The subjectivity of music creates some of the most difficult questions to answer. John Lennon or Paul McCartney? What’s the greatest hip-hop group of all time? *NSYNC or The Backstreet Boys? Certainly there are no wrong answers… but if you didn’t answer Lennon, Outkast, or Backstreet Boys then you, just like Sway, do not have the right answers, but never mind that! When Chicago rapper Kanye West isn’t spazzing on radio personalities or designing sneakers, he’s creating monumental albums that always seem to modify the trajectory of current urban music. The debate of which of Kanye’s six studio solo albums are better could have you sleeping on the couch. And while they all serve different purposes, the 10th anniversary of Late Registration has arrived still marveling as his crowing achievement.
What truly makes Kanye so special is that the depth of his personality oozes into his multifaceted artistry. There’s socially aware Kanye, arrogant Kanye, producer-extraordinaire Kanye, experimental Kanye and so on and so forth. An in-depth analysis of the superstars catalog shows that Late Registration best embodies Kanye’s presentation.
Following one of the most impressive debut albums of all time, Kanye uses this album to leap from ya auntie nem’ favorites rapper to genius level artist. Wanting you to know that as soon as you press play on track one, “Heard ‘Em Say” is accented by the first “That white boy can sing” of the new millennium, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. In today’s landscape, a pop rap collaboration isn’t exactly earth shattering, but in 2005 there weren’t too many rappers afforded the luxury of collaborating with a pop star of the opposite race. But his most exciting collaboration had to be with actor/comedian Jamie Foxx on “Gold Digger.” Fresh off Foxx’s Oscar winning performance of music legend Ray Charles, the track interpolates Charles ‘s “I Got a Woman” straddling the fine line of catchy and corny landing Kanye’s biggest hit to date selling over 3 million records.
But the hit records aren’t focal points for listeners on the sophomore LP. It’s the detailed attention of producer Jon Brion, whose claim to fame was masterfully crafting Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine the same year. Kanye’s willingness to be produced acquaints him to the world of orchestration, which has never carried the bulk of a hip-hop project like on Late Registration.
“Touch the Sky”, the only track not produced by West or Brion, samples the horns of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” giving the predominantly moody album a dash of triumph. The project is Kanye’s first attempt at being emotive without having to lyrically stress the emotion. The drums on “Crack Music” are abrasive enough to convince you that the world is collapsing. The magic between West and Brion as collaborative instrumentalist is that they are able to guide you to empathy on essentially every song on the album.
The lyrics of Late Registration serve as the perfect endorsement for the dark undertone of the album. As his other albums tend to lean on Kanye’s braggadocio, this album revolves primarily around the Chicago emcee’s skepticism. “Dog, I was having nervous breakdowns, like “man these n*ggas that much better than me?”” is more vulnerable than most rappers are willing to admit to. From the jealousy filled story on “Drive Slow”, to the alluring metaphors about a dying grandmother on “Roses”, to the brutally honest social commentary of “Crack Music” Kanye uses different avenues to conjure imagery completing the prism of who he truly is.
For an album that is such a sobering listen, Late Registration does give you glimpses of bliss and lightheartedness. At its release, a virtually unknown DeeRay Davis exerts comic relief with skits that double as threading from track to track. On “Skit #3” DeeRay tells a joke about his mother not being able to afford a Christmas tree so she dressed up as one for her family. The skit abruptly transitions into “Hey Mama,” which was the most joyous song on the album until the passing of Kanye’s mother in 2007.
Due to unfortunate circumstances and bitter breakups, people assume that 808’s & Heartbreaks is Kanye’s most transparent album, but Late Registration is musically a better embodiment of all aspects of what we like and dislike about producer turned rapper. Ten years after its release, the album still qualifies as a snapshot of the past, but modern enough to have an obligation in the future to make us think, laugh, dance, and cry. What more could we ask fo’ from the International Asshole?
Dequan Huggins is a writer living in Virginia. Follow him on Twitter here