This is hagiography.
I loved Illmatic. I still know just about every word of that album, including AZ’s neologistic ‘schweppervesent’. I first heard the album in about 2000 and listened to it for a full summer. This was before I was into being a music completist. I just listened to the album fifty or sixty times and referred to it privately as my favorite rap album and one of my favorite albums overall. I would not go on to listen to It Was Written for another, well what day is it? I still haven’t listened to it.
It’s not a knock on anyone (except on myself) that I just don’t care to hear any more Nas. Illmatic is such a classic, such a literally perfect album, that there’s virtually no upside to listening to much else of his. It occurs to me now that I’ve definitely heard more post-Illmatic Nas from his guest verse on “We Major” than anywhere else. His verse is actually all right, a little jarring to hear on this production. One thing that does crack me up a bit is that bit of echo on the line, “‘Nas, what the fans want is Illmatic, Stillmatic’”, which has the effect of making his body of great work sound longer than it is. It’s basically a capitulation to Jay’s diss on “Takeover”.1
My point is that with Late Registration, Kanye could have easily followed a Nas route, and he would still have done fine. He could have gone down the path of GangStarr and Ghostface: release a new album every few years to reasonably high critical acclaim. That would make him the Wes Anderson of rap. Late Registration really did neither of these.
In hindsight, it’s somewhat easy to see what Kanye’s sophomore album accomplished. At the time, I really liked the record, though I sort of stopped listening to it all the way through after a year or so. We can all agree that it’s basically College Dropout 2, right? Well, that’s what it sounds like.
It has Bernie Mac and skit continuity. It has a bunch of the Kanye neo-soul signifiers. It’s socially conscious. There are still tons of A-list guest stars. There’s rapping about bitches and hoes, as well as wearing fly clothes. Late Registration’s outward-facing aspect changed little. It’s what happened behind the music that would be really important. In this way, Late Registration is sort of like a company that went through a big reorganization. Even though it’s still making and marketing the same widgets or whatever, behind the scenes the whole culture and leadership is changing.
I’d thought of this album, idiomatically, as ‘the Jon Brion one’. But going back and reading some interviews and press, it’s more like ‘the origin story of modern day Kanye West one’. Let’s count down the ways.
- Late Registration was the occasion for Kanye’s first big listening party in New York. (Even the lede anticipates a recent Aziz Ansari joke: “‘This is killing everything out there!’ Kanye West exclaimed while listening to his own album, Late Registration.”)
- “Touch The Sky”, in the words of Kanye, “was what inspired 808s and Heartbreak more than anything” since he’d sing and riff over an extended version of the song on the Glow in the Dark tour.
- “Heard ‘Em Say” has Kanye’s first really weird/lame collaborator, Adam Levine, who would join an estimable group including Fergie, Elton John, John Mayer, Coldplay, and Big Sean.
- Most importantly, this was the album where Kanye got comfortable working with other musically big brained people. The interviews at the time with Jon Brion — co-producer on most of the album — seems like it paved the way for Mike Dean (who mixed the album) to step in and work with Kanye.
That final point is one of the most important parts of Kanye’s actual work. He has some heavy auteur signifiers, certainly, but he’s also skilled at working with people. He went from locking himself in a room doing five beats a day for three summers to working in an historic studio with Jon Brion. It was a fruitful — and fitful — collaboration. On the one hand, Brion was like a candyman to Kanye:
I introduced him to the Celeste and it blew his mind, and then to the Chamberlin. I said, “Here is the original sampler, invented in 1946, and there’s a tape player under every key, with recordings on this one of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra recorded in the late ’50s.” I put my hand on the keys and you could see fire shooting out of his eyes, he was so excited. So here we are with the instrument collection, and we are following my obsession of making new sounds appear in a very organic way.
But Kanye clearly didn’t defer. There are Jon Brion-y parts to the album, but it seems like Kanye used Brion’s production almost like another instrument or just one piece, a wall, in his songs’ build. MTV recounts the origin of “Roses”: all the froufrou and bombast of the chorus was, in Brion’s mind, going to be the whole song; Kanye stripped most of it away.
It’s definitely a weird dynamic. At this point, in mid-2005, Kanye had started ‘being Kanye’. We’ve got awards show antics, bombastic quotes, and the solidification of the party line on Kanye’s contradictions. Late Registration also cemented West as a heterogenous musical presence, which means being receptive to (and even more, excited by) outside influences. A lot of people — especially creators — like to get high on their own supply. You get whiffs of that from Kanye, still, on his many songs with stretched out instrumental codas. But Kanye’s able to take without stealing and collaborate without deferring. It’s one of his central paradoxes and pillars of strength.
Even as Christgau gushes, “There’s never been hip-hop so complex and subtle musically”, he poo-poos the Brion collaboration. That’s confusing because I’m not really sure where he thinks the subtlety and complexity comes from. Kanye was able to grow by a sizable leap over College Dropout (which had a lot of productions and raps from the years and years of Yeezy’s striving time) by opening up his musical process to another. And if the product itself doesn’t seem to reflect this growth,yet, that’s because it’s an investment that wouldn’t return huge dividends for another few years. As it exists today, Late Registration is an ambitious sophomore album that’s just starting to wriggle out of the debut’s mold. It’s a teleological necessity that, at the time, seemed like just another apex.
A correction: Yesterday I flubbed a lyric on “Takeover”. It goes “Do not bark up that tree / That tree will fall on you / I don’t know why your advisors / Ain’t forewarn you”. Jay did not, in fact, rhyme “fall on you” with “fall on you”. I still think the verse is mechanical and clunky. Eg, “You can’t fuck with me / Go play somewhere I’m busy”. Come on! ↩