until June–making it a slick bit of promotion for Kanye’s own album, which would feature the Game on “Crack Music.”
While Kanye continued to work on his sophomore album in the early months of 2005, he was also stirring up controversy for his relentless campaigning on behalf of his debut. Mainstream audiences’ first glimpse at what would soon become known as “pulling a Kanye” had come the previous November at the American Music Awards, when he stormed out of the theater after losing the Best New Artist award to Gretchen Wilson. He later apologized, and at the 2004 Grammy Awards (see Video 37 above)–where he was nominated for ten awards as a solo artist and received two, Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for “Jesus Walks,” plus one more as a songwriter for Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name”–redeemed himself with a crack at his own expense: “I know everybody asked me the question, they wanted to know–‘I know he’s gon’ wild out, I know he’s gon’ do somethin’ crazy’–everybody wanted to know what I would do if I didn’t win… I guess we’ll never know.” The speech got laughs and applause at the ceremony; but his reputation as an award-show loose cannon was already solidifying, and it wouldn’t be long before the pop audience had run out of goodwill for him.
For now, though, Kanye was still utilizing his mainstream success to make headway outside the confines of hip-hop. It was around this time when he hooked up with record producer and film composer Jon Brion to co-produce Late Registration–using Rick Rubin, another figure who bridged the gap between hip-hop and “white” music, to make the connection. Then, right after the Grammys, he was re-connecting with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine to co-write and record “Heard ‘Em Say.” Pop-rocker John Mayer was also enlisted for some of the early Late Registration sessions; his contributions don’t appear to have made it to the final album, but one song they recorded during the Late Registration sessions, the lovely but emotionally raw breakup song “Bittersweet Poetry,” would ultimately slip out as a bonus track on the Japanese version of Graduation. Kanye’s award-show shenanigans may have been alienating to some of his growing audience, but he was still going to become a crossover artist through sheer force of will.
“Crossover Kanye” made his next recorded appearance in April, with “Stay the Night” for Mariah Carey’s comeback album The Emancipation of Mimi. Another impeccable pop production in the tradition of his tracks for Brandy and Janet Jackson, it distinguishes itself mainly by the way Kanye plays off a rough, distorted vocal sample of the 45 King’s “Who’s in the House”–apparently a favorite of his during this period, having also appeared on both Mobb Deep’s “Throw Your Hands” and John Legend’s “Used to Love U”–against the stately sounds of Ramsey Lewis’ jazz-soul cover of the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow!” It’s a similar technique to the one West would employ, to more striking effect, for his own “Runaway” five years later. Never one to do a pop track without tossing in at least one for the streets, Kanye also produced “Move Around,” the Atlantic Records debut single for “Chief of Chicago” Bump J. It’s a hard, minimalist beat of the kind that was rare for Kanye in 2005: all stripped-down horn stabs and gunshot sound effects (!). More typical of him for the time was his remix of “Grown Man” by lesser Roc-A-Fella stablemates Young Gunz, featuring John Legend’s vocals (and Auto-Tune) on the hook.
But Kanye’s biggest hip-hop project of 2005–aside, obviously, from Late Registration–was Be, the sixth album by his longtime friend and most recent G.O.O.D. Music signee, Common. Common and Kanye first met in 1996, when Kanye was still in high school and learning the ropes of production from Common’s producer at the time, No I.D. Common was aware of Kanye’s ambition right away; he would later reflect on their meeting, “The thing I noticed about Kanye was that he could really rap! He had some kind of hunger that I hadn’t really seen before.” But, despite their relationship and their shared roots in Chicago, Common had been reluctant to let Kanye produce any tracks for him: he told Complex in 2014, “His beats were good, but they weren’t knocking me over. He didn’t have the polish that No I.D. had because No I.D. had more experience. When he was playing beats, it was like, ‘That’s cool as a sample, but those drums…'”
By The College Dropout, however, Kanye had clearly come into his own as an artist. Common guested along with Talib Kweli on the Dropout track “Get ‘Em High,” which the elder rapper would describe as “me coming back around to the essence of who I am as an M.C.” after 2002’s experimental (and commercially disastrous) Electric Circus. “That boom-bap M.C., rap, shit-talking. To be able to go somewhere else and then come back to it, I think that’s what hip-hop is.” Be was the next step in Common’s, and in a sense Kanye’s, return to the “essence” of hip-hop. Kanye served as executive producer on the project, handling all but two of the tracks himself (the other two were handled by a minor, little-known hip-hop producer called “J Dilla”). It was arguably his most significant production for another artist since Jay-Z’s The Blueprint.
And, as with The Blueprint, it was clear that Kanye had something to prove. He described Common at the time as “today’s Marvin Gaye of rap,” so it makes sense that he would provide his partner with some of the most soulful beats of either artist’s career: beats like the title track, which opens with live bass and keyboards by session musician Derrick Hodge and Roots keyboardist James Poyser, respectively, then springs to life with the addition of an orchestral sample from Albert Jones’ “Mother Nature.” Or “The Corner”: a collage-like arrangement pairing a two-second drum break from the Temptations’ “What It Is?” with a snatch of vocals from “You Make the Sun Shine” by the Temprees, sped up and flipped so that the words “your love” sonically resemble the “corner” of the title. Years later, Common told the story of “The Corner”’s genesis in the studio, another example of Kanye’s exceptional abilities with a sequencer: “I remember [Kanye] one day, he’d went out and partied somewhere. We had a session, he was like, ‘Just gimme thirty minutes of sleep, thirty minutes, man,’ ’cause he’d partied all night. So I gave him his thirty minutes, like ‘man, we on the clock, man.’ And then he woke up and made the ‘Corner’ beat, like it was like… [mimes rapidly pushing buttons] He just hooked it up, ‘The Corner,’ like…what?”
Other highlights of Kanye’s production for the album include “Faithful,” a standout sped-up sample of the vocals and talkbox guitar from D.J. Rogers’ “Faithful to the End”; “Real People,” a jubilant track that seamlessly maps the meandering jazz hook from “Sweet Children” by organist Caesar Frazier to a hip-hop beat; and “Testify”: a hypercondensed musical soap opera built around a chipmunked sample from girl group Honey Cone’s “Innocent ‘Til Proven Guilty,” with a music video (Video 45 above) starring a fresh-from-Hustle & Flow Taraji P. Henson. It’s clear that Kanye put a lot into Be, to the point that he had to make sure he didn’t upstage his own upcoming album; he admitted to VIBE’s Noah Callahan-Bever that he kept a handwritten piece of paper with side-by-side track listings for Be and Late Registration, in order to “be sure that his LP hangs song-for-song with Common’s.” But his sense of competition wasn’t holding him back. It was Kanye’s idea to track down 1970s proto-rap radicals the Last Poets for “The Corner”; Umar Bin Hassan, one of the Poets, would later speak to Rap Genius, calling West “a very innovative, very creative and imaginative young brother, man… I mean, sometimes he was so creative and imaginative, I thought he was crazy at times.” It was also Kanye who brought his friend John Mayer on board to help write and record the sensual, neo-soul-ish third single “Go!”, with his own DJ A-Trak providing turntable scratches.
Though he largely refrains from taking a whole verse to himself, Ye’s voice is all over the album as well: barking out hooks in his thickest Chicago accent on “The Corner,” “Go!,” and lead single “The Food,” even crooning over the Cornelius Brothers sample at the end of “Chi-City.” “The Food” is especially memorable for me, as Common’s and Kanye’s electrifying 2004 performance of the song for Chappelle’s Show (see Video 48)–used in full for the album, complete with audience noise and Dave Chappelle’s introduction–provided my first visual introduction to both artists. I remember Kanye in particular standing out: just shy of a month after the release of The College Dropout (and well before this square white boy from the sticks had ever heard the album), he was already wearing his own T-shirts, pacing around the soundstage’s kitchen set in his Louis V. backpack, playing shamelessly to the camera.
By the time Be came out over a year later, Kanye was a lot better-known and a lot more polished; but he still had the same magnetic sense of passion that he exhibited on “The Food,” the same “hunger” that Common had recognized in him almost a decade earlier. And, on the one guest verse he does take for penultimate track “They Say,” he’s already reflecting on the changes that have come with his fame, and predicting the trials to come. “I know they can’t wait ‘til ya outta ya deal,” he says of his ever-present critics, before referencing the recent troubles of another star beloved by the Okayplayer set: “Look how they did D’Angelo, ask him how do it feel / My best friends worry ‘bout me / ‘Cause they know when you famous and you have made cash, the media aims at us / And you be up so high, if you ever fall off, it feel like a plane crash.” But Kanye remains, as ever, defiantly confident, rapping, “God don’t ever give me nothin’ I can’t handle / So please don’t ever give me records I can’t sample.” In the end, he’s embracing the craziness to come: “They say because of the fame and stardom / I’m somewhere in between the church and insane asylum / I guess it’s messin’ with my health then / And this verse so crazy, when I finish I’m just gon’ check myself in–again.” It’s a great verse, easily one of Yeezy’s best on another artist’s track–and never better than in the fiery live performance captured in Video 49 above, in which he even manages to work in a short Kanye Rant before the beginning of his verse proper: “Yo Common, if I hear another rumor about something I did… ‘I heard you said you won’t be in a magazine unless you get paid.’ I ain’t never say that…but I do feel like that’s right.”
By the release of Be on May 24, Late Registration had been in production for nearly a year. During that time, a massive shakeup had occurred at Kanye’s parent label, Roc-A-Fella. Other writers more versed (/interested) in hip-hop industry drama have done a better job covering the dissolution of the Roc; suffice to say, however, that Jay-Z leveraged his new position as CEO of Def Jam Recordings–and his accompanying majority share in the newly-acquired Roc-A-Fella–to oust his former partners Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke from the label, resulting in a fractious split that divided Roc artists into factions. Kanye, the self-described “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer of the Roc,” occupied an ambiguous position in the affair. On the one hand, he was and is firmly in Jay’s camp: every one of Kanye’s records to date, including 2013’s Yeezus, has been released under the Roc-A-Fella imprint, and all but three of those albums (Yeezus, Graduation, and 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak) feature Hova on at least one track. But on the other hand, he’s never really been one for loyalties outside of his own ambition. Dash, after all, had been an early supporter of Kanye’s rap career at a time when such supporters were scarce, and Kanye also seemed to feel a certain personal affinity with the brash, showboating executive: “Why you think me and Dame cool?” he’d rapped on “Get ‘Em High.” “We assholes.”
So “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” the first single released for Late Registration, began life as a neutral declaration of the Roc’s staying power in the face of apparent chaos: “This track the Indian rain dance to bring our reign back,” he rapped, between exhortations to “throw your diamonds in the sky”–a reference to Roc-A-Fella’s patented diamond-shaped hand signal–and a hook sampled from Shirley Bassey’s theme for the 1971 Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Of course, this being Kanye, his pledge of allegiance to the Roc is really just another chapter in his own life story: “the Roc is still alive every time I rhyme,” he claims, while setting aside plenty of time to reflect on his American Music Awards “tantrum” and even the old chestnut of his name being misspelled: “Now what I need is y’all to pronounce my name / It’s Kanye, but some of my plaques they still say ‘Kayne.'” But he still has an uncanny knack for turning his self-centeredness into a positive, reminding us that even his award show behavior comes from a place of passion, not (just) arrogance: “You gotta love it, though, somebody still speaks from his soul / And wouldn’t change by the change, or the game, or the fame.” This would become a running theme in his work and discourse moving forward: that Kanye’s very “Kanye”-ness–his breaches of decorum, his gauche hunger for validation, his tendency to fly off on impassioned “rants” instead of the measured P.R.-speak typical of celebrities–is a feature, not a bug; the result of his sticking to his background and his principles, refusing to buff out his rough edges to fit the music industry’s promotional machine. It’s an argument worth listening to–even if, as we’ll see, Kanye has been perhaps a bit too eager to put it to the test.
In any case, the Roc-centric original version of “Diamonds” isn’t really the one most of us remember; probably because it didn’t technically make it to Late Registration proper, instead relegated to a bonus track, while its place in the track listing was taken by a rapidly-produced remix featuring new lines about conflict diamonds and a song-stealing guest verse by Jay-Z. The track has always been something of an odd duck, in fact: with its obvious reference to conflict-diamond hotbed Sierra Leone in the title, and a Hype Williams-directed video (number 50 in the playlist above) that cinematically expands on the plight of “the children of the blood diamonds,” despite the fact that the song’s lyrics are mostly about how great Kanye is. The shift in direction was the result of a last-minute crisis of conscience for West, who had always had a fair amount of guilt about “that bullshit ice rap,” as he self-deprecatingly put it on The College Dropout‘s “Breathe In, Breathe Out.” During the making of Late Registration, he told Sway Calloway, “Mark Romanek, the director that did Jay’s ’99 Problems,’ and Q-Tip both brought up blood diamonds. They said, ‘That’s what I think about when I hear diamonds. I think about kids getting killed, getting amputated in West Africa.’ And Q-Tip’s like, ‘Sierra Leone,’ and I’m like, ‘Where?’ And I remember him spelling it out for me and me looking on the Internet and finding out more. I think that was just one of those situations where I just set out to entertain, but every now and then God taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Yo, I want you to do this right here,’ so he’ll place angels in my path and one angel will lead to another angel and it’s like a treasure hunt or something. And I finally found the gold mine, which was the video.”
It would be easy to make fun of Kanye for that quote–both for his confusion about the spelling of Sierra Leone, and for the mental image of him taking to the Internet and going on a “treasure hunt” to change his label-repping ice rap into a half-baked “conscious” anthem. But it’s another reminder, as we discussed with The College Dropout, that Kanye isn’t really a conscious rapper in the Q-Tip vein, and that’s part of his strength: he isn’t offering knowledge from on high, but muddling through it with the rest of us, usually with disarming transparency. And what results, more often than not, is an unresolved, but undeniably human, contradiction. When Sway asked Kanye how he could still wear diamonds, even after publicly acknowledging the slave labor and bloody civil war that made them, he responded, “How are you a human being, would be more of the question, like, ‘How are you still human when you know what’s going on? How do you still wear what it took your whole life to get?’” Kanye never claimed to have the answers; a fact that may be maddening for his critics, but is a significant part of what makes him so compelling as an artist.
With only a few more months to go before the release of Late Registration, Kanye’s production work had slowed to a trickle. But there were still a few more songs to come out before he unleashed his next solo project on the world. “It’s Alright” and “Didn’t I” were a pair of understated tracks for A Change is Gonna Come, the debut album by smoky-voiced neo-soul singer Leela James; they’re far from Kanye’s most characteristic work–you’d have to check the credits to know for sure that it’s him–but their presence on the album does put him in the respectable company of producers like Raphael Saadiq and the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean and Jerry Duplessis. Kanye is much more his usual, flamboyant self on “I Changed My Mind,” produced for Keyshia Cole’s debut The Way It Is: a John Legend co-write built on a stop-start sample of Solomon Burke by way of Dr. Dre. “Kanye West on the track, by the way,” he announces at the beginning, as if his frequent vocal interjections hadn’t already made that clear.
But the rest of the summer of 2005 belonged to Kanye himself: beginning with the release of his second pre-album single, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous “Gold Digger.” For Kanye’s biggest hit to date, it had a surprisingly tortured path to release. I already mentioned how Shawnna rejected an early version of the song in late 2004, but it actually goes back even further than that. A-Trak wrote on Genius that Kanye “had the instrumental and the idea” as early as his first tour: “He used to rap it to us all the time in the tour bus–he just hadn’t recorded it.” Indeed, if you check Video 54 in the YouTube playlist above, you can see a baby-faced Kanye (wearing an all-orange, Reese’s peanut butter cup-inspired outfit that today’s Kanye would throw into a fire immediately) performing an early version of the song at the 2003 Dynamic Producer Conference in New York City, accompanied by a bluesy piano vamp courtesy of John Legend. It gets the crowd laughing, but it still clearly has a long way to go: not only is it missing an actual hook, but it also feels a lot more mean-spirited and misogynistic than the final version. Kanye ends his familiar declaration of “18 years, 18 years, and on the 18th birthday, he found out it wasn’t his” with a much more brutal punchline: “he killed that bitch, they gave him 25 years.” He then leads the audience in a call-and-response of “When I say ‘Free,’ you say ‘Kobe’”–a poor-taste reference to the Lakers star’s then-recent sexual assault allegations.
By Kanye’s early 2004 appearance on Def Poetry Jam, for which he read a version of “Gold Digger”’s second verse entitled “18 Years” (see Video 55), the lyrics had been tightened up–though the shock “killed that bitch” line was retained. Ultimately, it would take two vital additions to transform the song from a goofily problematic riff on manipulative women to a viable crossover hit. First, there was the hook. Sometime between the Def Poetry Jam performance and the Shawnna demo, Kanye got the idea to sample Ray Charles’ 1954 Rhythm & Blues hit “I Got a Woman” for the song, with scratches by A-Trak to punch up the “hip-hop” sound. Months later, Kanye and John Mayer went to see the Charles biopic, Ray; never one to pass on a gimmick, Ye decided to call up the film’s star, Jamie Foxx–whose own singing career he had effectively launched with “Slow Jamz”–to sing the hook “in character” as Ray. And thus a brilliant, if dated, bit of cross-media synergy was born.
The second vital addition to “Gold Digger” was Kanye’s switch-up of the third and final verse. You can actually hear the original third verse to “Gold Digger” on the I’m Good… mixtape, where Kanye lifts it verbatim for the song “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” It has some clever lines, but overall it’s a tiresome and, again, mean-spirited continuation of the other verses’ lines about no-account women shaking him down for alimony and child support, this time spoken directly to the “Gold Digger” herself: “I mean the way you look is nice, but there’s more to life, boo / ‘Cuz I could go to videos and get four just like you / I talked to your ex-boyfriend and took a census / But you don’t read the cookbook, you just look at the pictures / Matter of fact, when’s the last time you looked at the kitchen?” Whether he decided to tone things down for Shawnna’s sake, or just had a change of heart (or his mom heard the track and shook him), Kanye’s third verse in the final version is much more well-rounded and sympathetic, admitting that he can see things from the woman’s perspective: “Now I ain’t sayin’ you a gold digger, you got needs / You don’t want a dude to smoke, but he can’t buy weed.” Of course, Ye still can’t resist ending on a nasty punchline. But at least this time the woman survives, and there’s a sneaky social comment about bourgeois Black self-hatred embedded in her fate: after sticking by her man even when he doesn’t have money, he thanks her by getting rich and “[leaving her] ass for a white girl.”
With its simple but infectious beat and lush Hype Williams video–featuring, if you look closely enough, the debut of the infamous “Kanye Dance” (see Video 56)–“Gold Digger” was the most commercial song Kanye had done yet, and it paid off: going 5x Platinum, the biggest sales success he would have until he bested it two years later with “Stronger.” Its parent album was a similar success, debuting at Number 1 on the Billboard charts and selling 860,000 copies in its first week of release–almost double the first-week sales of The College Dropout. Yet, for all that it trumped its predecessor commercially–and though, as we will see, individual songs made some great strides artistically–taken as a whole, it’s a less impressive work. One gets the impression that at the back of his mind, Kanye thought so, too; after pushing the album back from spring to July, he delayed it another month to August 16, then again to August 30, for a total delay of 49 days, reportedly working on it up to the last minute. To be fair, such delays are pretty much par for the course for Kanye, a notorious perfectionist; as we already discussed, he delayed The College Dropout a couple times as well. But even ten years later, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that Kanye didn’t quite stick the landing with Late Registration. It was a valiant effort–and certainly not an example of the dreaded “sophomore slump”–but it falls just short of greatness.
Part of it is simply a case of diminishing returns–for the listener and, seemingly, for West. Though he’d brought Jon Brion in expressly to tinker with his sound, Kanye clearly intended Late Registration to be a sequel to The College Dropout: the collegiate themes, the cover art featuring his “Dropout Bear” mascot, the overarching narrative of overcoming adversity by following your dreams, all are present and accounted for. He even brought DeRay Davis back to reprise his role as a teacher/Bernie Mac impersonator, whose voice is once again the first thing we hear, chewing Kanye out on the introductory skit “Wake Up Mr. West.” Yet this time, one gets the sense that Kanye isn’t having as much fun with the character. There’s a kind of self-mocking malaise embedded in Davis’ barbs: “I knew I was gon’ see you again!” he crows triumphantly. “Where your goddamn book bag at? Always carryin’ that lil’ book bag, nobody wanna see that! Goddamn fourth grader. Sit yo’ ass down! He wanna play it again like he got somethin’ else to do. You ain’t got nothin’ else to do! You ain’t doin’ nothin’ wit’ your life.” Viewed in the context of Kanye’s already-established self-consciousness, his public trepidation over releasing an album to compete with a debut that was widely declared a masterpiece (not least by the artist himself), the skit feels less like a parody of Mr. West’s naysayers, and more like a channeling of his inner critic.
The sense of malaise continues as the skit gives way to the album’s opening track proper, “Heard ‘Em Say,” building from a mournful sample of Natalie Cole’s “Someone That I Used to Love” to a drum beat (lifted, believe it or not, from Tommy James and the Shondells) that sounds like it’s been muffled with a damp towel. Where The College Dropout’s opening track, “We Don’t Care,” was bold and defiant, “Heard ‘Em Say” just sighs with resignation; Kanye is once again speaking for the Black underclass, but here he seems overwhelmed by the struggle. In the first verse of “We Don’t Care,” he’d painted a subversive picture of inner-city resourcefulness, like a funhouse-mirror version of the conservative “bootstrapping” ideology: “we forced to sell crack, rap, and get a job / You gotta do somethin’, man, your ass is grown.” Now, though, he’s just tired, asking, “Before you ask me to go get a job today / Can I at least get a raise of the minimum wage?” Later in the song, he evokes the nostalgia-tinted reminiscences of Dropout’s “Family Business,” but this time the family portrait is stripped of its warmth, cast it in the cold light of a white supremacist society: “My Aunt Pam can’t put them cigarettes down / So now my little cousin smokin’ them cigarettes now / 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 / Sick of it now.” Even Kanye’s infamous claim that “I know the government administer AIDS”–often cited by critics as a ludicrous Kanye-ism, but actually a familiar and plausible conspiracy theory to an African American community that remembers the Tuskegee syphilis experiments–is made with a defeated shrug: “I guess we just pray like the minister say,” he concludes.
With its downtrodden lyrics, stark instrumentation (the toy-piano interpolation of “Someone That I Used to Love” is our first aural clue of Brion’s involvement in the project), and lovely vocal hook by the usually-insufferable Adam Levine, “Heard ‘Em Say” is a hauntingly understated opening track: a bold way to start an album from an artist known almost exclusively for his brash exuberance. But Yeezy still delivers that brash exuberance with the album’s second track and fourth single, “Touch the Sky.” Bursting in on a brassy sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” the song sounds like vintage Kanye–which is significant, because it’s actually produced by Roc house producer and Ye’s fellow architect for The Blueprint, Just Blaze. It’s as if Kanye, in his eagerness to move into new territories with his sound, was now farming his old-school soul samples out to other producers from his past.
The lyrics, too, feel like a condensed summary of themes Ye had already gone over in The College Dropout, with references to all the usual milestones: the “pessimists” who “thought pink polos would hurt the Roc,” the move from Chicago to Newark with his mama in a “U-Haul van,” the trip to Jacob the Jeweler “an hour after I got my advance,” and of course, the car accident that symbolically took his previous life and sent him to the “heaven” that is stardom. By all rights, “Touch the Sky” should feel like a retread, but it’s ultimately too infectious to be dismissed, with classic Kanye one-liners like “before anybody wanted K. West beats, me and my girl split the buffet at K.F.C.,” and an expanded sense of self-worth that leaves ample room for the listener as well: Kanye may start out by crowning himself “a hip-hop legend” and rapping “‘fore the day I die, I’mma touch the sky,” but by the end of the track, he’s switched the refrain to “you gonna touch the sky.”
As I noted in my discussion of The College Dropout, this expansiveness is an oft-overlooked dimension of Kanye’s ego; he presents himself as a deliberately aspirational figure, with the underlying subtext that if he could achieve his dreams, then you can too. One of West’s most telling comments in the infamous 2013 interview with BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe–predictably overshadowed in the media by flashier pull-quotes about his untapped potential for revolutionary water bottle design and being “the number one rock star on the planet”–spoke to these themes: “I always felt like I could do anything,” he said. “That’s the main thing people are controlled by–their perception of themselves. They’re slowed down by their perception of themselves. Go listen to all my music, it’s the codes of self-esteem. If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself–I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe that you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.”
Of course, I would be remiss to discuss “Touch the Sky” without at least mentioning the standout guest verse by up-and-coming Chicago M.C. Lupe Fiasco. Lupe first got West’s attention with his mixtape track “Conflict Diamonds,” a politicized riff on “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and another possible influence on Kanye’s own hastily-conceived remix. It was a brilliant move on Kanye’s part: one iconoclastic rapper from Chicago passing the torch to the next generation. Interestingly, though, Fiasco later revealed that he didn’t feel much of a kinship with Kanye at the time: “He was in a Hyde Park, Common, backpacker world. We was in more of a streets world.” He ultimately had to be convinced by an unnamed friend to appear on the record. In any case, despite his initial hesitation, Lupe was quickly drawn into Kanye’s fold: he never signed with G.O.O.D. Music, but remained G.O.O.D.-adjacent for most of the rest of the decade, joining Kanye for his 2008 “Glow in the Dark Tour” and collaborating with him and Pharrell in the abortive alt-rap supergroup Child Rebel Soldier (more on that next time).
After perking up for “Touch the Sky” and “Gold Digger,” Late Registration goes downbeat again with the aptly-named “Drive Slow”: a moody, atmospheric piece that combines live piano and a wordless hook by returning Dropout feature Tony Williams with a sample from the Hank Crawford version of “Wildflower” by Canadian psych-rockers Skylark. It’s an interesting blend of Kanye’s usual soul samples with the aforementioned trip-hop and even the “chopped and screwed” subgenre of Southern rap music: just listen to how the song slows to a crawl at the coda, taking Williams’ voice down an octave so that it oozes over the beat like so much (purple) syrup. Kanye has been criticized by hip-hop purists in recent years for his eagerness to jump onto “mainstream” (i.e., Southern) trends, dipping into trap music with his 2011 Jay-Z collaboration “Niggas in Paris” and later co-productions with DJ Mustard. “Drive Slow,” however, shows that Kanye had his eye on the South even in the midst of his so-called “classic” period. Indeed, the song was intended to be even more stylistically polyglot than it is now; Kanye originally wanted British Tamil rapper M.I.A.–whose debut album Arular had been released mere months earlier–on the cut along with guests GLC and Paul Wall, but she reportedly declined due to scheduling conflicts.
A more familiar sound for Kanye came with the next track, “My Way Home”–perhaps a little too familiar, in fact. The song is good, with a hook lifted in its entirety from Gil Scott-Heron’s deeply soulful “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” but it makes no attempt to disguise its origins as a leftover from Common’s Be; Kanye didn’t even bother recording his own verse, instead ceding the whole track to the other M.C. Though the short runtime makes “My Way Home” little more than an interlude, it’s still a bit of a bewildering inclusion, and it only serves to underline the weird, heterogeneous feel of the album as a whole. The College Dropout also combined tracks from a variety of disparate sources, of course, but it was sequenced to feel like a cohesive whole; its successor often just sounds like a collection of individual songs, some of which belong together and some of which don’t.
One song that decidedly does belong on Late Registration is “Crack Music”: a continuation of the sociopolitical themes from “Heard ‘Em Say” that piles on the musical drama, blending sampled brass and drums with a live orchestra conducted by Jon Brion and choral vocals by Tony Williams, Keyshia Cole, and Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band–his first of many appearances on Kanye West tracks. Musically, the song bears more than a passing resemblance to “Jesus Walks,” but lyrically it’s much more raw. Kanye lashes out at everything from the connections between Reagan’s Iran-Contra affair and the 1980s explosion of the inner-city crack trade to George H.W. Bush’s enabling of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program, connecting the threads with the loose theme of rap music as a cultural drug for the same community in which the crack epidemic had raged: “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,” he raps. “Sometimes I feel the music is the only medicine / So we cook it, cut it, measure it, bag it, sell it / The fiends cop it, nowadays they can’t tell if / That’s that good shit, we ain’t sure, man / Put the CD on your tongue, yeah, that’s pure, man.” It’s a thematically dense and complex rhyme; arguably one of Kanye’s best to date, even if the sheer breadth of ideas and references eventually bogs it down into a bit of a muddle. It’s also another great example of Kanye’s love for throwing together “conscious” and “commercial” voices: just like he did with Jay-Z and J. Ivy on “Never Let Me Down,” here he pairs actual crack-rap practitioner the Game with G.O.O.D. Music spoken-word artist Malik Yusef, to more impressive effect.
It’s tempting, especially for critics and listeners who approach Late Registration from a perspective outside of hip-hop (read: White People), to give Jon Brion a little too much credit for the sound of the final album. His reputation as a musical auteur precedes him–and not, it’s worth adding, because he describes himself as such. But the story behind “Roses,” an emotional track about the death of Kanye’s grandmother in the “Family Business” vein, suggests that Brion and West were creative equals in the studio more than anything. After the album’s release, Brion told MTV about how he’d created a dense arrangement of layered keyboards for the song, only for Kanye to cut everything out, allowing his a cappella vocals to carry the beat, then abruptly dropping in Brion’s arrangement on the chorus so that it’s “just this extravaganza of stuff going on.” Brion compared Kanye’s executive decision to Prince‘s famous last-minute removal of the bass track from “When Doves Cry,” and marveled at his co-producer’s ability to transform a song on the fly: “When he hears something he likes, he knows it… He has vision, and when the guy makes quick, intuitive decisions, he just has it. I’d watch him take a rough track that I had worked on and completely stand it on its head in ten minutes–and it’s just better. It was mind-boggling.”
What Brion unquestionably did was expand West’s sonic palette. Listen to “Have It Your Way” from Kanye’s 2000 demo tape, then listen to “Bring Me Down”: the same piano part is there at the center, but it’s been enriched and augmented by Brion’s orchestration, imbued with a radical new sense of drama and tonality. In the best possible way, Brion was a tool for Kanye in the studio: a talented multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger who could translate Kanye’s ideas into recorded music without the need for an existing sample to chop up and manipulate. Kanye uses his guest artists in similar ways, selecting from them like a painter choosing between his colors and brushes: dropping the Game’s hard street sound into “Crack Music,” the soulful melodies of Tony Williams and Brandy into “Bring Me Down.”
Aside from the richer sound, one of the chief distinctions that sets Late Registration apart from The College Dropout is an overall darker tone, both musically and lyrically. We already broached this topic in our comparison of “We Don’t Care” with “Heard ‘Em Say,” but it comes up again in “Addiction,” Kanye’s frank admission of his dependencies on not only the usual chemical stimulants, but also the “drugs” that are sex and fame. It’s a theme he also touched upon briefly in “Touch the Sky,” with its references to infidelity and the line, “I’m trying to right my wrongs, but it’s funny, my same wrongs helped me write this song.” On “Addiction,” though, he fully airs out the issue, asking in a sing-song why “everything that’s supposed to be bad make me feel so good” over live conga drums and an eerie, slowed-down sample from Etta James’ cover of “My Funny Valentine.” Another trip-hoppy production by West and Brion, the song feels at once seductive and menacing–even when it’s at his goofiest, like the part at the end when Ye tries to talk his girl into a threesome, then demurs that he’s “just kidding–unless you gon’ do it.”
Of course, “Addiction”’s confessional bent wasn’t exactly a new thing for Kanye–he’d rapped about his weaknesses, specifically those related to materialism, on Dropout as well–but it does indicate an increasingly dominant trend in his career: as he continues to make mistakes, he will continue to reflect on his failings, depicting himself less and less sympathetically as time goes on. Sexual guilt in particular is a recurring theme in his work from here on out. Kanye had already split with his pre-fame girlfriend, Sumeke Rainey, with several of his lyrics (including “Touch the Sky”) intimating that his inability to “keep it at home” was at least partially at fault; nor, again judging by his lyrics, would she be the last casualty of Kanye’s flawed relationship skills. Yet the notion that “those same wrongs help [him] write [his] songs” adds another dimension of complexity to Kanye’s self-analysis; fucking up, it seems, is an inescapable part of his process. This idea brings to mind Kanye’s 2009 interview with Details, in which he links his seemingly superhuman “drive” with “having a sexual addiction at a really young age… Look at the drive that people have to get sex–to dress like this and get a haircut and be in the club in the freezing cold at 3 a.m., the places they go to pick up a girl. If you can focus the energy into something valuable, put that into work ethic…”
Kanye’s self-analytical bent continues in his new verse for the aforementioned “Diamonds” remix, which feels like a more thoughtful expansion of his previously-quoted response to Sway about his own contradictory attitudes toward wearing diamonds: “See, a part of me sayin’, ‘Keep shinin’,” he raps, before asking himself, “How? When I know what a blood diamond is… I thought my Jesus-piece was so harmless / ‘Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless / And here’s the conflict / It’s in a Black person soul to rock that gold / Spend your whole life trying to get that ice… How can somethin’ so wrong make me feel so right?” Again, Kanye isn’t providing any answers here. But, by acknowledging the “conflict” of conflict diamonds–rather than simply flaunting or, just as simply, criticizing materialism in the rap world–he’s already injecting an important perspective into the conversation. “Diamonds” is far from a perfect song–it is, as mentioned before, too clearly a product of last-minute revision–but the remix verse still holds up as a strong example of Kanye’s “self-conscious” rap innovations.
But we can’t expect Kanye to remain self-aware for too long, and so next up is “We Major”: a bloated, self-indulgent paean to weed and the unchecked ego, clocking in at almost seven and a half minutes, and barely saying a damn thing in that whole time. Oh, yeah, and it’s also probably the best song on the album. “We Major” is a classic example of Kanye’s peerless ability to create something that’s bigger and better than the sum of its parts. The song’s hook–rapped by one of Kanye’s oldest friends, Chicago M.C. Really Doe–sounds like it belongs on a Ying Yang Twins track, not a record from the man who declared himself the successor to A Tribe Called Quest: “I take a sip of that ‘gnac, I wanna fuuuuuck / I take a hit of that chronic, it got me stuuuuuck.” Yet its production, with almost all live instrumentation orchestrated by Brion and a blissful chorus by Tony Williams, is so majestic that Kanye claimed it had the power to end the ongoing beef between Jay-Z and the song’s surprise guest, his “idol” Nas: “When you hear the horns on ‘We Major’ and you hear the chorus come in and you hear Nas, that could like warm somebody’s heart. Good music can break through anything and maybe start to break down the wall between two of the greatest M.C.’s that we have.”
Nas, for his part, brings it with a verse that channels Kanye’s own position as a bridge between the conscious and commercial factions of contemporary hip-hop: “I heard the beat and I ain’t know what to write / First line, should it be about the hoes or the ice? / Fo-fo’s or Black Christ? Both flows’d be nice / Rap about big paper or the Black man plight.” But Yeezy still somehow manages to steal the show, with little more than a verse of clever boasts (“I ain’t in the Klan but I brought my hood with me”) and an extended vamp over the coda that captures the essence of his larger-than-life persona: “Can I talk my shit again?” he barks as the horns come back in. “I can’t believe I’m back up in this muh’fucker… I’mma be late though… I gotta figure out what I’m gonna wear.”
“We Major” is easily Late Registration’s climax; its denouement begins with “Hey Mama,” a touching dedication to his mother Donda that had been kicking around in Kanye’s catalogue since the beginning of the decade. The final song sounds similar to Kanye’s 2000 demo version, with the same basic structure and vocal sample from Donal Leace’s “Today Won’t Come Again,” but with some extra polish and embellishments by West and Brion–including a wordless Auto-Tuned line that predicts Kanye’s later “sad robot” vocalizations–and more assured rapping and singing by West himself. It is, like many songs by Kanye, personal to both a strength and a fault. On the one hand, there are lines so cloying they still make me cringe: “You fixed me up something that was good for my soul / It was homemade chicken soup, may I have another bowl?” But there are also parts of the song that make me downright emotional: “Seven years old, caught you with tears in your eyes / ‘Cause 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 ’til you don’t hurt no more / And when you older, you ain’t gotta work no more / And I’mma get you that mansion that we couldn’t afford.” It is, above all, the most inimitably “Kanye” song on the album: teetering on the edge of propriety, especially in a self-consciously unemotional genre like hip-hop; threatening to veer into oversharing, but ultimately winning the listener over with the sheer bigness of its heart. Plenty of rappers have written songs about their mamas, but only Kanye could have come up with one quite like this.
Another prototypical Kanye move is when, after baring his heart so intimately, he goes back to stunting with the penultimate track “Celebration.” Once again, there’s a slight case of diminishing returns here: the song feels like a self-conscious attempt at another “Last Call,” albeit without the lengthy autobiographical monologue, and with a lush Jon Brion orchestral arrangement that evokes the glamorous sound of Classical Hollywood, adding a funky undercurrent of keyboards and Tony Williams vocals. It’s not as good as the original, but it has its merits, with a supremely silly, Chappelle-as-Rick James-quoting refrain of “You know what this is / It’s a celebration, bitches!” The last verse, imagining a conversation between Kanye and a future son, also reportedly had the string section cracking up during the recording: “See, you know my style / I’m very wild / And I vow that my child will be well-endowed / Like his daddy, and tell him that yo’ mama had a fattie / He looked up at me, said ‘Daddy, that’s the reason why you had me?’ / Yep, we was practicin’ / ‘Til one day, yo’ ass bust through the packagin’ / You know what, though? You my favorite accident / So go ‘head, pop some Cristal for my newborn child.”
Charming thought it may be, Late Registration fortunately doesn’t end with a retread of The College Dropout, but with a burner of a finale that sheds the skin of Kanye’s past and points the way toward his musical future. One of the less impressive aspects of the album overall–hence why I hadn’t mentioned it yet–was the new crop of skits by DeRay Davis, which attempted to recapture the brilliant satire of Dropout’s interludes (I will defend “Lil Jimmy” until the day I die), but came up short. The skits concerned Kanye’s enrollment in and eventual dismissal from an imaginary Black fraternity called “Broke Phi Broke,” who take pride in their lack of material goods and kick Kanye out when they realize he’s “been out making beats on the side,” having even scrounged together enough money to afford a new pair of shoes. They’re funny enough–the part where the brothers chant, “We can’t! Af-ford! No gas!” always gets me–but they lack the universality of the Dropout sketches, coming off instead as a superfluous swipe at Kanye’s haters. But even those skits ultimately redeem themselves, just by virtue of setting up “Gone”: the moment when Ye finally explodes the latent tensions between past expectations and future ambitions that have been building throughout the album, and (consciously or unconsciously) announces his plans to move on from the albatross his classic debut is threatening to become.
“I’m ahead of my time, sometimes years out,” he raps, seemingly prophesying his controversial future changes of style, “So the powers that be won’t let me get my ideas out.” At the end of his epic final verse, he imagines his critics and acolytes alike waiting “at the door because they need more / Inspiration for they life, they souls, and they songs / They said, ‘Sorry, Mr. West is gone.’” Especially when viewed in retrospect, it’s a clear statement of intent: there will be ups and downs from “Mr. West” in the future, but there will be no more retreads or sequels. He did his best to match The College Dropout; now he’s going to do something different entirely. It only helps that the arrangement for “Gone” is one of the album’s best: as Brion described it, “just a drum beat, an Otis Redding sample and Kanye going to town over it. There’s a whole string section, and it turns into crazy soundtrack music. It’s a big piece of work.” Kanye goes out on a musical high note because he’s done everything he can do with the Dropout soul sound; from here on, we’re in uncharted territory.
And you know what? I could go on, but I think the finality of that last sentence is telling me it’s time to close this chapter. We’ll be back in a few weeks with a–much shorter, I promise!–post on Kanye’s big move out of the shadow of The College Dropout, the aptly-titled Graduation. In the meantime, here’s the playlist: