Artist: Kanye WestTitle: Late RegistrationRating: 4 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Orisanmi Burton
Hardly anyone knew who Kanye West was five years ago. But after producing the lion’s share of The Blueprint (arguably Jay-Z’s best album) and supplying the soul for a gang of established and emerging artists thereafter, Kanye saw his stock as a producer/MC rise considerably. In 2004 he dropped his debut album The College Dropout, smugly proclaiming that he “saved all the dope beats for himself”. The result was multi-platinum record sales, five Grammy Awards and an instant classic. A bona fide superstar was born. But the trouble with success is that often there is no place to go, but down. For Mr. West the challenge of following up his grand entrance was a question of evolution. How does one build upon their previous successes while continuing to develop artistically? He found his answer in an unlikely place, enlisting the assistance of Jon Brion, a noted composer who has crafted albums for alternative crooners like Fionna Apple and Aimee Mann. With Brion, Kanye had an arsenal of instruments at his disposal and was able to experiment with a 20-piece string orchestra. Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) is a different kind of Hip-Hop album, a much-needed departure from the vapid blather that is popular rap music.
Every song on Late Registration is masterfully composed and performed. The drums are heavy. The sounds are evocative. Kanye and his impressive supporting cast chronicle the struggles of the common man. On “Crack Music”, the Game lends his commanding voice to equate their audible dope with the white rocks that keep fiends on the prowl. The lines are laced with informed axioms (“Crack raised the murder rate in DC and Maryland/ We invested in that it’s like we got Merrill-Lynch/ And we been hangin’ from the same tree ever since/ Sometimes I feel the music is the only medicine”). On “My Way Home” the reigns are handed over to Common who drops and introspective verse over an ethereal soundtrack and a liberal sampling of Gil-Scott Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”. Also, check for “Addiction” Kanye’s animated ode to human vice. On the hook he asks, (“Why everything that’s supposed to be bad, makes me feel so good?/ Everything they told me not to, is exactly what I would”). The album flows seamlessly from start to finish. However, there are a few missteps, namely “Bring Me Down”, an overdone duet with Brandy where Kanyeezy recycles the verse he spit on “Wack N#####” with Common and Talib Kweli.
Whether you think he’s the genuine article, or a self-absorbed flunky (or both), Kanye’s ability to craft soulful jams is undeniable. Nearly every track on the album is a potential single. And with his heartfelt commentary laid over lush instrumentation, those singles are sure to resuscitate the drab radio airwaves. Musicality aside, one of the most refreshing characteristics of Late Registration is its humanity. The songs are inspiring rather than assaulting. Hip-Hop’s enduring infatuation with Scarface-like imagery is altogether absent from the project. In its place is an optimistic, savvy and humorous outlook on life – a tremendous achievement from one of Hip-Hop’s brightest stars.