Classic Rotation: Kanye West's "Late Registration"

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Looking back at Kanye West's sophomore LP 10 years later.

If you’re on this website, you probably already love Late Registration. Kanye West’s second album came in a much simpler time of his career. He wasn’t trying to change the world via fashion and design, nor was he married to a reality TV star. In 2005, Kanye was just an up-and-coming superstar with an ear for samples, an MPC to chop ‘em up on and some great lyrics. 

Released ten years ago today, Late Registration helped to usher in a new creative period in hip hop by toning down violence, drug use, drug dealing, and general debauchery for subject matter that we could all relate to. In terms of production, Kanye continued his ravishing of soul samples, re-introducing a classic period of music to a new generation that wasn’t quite there for the 90’s golden era. 

After his MC debut on College Dropout, Kanye proved that he was a real force on the microphone. Having previously been sidelined as a producer, the jump was huge, but it would get even better on Late Registration. With a little confidence in his execution, Kanye perfected his lyrical delivery on this LP. “Crack Music” digs into race, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” dives into how the first world treats the third world, while songs like “Roses” got really, really personal, as Kanye discusses his grandmother’s death. 

“Her family cryin', they want her to live, and she tryin'

I'm arguin like what kind of doctor can we fly in

You know the best medicine go to people that's paid

If Magic Johnson got a cure for AIDS

And all the broke motherfuckers passed away

You telling me if my grandma's in the NBA

Right now she'd be okay?”

“Hey Mama” continues along the family affair, this time with the subject of his mother Donda. Kanye talks about his upbringing and how he feels indebted to his mother for doing such a great job in pressurized conditions:

“Forrest Gump mama said, life is like a box of chocolates

My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate

Somethin to fall back on, you could profit with

But still supported me when I did the opposite” 

He wasn’t afraid to take the spotlight off his on life and feelings, however. Kanye gave Common a solo interlude in “My Way Home,” where he speaks on his and Kanye’s homeland of Chicago. Saying, “Pray to God that my arms reach the masses / The young smoke grass in grassless jungles / Rubber band together in cashless bundles,” paints a vivid kind of picture that we love hearing in Common’s flow. 

And while we’re at it, it’s important to tip your hat to the rest of the features as well. From Maroon 5’s Adam Levine to The Game, Kanye enlisted a ton of his musician friends, regardless of background, to contribute to the project. Lupe Fiasco, Jamie Foxx, Paul Wall, Common, The Game, Brandy, Nas, Really Doe, Jay Z, Cam’ron, and Consequence comprise possibly the best featured cast on any album ever.

The 70-minute record is dense, with everything from number singles (“Gold Digger”) to deeper cuts (“Gone,” “Addiction”) and some worthwhile skits to give your ears a small intermission. Aside from “Gold Digger,” the other singles didn’t do quite as good as records from Ye’s other albums, but that doesn’t mean “Touch The Sky” can’t still shut the party down. The Curtis Mayfield sample on that one is just one of the many examples of a regurgitated classic repurposed to create a millennial anthem. 

Of course, the Ray Charles flip on “Gold Digger” might make the best run at something you could consider legendary production, but it would be novice to end the discussion there. Kanye, who first had success as a beat-maker, dug into the classics for Late Registration. “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” by Gil Scott-Heron served as the backdrop for the Common-lead track “My Way Home.” “My Funny Valentine” by the legendary Etta James helped to make “Addiction” into an eerie, worldly, hip hop cut. Shirley Bassey is the voice of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” while Otis Redding, who would later serve as inspiration for the smash hit “Otis,” got his first Kanye clearance on the track “Gone.” Lesser-known artists like Orange Kush, The Whatnauts, and even the New York Community Choir are also credited samples on the masterpiece. Prince was actually sampled on “Addiction” originally as well, but pulled the sample at the end of the day.

Late Registration is very different from the type of music Kanye is putting out today, but the evolution wasn’t unwarranted or out of the blue. The darker productions, like “Diamonds…,” “Addiction,” and “Roses” would be a hint of things to come, although it wouldn’t be until Kanye linked up with French producers like Daft Punk and Gesaffelstein that the Yeezus sound would be fully realized. 

You could make the case that Late Registration was the beginning of the 90s hip hop revival, helping cats like Wiz Khalifa and Joey Bada$$ to carve their career over soulful samples and boom-bap production. Kanye also opened the door for cats like Drake and Kid Cudi to be more emotional within the scope of hip hop music, a trend that has become more and more popular over the past decade.

The beats on this LP also aren’t too different from, say, his contribution to The Weeknd’s newest album, where he produced “Tell Your Friends,” a track that unites classic soul with Abel Tesfaye’s uber-contemporary R&B style. Although he’s become more experimental with his production in recent years, that Weeknd collaboration is a great nod at the style he really cut his teeth on, the style we received so much of on this album. 

At a decade old, Late Registration is entering classic territory. It may make you feel a little old to think about Kanye West’s earlier albums as building bricks for the current landscape of hip hop, but that’s where we’re at on August 30th, 2015. With a genius ear, Kanye stepped his game up for his second LP, marking the beginning of his worldly domination that we’re (debatably) still experiencing today.

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