It’s been 10 years since Kanye West dropped his sophomore album ‘Late Registration’. At the time, he was quite the breath of fresh air many fans had longed for after surviving the Nelly/Ja Rule era of hip-hop. Truth be told, music with substance was being phased out of mainstream hip-hop for about 7 or 8 years before Mr West made his presence felt from the other side of the mixing board. ‘College Dropout’, which started as a possible Roc-A-Fella compilation had turned into the biggest hip-hop album of 2004, and one of the most influential of the 2000s.
Believe it or not, Mr. West was one of the most well liked artists at the time. Mind you, this is the middle of the 50 Cent era, hip-hop itself was at a crossroads of sorts. The shine of the “bling bling” era was now being replaced with bulletproof vests, oversized fitteds, and 3X black/white tees. Jay-Z had just retired and the death of the Roc-A-Fella seemed inevitable. While he had been producing for the label for close to 4 years before his debut saw the light of day, he was mostly camouflage. The label dragging it’s feet made him proactive. Forming what would become his original GOOD Music line-up that included Consequence, GLC, Really Doe & John Legend. Releasing a few mixtapes to create a buzz, the record that earned him his stripes was “Through The Wire” which he recorded in a LA hotel room while recovering from a broken jaw he suffered in an car accident in 2002. The Chaka Khan sampled record would eventually become the first single from ‘College Dropout’.
After taking the music world by storm with his debut, he was more in demand than any other artist in urban music this side of 50 Cent. He had a production credit and/or feature on close to every big name hip-hop album, from Mobb Deep to Slum Village, Alicia Keys to a then unknown Keyshia Cole, Jadakiss to then G Unit member, The Game. He had become inescapable. From mainstream to underground artist, how many artists had singles with Brandy and Dialated Peoples? In the same summer? But would the demand for his alternative brand of hip-hop be sustainable? The world patiently awaited his sophomore effort, ‘Late Registration’ and we would not be disappointed one bit, in certain respects he exceeded most expectations creatively and artistically.
The albums first single, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” samples James Bond and captures the rebirth of soul sound he introduced on ‘The Blueprint’. Lyrically sounding much sharper than he did anywhere on ‘Dropout’, he references the ROC breakup, his place in hip-hop, being robbed of awards, name dropping Alicia Keys as trying to calm him only to find out what the world now knows, Kanye doesn’t listen to many people. While he introduced his “Louis Vuitton Don” persona on his debut, the visual was becoming more clear, dressed like he just hopped off page 72 of a GQ magazine. All while showing the blood diamond trade, with visuals of children in mines searching for the next piece of “ice”. The first Official single takes a whole different angle, nowhere near as serious on the surface as “Diamonds”. The Jamie Foxx assisted “Gold Digger” in ways picks up where EPMD left off, just a more updated and amusing version, if you will. Focusing on the mistakes one makes with their love life when in the presence of beautiful women with dollar signs in their optics. In retrospect, the last line of the 3rd verse can be seen as something prophetic to a degree, I mean after all he went from dating model Alexis Phifer to marrying Kim Kardashian. Who saw that coming in 2005?
Always the innovator, Kanye recruited Jon Brion to compose music for the album. For the most part, this is the beginning of the over production era in hip-hop that we still see today. Where you can have 2 or 3 songs on an album over 7 minutes and it be completely normal. Live strings, full orchestration and 2 or 3 well known singers contributing without a full featured credit. As he said he would, he brought “GOOD Music” to the forefront. From the albums opening cut featuring Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, only to be followed by the Curtis Mayfield sampled, Just Blaze produced, “Touch The Sky” which introduced Lupe Fiasco to the general public. The video was just a glimpse on how crazy Kanye could be.
Houston hip-hop was having a resurgence of sorts in the summer of 05, noticing that he appropriately featured Paul Wall on “Drive Slow”, and it works out perfectly musically and business-wise. After producing “Dreams” for The Game’s debut ‘The Documentary’, he lends vocals on the chorus to “Crack Music” as Keyshia Cole and Charlie Wilson provide the perfect harmony. Brandy, whom he worked with the previous summer sings the hook to bring me down, as Kanye spits one of his most honest verses to date about vigorously chasing his dreams in the face of adversity and non believers.
Each feature is well calculated, before the Jay-Z/NaS fued officially ended Kanye featured both on back to back tracks. Jay answers the rhetorical question Kanye asked on “Diamonds” about the status of their relationship, and drops a memorable verse in the middle of his “retirement”. NaS comes thru to close out “We Major” with an equally memorable verse of his own, reminding new generations of fans that he has survived through close to 4 eras of hip-hop at that point and was still elite. Cam’Ron who was in a fued with both Jay and NaS, in the process of finalizing his release from Roc-A-Fella found time to drop an exceptional verse on “Gone”. Kanye left no stone unturned, essentially exhausting all resources this time around.
As a full body of work, ‘Late Registration’ may be his most complete effort. It shines light on all his strengths, features some of his most heartfelt lyrics on tracks like “Roses” where he relived the experience of his grandmother’s near death experience in a hospital’s emergency room. Minus the “auntie team” line, the song is a masterpiece, closed out with a pseudo church choir singing praises. Once again sampling fellow Chicago native Chaka Khan, “Addiction” which still stands as one of his most loved creations, 10 years later. “Late” samples Jackson5 era MJ, displays Kanye’s sense of humor and arrogance probably better than anything he had made before, and maybe even since that point.
The albums most heartfelt song, “Hey Momma” which he had independently released even before his debut, is reworked and given the mastery in production that is seen throughout the album. His ode to Donda West now has such a different effect following her untimely death in 2007, 2 months after the release of his third album, ‘Graduation’. The love he had for his mother is unmatched, she was his biggest supporter, and while he didn’t take the path in life she had wanted for him, she fully supported his decision to persue music. He takes the time to celebrate her motherhood and attempts to repay the many sacrifices she made for him to be the man he is today.
Love him or hate him, Kanye West has been the most influential artist in hip-hop since he debuted in 04. His production has taken hip-hop to a place it has never been before and has inspired innovation throughout the genre. Where Kanye was so different in comparison to what was popular at the time, his ability to work with a range of artists from Elton John to Rick Ross now doesn’t seem so far fetched, it almost the standard. It makes it possible for Kendrick Lamar to do a song with Taylor Swift one moment, and then be on a track with Jay Rock the next. It allows Drake to hop on songs by the Fetty Wap, and still be able to do a track with Justin Beiber. Mr West has become the prototype, where as his mentor once said “they don’t draw pictures, they just trace me”, I’m sure even he would agree that Kanye has become the new stencil.
A few weeks later he would go on his 2nd most famous rant during a telethon for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Appearing on camera with ‘Austin Powers’ star, Mike Myers Kanye stopped reading off the teleprompter, opting to speak directly from the heart. He said what a lot of people were thinking concerning the half hearted effort to save those in need of shelter in New Orleans, accusing then president, George W. Bush of not caring about black people, making him a hero in the black community and a villain in others. While he would develop a habit of speaking whatever he felt, the media wasn’t completely pleased with his antics, and in true Kanye fashion he didn’t (and still doesn’t) care.
The albums would go on to top most year end lists in many different publications. Bringing in many nominations from award shows along the way. But the most important being the Grammy’s, the Olympics of music if you will. He collected his first solo Grammy award for the album, while many rooted against him for the sole purpose of hearing the content of his rant. Dressed in all white, he politely accepted his award, and even referenced the fact that many were waiting for what he would say “if he didn’t win”. As most things Kanye West related, he answered simply by saying, “I guess we’ll never know” before exiting stage.