Give Life Back To Music 08.12.13: Kanye West - Late Registration Posted by Sean Comer on 08.11.2013
411's Sean Comer continues his personal retrospective through the music of Kanye West with an examination of his landmark sophomore LP, Late Registration!
Kanye West, Late Registration
More often than not in life, we're only ever as great as our last conquests. As is abundantly apparent reading this very site's Wrestling or MMA Zone coverage, performers in any field are constantly asked by their observers, "What have you done for me lately?"
The history of popular music is rife with artists who managed to at least surpass the standard "one-hit wonder" aspiration to write at least one memorably beloved tune – they managed to make an entire great album before they faded away, or at least one that sold exceptionally well. Side projects, rarity collections and live sets aside, punk pioneers the Sex Pistols never managed another full-length studio album after Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols. Similarly, Operation Ivy released Energy on Lookout! Records in 1989, but never made another full-length studio LP.
Others manage one substantial breakthrough album, but never quite find the footing to complete the next leap forward. Bush released Sixteen Stone, but then spent their remaining relevant years releasing album after album that sounded just about indistinguishable. The same goes for 311, Jack Johnson (much as I dig him, it's true), and countless early and mid-2000s pop-punk acts.
Don't get me wrong. I find the same comfort in the consistency of Motorhead, AC/DC, Jimmy Buffett (to a much, much lesser extent) and other workhorses that others seem to enjoy. There's just something much more compelling about artists who see every new album as another step down the razor's edge.
Kanye West released Late Registration on Aug. 30, 2005, about 16 months removed from his shattering breakthrough with his bare-nerve personal debut, The College Dropout. If nothing else is immediately evident about this, it's Kanye's determination to prove that the mainstream's phenomenal embrace of his freshman album despite its favoring soul, social scrutiny and uncompromising personal honesty was no fluke. To truly make good on the faith displayed by Jay Z and Damon Dash in signing him following waves of major-label rejections, Kanye had to demonstrate that he could amount to far more than a one-and-done anomaly who was perhaps too much a vanguard for long-term popular staying power.
To paraphrase Arnold Schwarzenegger, he had to live by the law that everything in life either moves forward or backwards, with nothing truly standing still.
Released: Aug. 30, 2005
This album is a sophomore offering executed to near-perfection.
Kanye demonstrated conclusively with The College Dropout that "sampling" and compelling composition aren't mutually exclusive. With Late Registration, he exhibited a true ear for musicality, orchestration and mood the likes of which, in hip-hop circles, one finds with the likes of DJ Danger Mouse, Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin, to name the very few that come immediately to mind.
Think of a sample, in general, as a tall block of raw marble. Put the same block before Sean "Diddy" Combs and Kanye. Combs looks at the block contemplatively, perhaps even admiringly, but ultimately just draws dollar signs on it. Kanye considers the raw material before him with similar appreciation, but instead cuts, scores and chisels deftly until he's brought his vision to life among the marble. He makes his creation a complement to the medium – an honorarium, almost.
Those are the possibilities that Kanye explored in his first album. Here, he more than chisels the marble; he polishes it, applies painted accents, but makes the raw medium and his strokes of creativity into one work. When you listen to a track by Diddy – especially almost anything from No Way Out, even for as stellar as that album was – you rarely feel like you're hearing something from Diddy. More accurately, it's akin to watching somebody doodle on a Van Gogh. You just can't get past hearing "Every Breath You Take" or Bill Conti's "Going the Distance" and feeling distracted by some suburban-New York chucklehead blathering on about his cars, money, champagne, and dead, infinitely more talented best friend.
Co-producer and conductor of the 20-piece accompanying orchestra Jon Brion drove Kanye to explore the expansive possibilities of spreading out lush, Baroque orchestral backdrops over the bedrock of Kanye's samples, most rudimentary of structures, and roughed-out lyrical schemes. The result is a brassy, ornate, intricate album wherein the samples feel like colored lights to illuminate the stage rather than being Kanye's stage in and of themselves. In fact, the only track in which West took no hand in production is the one that sounds somewhat out-of-place amid the rest: the jubilant Just Blaze-produced "Touch the Sky," rooted in a slowed-down Curtis Mayfield sample.
And really, even that track is a spectacular highlight that was made to set the soul souring.
Elsewhere, Brion and West's sweeping arrangements are simply gorgeous. The album-closing "Late" in particular is downright dreamy as Kanye lazily raps about lackadaisically pissing away a perfectly good morning with infinitely more charm than Bruno Mars' "The Lazy Song" could've hoped to squirt from its patently irritating lack of dignity.
You know something? I stand corrected: I know that it's the Kanye West song that even people who can't stand him actually grudgingly like, but it's "Gold Digger" that sounds the most off-kilter from the otherwise admirably cohesive aesthetics of the whole album. Keep in mind, this was made when Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles impression was still mildly charming and Kanye manages to be pretty observant about opportunistic fair-weather lovers while maintaining some pretty witty wordplay, but amid big-yet-tender like the lamenting racial-disparity commentary of "Roses", the appreciative and soulful "Hey Mama" or the Otis Redding-sampling "Gone", it's a bit of a black sheep.
"Gold Digger" may not exactly be my favorite track of the lot. To my enduring amazement, I even prefer the sparse, mid-tempo piano base of "Heard ‘Em Say" if only for the astonishment that Adam Levine manages to not sound nut-crushingly excruciating. Still, there's just not a weak track to be found. In fact, when it was released, I was stunned to find myself admitting that "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" is actually better arranged and more forcefully delivered than half the songs on The College Dropout.
Musically, it is actually far more polished and explorative, production-wise. Lyrically, it loses a little bit of favor with many, myself included. That's one area wherein The College Dropout reigns supreme: Kanye extends his most personal of themes throughout a many-colored array of arrangements, from the dark urgency of "Jesus Walks", "Never Let Me Down" and "Two Words" to the triumphant "Through the Wire" and the snarky, lighter-hearted "We Don't Care". Here, it's the opposite: Kanye is boastful, wistful, jocular and thoughtful from one rhyme into the next, but it all falls atop the same landscape of beautiful Baroque strings, tasteful samples, and delicate, intricate arrangements.
It's an oft-referenced sticking point. This album seemed to lack the soulful rawness of Kanye's first album. While I can't say I fail to see how others view that as a bad thing, I disagree with that perspective.
There are very, very few artists in hip-hop quite as purely autobiographical or personally candid as Kanye West. To follow up that uniquely baring debut with an identical approach would be untrue to who he is. By the time he's finished a project, he's already training his eyes on the next pinnacle. He'll probably never make an album akin to The College Dropout again because that man that made that existed within that one protracted moment in Kanye's life, and is now gone. His music has grown more musically ambitious as the man's forward perspective has deemed fit. There will always be music for him to make, as long as he's always looking before him.
He's said all that he had to say about what now lays behind him. He said it when it was before his eyes, or at worst, still just barely looking over his shoulder.
This was the coming-out of Kanye West, the ambitious virtuoso who saw shades in the horizon of hip-hop that few even today can glimpse. Kanye understood that even if a man's feet aren't moving from the ground where he's planted them, time marches onward. As the gap widens between the where one now stands and the latest one to which everything around us has progressed, we truly might as well be moving backwards. It's the same effect.
What resides in our past never truly leaves us. We only grow richer, greater, better, faster, stronger when continue to absorb what lies ahead and accept all its value.
That's going to do it for this week. Next week, we discuss the finale of Kanye's initial trilogy of albums. This one took me a second listen until I completely appreciated its direction. I hope you'll enjoy revisiting it as much as I did.
Until next time … never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.