September 8, 2005

Kanye West: Late Registration

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Hype can really be a bitch. What begins with good intentions inevitably ends with the dirtiest two words any artist could ever see in his obituary: unfulfilled potential. Hype makes expectation into mountains, and even the most confident of musicians rarely have the faith to move them. And when the over-hyped artist lies bruised and beaten, the sharks begin circling. Just look at what happened to The Strokes. A charismatic, good-looking group releases an album that is, by all intents and purposes, very good, and they are cruelly dubbed the “Saviors of Rock and Roll.” It’s one thing to set high standards, but to be charged with the salvation of an entire genre? Hell, even Jesus had his moments of weakness. They’ll be lucky if they ever get past the dreaded words “It sounds too much like Is This It.”

Which brings us to another messiah – Kanye West. Back in 2002, before listeners could even unwrap his album, Mr. West was dubbed the Savior of Hip-Hop. Now, I was never a big fan of The College Dropout. I mean, the sad bear on the cover was cute and all, and “Jesus Walks” was a phenomenal track, but songs like “Through the Wire” and “All Falls Down” were amusing at best and somewhat trite at worst.

And then, right on schedule, came the backlash. Accusations that he was the product of critical masturbation, that he wouldn’t be able to outlive expectations and that his ego had become too immense to function flew around. And it wasn’t all unjustified – Kanye did nothing to help himself out when he not-so-subtly equated himself with the son of God. Admittedly, I almost became one of those haters.

But then came Late Registration.

Thank you, Kanye West, for saving me from my miserable, cynical self.

What’s amazing is that West has already hit one homerun this year. Doing all of the production work for Common’s excellent Be, West created a dense and fleshy Southside Chicago atmosphere that proved a perfect compliment to Common’s rhyming. But with Late Registration, the funny man in the bear costume has outdone himself. Better than Be, better than Edan’s Beauty and the Beat, West has created 2005’s best hip-hop effort and possibly the best album of the year to date. West’s virtue as an emcee has always been the fact that he started out as, and continues to be, a high-profile producer. Back in 2002, rapper/producer seemed to be the hot critical buzzword, just as singer/songwriter was all the rage back in the ’70s. And West, of course, was the paradigm’s golden boy. It makes sense if you believe the argument that a producer can’t really provide a perfect compliment to an emcee if he doesn’t rap himself, and vice versa. But there is an obvious weakness in the dual role as well, and that is that it’s hard enough to be great at one, let alone both.

The most glaring deficiency of The College Dropout was West’s lack of distinction on the mic. Yeah, he could drop a witty line here and there, but he never seemed more than a second-hand version of Jay-Z. With Late Registration, however, West’s maturity is astonishing. His learning curve has apparently been slightly steeper than the side of the Sears Tower, because the scope and wit of West’s rapping far exceed his previous efforts. Perhaps it’s because West has released his stranglehold on the project and allowed for other creative input by bringing in such co-producers as Jon Brion and Waryn Campbell. Whatever it is, West sounds hungrier than ever.

Beginning with the oddly affecting intonation, “Wake up, Mr. West!” the album booms and bumps with the open-eyed exuberance of a child waking on a snow day. The album immediately hits ramming speed with “Heard’Em Say,” a somewhat melancholic reflection set against a bizarre astro-beat. More miraculously, it sounds great despite the presence of Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. “Touch the Sky” follows immediately and doesn’t relent, with West amazingly managing to turn yet another “inspirational” hip-hop number into something fresh and new. From there the album vaults into “Gold Digger,” the single that everyone who owns a radio has probably heard by now. While it’s far from the album’s most substantial offering, it’s acerbic estimation of love in the world of bling is too witty not to be charming.

West even branches out into social criticism, dangerous waters usually reserved for the likes of Chuck D. and Talib Kweli. “Crack Music,” one of Late Registration’s best tracks, astutely addresses the development and subject matter of Black urban music as a necessity to the community. “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” while a little heavy on the pontification, insightfully realizes the contradiction of a culture that glorifies “blood diamonds” made to sparkle by civil war and child labor.

By no means is Late Registration perfect, and I may have over-enthusiastically praised West’s performance as an emcee. While he certainly sounds much-improved, he does himself harm by paring up with technically superior wordsmiths. His weakness is most obvious when he raps next to Common, a more-talented emcee, on “My Way Home.”

But even that doesn’t really matter – all I know is that I’ve had it on repeat for a week straight. Shit like this could stop wars, end racism and even put a smile on the face of Oscar the Grouch. Maybe I’ve done West an injustice with all of this hype – I just really hope he doesn’t buckle under all of its weight.

Archived article by Zach Jones
Sun Associate Editor