Editor’s Note: It’s been a minute since the last time I posted some old shit, and boy do I have some old shit for you today. I’ve spent the last week laboring over my next installment of the Kanye West Oeuvre, focusing on his 2005 sophomore album Late Registration; so, in the interest of both whetting the appetite for that long-ass forthcoming post (which should come out either tomorrow or Monday) and embarrassing the fuck out of myself, here’s a review I wrote of Late Registration a little less than a month after its initial release. Why is it so embarrassing, you ask? Well, for one thing, it’s obvious that 21-year-old me didn’t have a clue about hip-hop or how to write about it; I misread “Drive Slow” as “social commentary” when it is literally about driving your car slow so you can pick up some “hos,” and I had no clue that the line about “throwing your diamonds in the sky” doesn’t refer to literal diamonds. What can I say; I was even whiter back then than I am now. But hey, maybe it will be of historical interest to some future Hoskinsian scholars who want to see how my opinion of Kanye West’s second album evolved over a decade. Or, maybe I’m just stalling until I post my real piece. You decide! – Z.H.
Late Registration is not just any album. Like it or not, it’s one of those keynote releases that come along each year, accompanied by a buzz that simply cannot be denied; and, when 2005 rolls to a close, you can bet your only copy of Speakerboxxx that it will be gracing “Best of the Year” lists left and right, even in publications that, frankly, don’t have much business writing about rap. I don’t know or even care who started the tidal wave of hype that’s been carrying Kanye along since last year’s masterpiece–or “masterpiece,” depending on which side of the fence you sit–The College Dropout; but I do believe that anyone with even the slightest interest in contemporary music, or pop culture in general, would be a fool to ignore this followup.
And that’s “followup” in the most literal sense of the word. From its analogous title and cover art on down, Registration makes no bones about it: this is intended to be College Dropout, Part 2. This is both a blessing and a curse: blessing because Dropout was, no shit, really and truly one of the best releases of the decade so far, mainstream or underground, hip-hop or otherwise; and curse simply because any record with that kind of reputation is bound to be a tough act to follow. To his credit, Kanye tries valiantly. His euphoric arrangements for the new album call to mind Dropout‘s signature sound while simultaneously building upon it; credit co-producer Jon Brion for these refinements if you like, but also keep in mind that it was a Brion-less West who amped up 2004 album track “The New Workout Plan” with wailing, exotic Chinese violins that almost made you forget the occasionally subpar rhymes. West is no stranger to sonic experimentation, and when it comes to the new album’s most adventurous tracks–the apparent 1986 Prince outtake “Hey Mama,” the airy, classic Hollywood string-laden “Celebration“–Brion can be best thought of as an ideal collaborator.
Lyrically, too, West stretches ever so slightly, opening a much-needed window to the world in his usual room full of mirrors while never losing sight of that legendary ego. This should come as welcome news to those of us who actually agreed with Kanye’s post-Katrina Bush diatribe: the entire middle section of Late Registration, from “Drive Slow” to “Addiction,” makes explicit the social commentary that danced around the corners of last year’s debut, but never with the blunt specificity that dates and dims so many of the 21st century’s “message songs.” “Crack Music,” in particular, bristles with an all-encompassing righteous anger, at everything from ghetto life to the commodification of hip-hop, the likes of which has been in short supply in mainstream culture since Public Enemy dropped out of the limelight. Even G-Unit’s the Game (whose own quasi-political statements often find themselves juxtaposed with juvenile lyrics about fucking female R&B singers) seems at home in the midst of West’s fire-and-brimstone tour de force. And when the message doesn’t quite hold water, the heart is still undoubtedly in the right place; “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” might be the most aristocratic protest song ever written (I don’t know about you, but I can’t even afford to buy blood diamonds, let alone “throw them in the sky”), but it’s hard to fault the man for beginning to discover that there’s more to the world than just Kanye West.
Or is it? Detractors may like to harp on West’s arrogance, but they forget that this is all part of the show: a tradition that reaches back at least to Little Richard’s hyperbolic claims that he was “the originator, the emancipator and the architect of rock’n’roll.” After all, nobody criticizes 50 Cent for his own apparently monumental ego. And Kanye may be marginally less solipsistic this time around, but all things considered, Late Registration is simply a weaker album for it. The College Dropout took aim at its targets through the hazy filter of West’s own experiences, providing a canny sort of frame for its criticisms of the African American experience, higher education, modern hip-hop, and the pursuit of wealth. Track by track, the album felt unified, each song a new chapter of the Autobiography of Kanye West. It didn’t matter whether you liked the man or not; his voice, as rapper, producer and narrator, was the tie that bound the whole beautiful mess together.
Late Registration sets its sights higher, but it comes off in the end as just a mostly-great collection of songs: they sound good enough on their own, but together they don’t seem to know what they want to say or where they want to go. One minute Kanye’s comparing rap music to drug pushing, the next minute he’s instructing the listener to “grab a drink, grab a glass / after that I grab yo’ ass.” The skits only add to the confusion: love them or hate them, Dropout’s skits contributed materially to the album’s overall theme, unequivocal in their sharp satire of college as a lifestyle and an institution. Registration, on the other hand, gives us an imaginary Black fraternity called “Broke Phi Broke,” who kick Kanye out of their ranks because he’s just bought a new pair of shoes; on an album that unselfconsciously juxtaposes inner-city vistas with out-and-out reveling in wealth and glamour, your guess to the meaning of that is as good as mine. Most importantly–insanely catchy as “Gold Digger” may be–there just aren’t any moments here that scream “instant classic” the way “We Don’t Care,” “Through the Wire,” or “Jesus Walks” did.
But is it right to judge an album by the merits of its predecessor? Of course not, and that’s why Late Registration is still a perfectly fine record. It may not be Dropout‘s equal, but the two certainly wouldn’t look out of place mixing together at a cocktail party…or in an iTunes playlist. What’s really at issue, then, is a matter of upping the ante. In other words, Kanye, you’ve produced a more-than-respectable sequel. But now it’s time to leave college for good and take one big, bold step into the real world. So until those “Best of the Year” lists…
Stream Late Registration on Spotify below (before Kanye gets it in his head to move everything over to Tidal)…and keep an eye out for my next Oeuvre post, where I’ll reveal my long-awaited present-day opinions about the album! (Spoiler alert: The College Dropout is still better.)