Saturday, October 26, 2019

Kanye West: Late Registration (2005)

(Def Jam)


Feels pretty weird to miss 2005 in any way at all -- it was a time when we were all stuck in newly validated dystopian Bush-land and steeped in the most useless of our many useless wars, the year of Katrina, and for me personally, I was working in food services and in a relationship that was enjoying a very brief respite from crumbling around me. Life now is a lot better. But as my thirties have battered me physically and got me clamoring to live in every moment, I do find myself occasionally reaching out to remember something I do associate with my early twenties: the feeling of promise and full-color giddiness, letting my mind wander because I didn't have quite so much to fuss over and worry about, and as laughable as it sounds, nothing brings back the midpoint of the last decade quite like an album I didn't even own at the time, Late Registration.

I didn't need to own it, of course, to know its major songs -- and at the time I didn't particularly like any of them, but they wafted around me, were totally inescapable, defined the grit and the inevitability of life going on with what I now see as a perspicacious expressive power. If you know the bangers, you know what a sharp and fertile period this was for Kanye West, superstar anew, victory lapping just a year after the debut, even indulging a little with the star-studded cameos and the big-budget videos and such, and beginning to dominate the dialogue of hip hop in a way no other so-called "alternative" rapper had. His singles in this early period were unstoppable: clever, radiant, oddly vulnerable, but confident and fully engaged. But yes, when I hear them I just hear that time, and I'm wrestling with how much of a compliment that is -- but I think it's a high one. Because hearing this today it's really striking, and I would say that's in large part because it's so hard to imagine this version of West ever gracing us with his presence again.

West's eagerness to please on his first three albums is remarkable considering his reputation ever since; even though his considerable ego already pays a role in his persona, as of '05 his dominant energy is still an affable confidence that emphasizes his position as a regular dude who loves his mom, loves his work and has some issues. Lord, what a relief to remember that at some point the guy resembled a human being, a flawed public figure who wore his heart on his sleeve in a way that seemed raw but not troubling -- before unfathomable riches and unchecked, titanic self-loathing swallowed him, which was already happening even on some of his good records, before he went full Slow Train Coming this year. And his quality control at this stage was almost unimpeachable, fused with the adventurousness of hiring an unorthodox collaborator like Jon Brion, whose indie rock bona fides are a stronger showcase of West's musically ominvorous impulses than the iconic Adam Levine cameo. That said, Levine's chorus on the splendidly shambolic "Heard 'Em Say" is as much a haunted evocation of its summer as Mary Wells' "My Guy" or Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby" were of theirs.

It seems like there's a contradiction here; West in this era was more appealing, more "one of us," because he seemed less self-aware, but also more conscious of expressing complete thoughts. The essence is that maybe, or even probably, West's "self," the inner life he was exploring, was just more interesting then. Hardly unique to him. He had a personality. His thoughts on politics and race, spread all over this record, were somewhat coherent. (Remember that this was the year in which he called out Pres. Bush on live television.) He put as much energy into making this a cohesive album as he now does in the discs he produces for other artists, while conversely tossing off new music under his own name with only a modicum of careful attention. Back then his flaws seemed to magnify his appeal instead of pointing to his towering distance from everyday existence.

I'm sorry. So far I haven't talked enough about Late Registration in this supposed review of it. But it's a record that writes its own story; supplementing it with anything seems kind of useless. The four opening singles are glorious, peaking with the exquisitely constructed and still shocking "Gold Digger," all brilliant and offensive laugh lines and empathetic narratives bringing not just Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" (interpreted by Jamie Foxx) but Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" into a still-new millennium. West is a rapper and at this stage a good one, but he is also a master of the pop record; the hooks and indulgences alike have the force of a lightning strike, and nothing packs the mental dance floor like the "get down, girl" head-shake on "Gold Digger."

Following the hits (the others are "Drive Slow" and "Touch the Sky," in which Lupe Fiasco figures, still so promising and clear-eyed), the record leaves both instantaneous pleasure and the body-driven chaos of The College Dropout behind to launch into vibe territory. "My Way Home" is built from a sample of Gil Scott-Heron's shattering "Home Is Where the Hatred Is," and West (producing solo) is so taken with the source that he lets it play out nearly unchecked for the second half of the very brief song, not the last time the great poet would be given center stage on a West record. That's the Common cameo, but "Crack Music" reframes the concept of "I Used to Love H.E.R." as a drug rather than a sex metaphor, and it might have become a street anthem if it weren't so thorny and profane. "Roses" (with a complex lyric about grief and health care) "Addiction" and "Bring Me Down" (with an outstanding vocal by Brandy) burrow further into a surprisingly potent darkness, some of the most emotionally complex hip hop of the period.

What brings us back to earth is the all-star murderer's row of "Diamonds of Sierra Leone" and "We Major," collaborations with Jay-Z and Nas (both in 2005 still bigger stars than Kanye, so it seemed more significant then), both of which have aged poorly and attained a degree of bloat that threatens to derail the record. This is especially true of "We Major," an unfocused half-decent rant that does not deserve seven and a half minutes of our attention, but even the pretentious classic "Diamonds," revolving around a predictable Shirley Bassey sample and one of Jay's last verses that qualifies as truly arresting, feels hopelessly out of place. Already, rock star arrogance is worn dreadfully by Kanye, who never learned to speak the language of the hard-living sexually virile blues man, always too much of an angsty dork. (This is the reason all of his best anthems are either self-critical or play as fantasies even from the mind of a celebrity.)

Everything comes back around with "Hey Mama," a brilliant and gorgeous dedication to Donda West that is now very difficult to listen to but retains its immediate pleasure as a sincere, charming and beautifully constructed hip hop ballad. The indulgences of "Celebration" and "Gone" (while the latter is a slightly odd finale) feel more satisfying because "Hey Mama" precedes them, puts them in context, tells us a great deal about who this man is. In the end, it's not only that this often delightful record reels us in because of its music; it's because West's messaging is so honest, and so not the ravings of someone whose world is incomparable to our own. In its modesty, the record almost effortlessly achieves transcendence that would be out of reach to anyone who let it all get to him the way Kanye West has. According to him this is the Devil's music. I wonder when the last time he listened to Late Registration was. I wonder if he's jealous of it.

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