Kanye West’s Late Registration: It’s All About the Production

Kanye West is the man to hate to love or love to hate of 2005. The producer-turned rapper extraordinaire has definitely managed to keep a steady buzz, be it positive or negative, about himself going over the last 2 years or so. He started off as a producer and revived the lost art of soul sampling, turning it into a urban cultural phenomenon and the hot production gimmick of the last two years.

But his major claim to fame was his turn as an emcee and subsequent near-death car accident in 2003 that resulted in his breakout lead single, “Through The Wire”, playing off the fact he recorded the song with his jaw wired shut. With gimmick intact and eyes firmly fixated, he released his debut album, College Dropout, to major fanfare and major success. Although far from the classic some heralded it to be, the lush sampled grooves and dense lyricism seemed to balance itself out and 3 million copies sold later, Kanye was a household name.

But from award-show tantrums to numerous public self-pats on the back, and 37 versions of the “Jesus Walks” video in-between, such major success seemed to inflated Kanye’s ego, causing his arrogance to nearly overshadow his talent. But after a few subtle yet necessary chops back down to size, Kanye kinda sorta not really mellowed out and retreated to the studio to finish work on his sophomore release, this year’s Late Registration.

The question was how to follow-up College Dropout. Its release was Kanye’s dream fulfilled and it was the groundbreaking masterpiece he wanted it to be, depending on who you ask. But what exactly does one do once their dream comes true? Quite simple. Kanye said that last time, he strove for groundbreaking. This time, he’s striving for greatness. And to assist him in achieving such a lofty goal, he enlisted premier producer Jon Brion to co-produce the album.

Now Jon isn’t a hip-hop producer by nature nor by association. In fact, he’s probably most well-known for working with Fiona Apple (who’s about as hip-hop as Estelle Getty). But his non-association with hip-hop actually helps expand the sound of the album as the soul samples are smoother and subtler and the album focuses more on depth and scope instead of texture and convenience, at least from a musical standpoint.

Now one thing that didn’t much improve on this album is Kanye’s lyricism. He’s an above-average emcee at best who mostly gets by on well-timed punch-lines and occasional moments of wit. And while he cites that he’s a rapper who just happened to produce, his strong-suit is most definitely his producing skills and the album plays out that way.

But no matter how dense or just utterly bad Kanye’s lyricism, his production almost always compensates accordingly. Prime example; Celebration. While lyrically, the song is utterly juvenile, with a refrain of “it’s a celebration, b!tches/grab a drink/grab a glass/after that, I grab yo a.s.s”, it benefits from the juvenile collage of instruments that create a nice happy-go-lucky vibe worthy of celebrating to.

And at the other extreme, there are moments where Kanye shows actual potential in the emceeing arena. Take the 1,2 knockout combo of the lead single, and remix, Diamonds From Sierra Leone. On the original, Kanye just outdid himself with the theatrical production. The thundering drums, champion requiem of strings, and chilling Shirley Bassey sample just grabbed you by the jugular and rattled you good.

Never mind Kanye’s braggadocio tale of how the ROC Dynasty will survive as long as he’s injecting blood into its vein. Then take the remix, where his lyricism actually gains shades of poignancy as he injects a little knowledge into them, speaking of conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone! The fierce tenacity in Kanye’s voice only heightens the climactic production and makes for a show-stopping performance.

And it’s not the only time where Kanye rises to the occasion and gives a surprise knockout performance. Check the brilliant couplet of My Way Home and Crack Music. The former is a strictly solo cameo by Common that sets up its successor perfectly. In just 1:43, Common expertly details the damaging effects of crack without blatantly addressing the issue, all over an emotional Gil-Scott Heron sample that ties in better with the theme than the untrained eye would care to notice.

Then on the latter, Kanye knocks it out the park over a percussive march of subtle horns; detailing how crack was injected by the powers that be into urban society in an attempt to deconstruct the population and how urban society flipped it by re-injecting it into mainstream society thru the medium of hip-hop. Impressive yet somewhat frustrating moments that prove Kanye’s capable of much better lyricism than he chooses to present most of the time.

But just like on College Dropout, the lush grooves and dense lyricism equalize more often than not (with the production picking up the slack where necessary). Look how easy the process is on Touch The Sky. The only tune not produced by Kanye, Just Blaze’s insane bombast of drums and horns, with that sly Mayfield sample buried deep in the mix, glosses over Kanye’s rudimentary lyrics and Lupe Fiasco’s lack of talent effortlessly, subsequently making a case for himself not to be counted out by the masses fixated on the current hot producers of the moment.

On album opener, Heard ‘Em Say, Kanye breezes in with a mellow stride; simple toy piano twinkles, train-track percussion, and a tender falsetto hook from M5’s Adam Levine all keeping Ye’s rather lackadaisical penmanship afloat. And there’s the current single, Gold Digger, which finds the production and Ye’s lyricism balancing out to a hilt. Jamie Charles’ refrain looped into the backing groove of the Cajun horns and clap-heavy boombap is ingenious while Ye’s witty, punchline-driven emceeing actually sounding semi-intelligent when placed against such an arrangement.

Usually when a “trendsetter” such as Kanye West taps into a current musical flavor of the weak, the results are less than desirable. But Kanye tapping into the vein of the Houston craze that is “screwed and chopped-up” a.k.a. “sizzurp hip-hop” is more stomachable than one would think. Drive Slow benefits from the somber horns, limping synth-loop, and tumbling percussion, all heightened by Kanye using the title to symbolize the pleasure yet inherent dangers of living life in the fast lane. Paul Wall’s cameo is predictable but fitting and GLC tightens up the loose ends.

And let’s not forget the introspective side of Kanye, which rears its head on such dedicational tunes as Roses and Hey Mama. On the former, ‘Ye wrings the emotion of a Bill Withers sample dry as he describes the pain of dealing with his grandmother’s sickness, the intensity only amplified by Patti Labelle’s unaccredited cameo.

On the latter, the mood is significantly lightened as Kanye takes a cheesy vocal “la-la-la” sample and loops it around the carefree production, reminiscing of the beautiful struggle he and his moms have been thru and how thankful and indebted he is to her today. True, it’s high on the cheese/cornball factor but when it comes to tunes like this, it’s the sentimentality and thought that counts.

Kanye also reflects on Bring Me Down, taking the thundering, climactic production to an extreme – fueling his internal aggression as he lashes out at those who used him for personal gain, with Brandy using her fiery alto to increase Kanye’s defiance not to let it happen again – only to mellow back out with the pensive Addiction; the brisk claptrack and wistful whine of the bassline being pure sonic brilliance and doubling as a veil to make Kanye’s fluid thoughts on the power of addiction appear to be less superficial than they are.

But out of 16 tracks (excluding the 5 pointless skits and hidden bonus tune – Late – that has a smug Kanye enrolling at his pleasure and a pleasantly docile sample that replays in your head for days), the only true flubs are those of We Major with Nas & Really Doe, and Gone with Cam’Ron and Consequence.

And while the former’s sunshine-burst production and the latter’s sparse-soul loop groove both had potential to compensate, both tunes suffer from unnecessary sprawling. At 7:28 and 6:02 respectively, both had decent concepts and adequate emcees (Nas standing out on the former; Cam’Ron and Consequence on the latter) but being the indulgent expressions of artistic freedom they are prevented them from holding attention long enough to care.

Regardless, Kanye achieved the goal he set for himself with Late Registration. He achieved greatness. While certainly not the best album of 2005, hip-hop or otherwise, you can’t tell that to Kanye. He genuinely believes that his proverbial sh!t is incapable of stinking and that this is the album of 2005. But with such superciliousness comes a silver lining; since he believes that, he acts like that. Knowing of Kanye and his personality, you can tell he poured himself into this album and concocted it like the state of music itself depended on it .

And with that knowledge, you can tell this is the absolute best Kanye could give us at this time. Be it a sonic masterpiece or a big, fat mess depends on the listener but I think it’s some compensation to know that whether he drops out or just shows up late, Kanye West will never underacheive.

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