The following is the second in an eightpart series documenting the discography of Kanye West. Each week, Arts will feature a piece detailing the merits of one of West’s Walbums, in chronological order.
When asked to rank Kanye West albums a week ago, I likely would have put “Late Registration” near the bottom. On closer inspection, however, I realized the album truly has everything, from soul samples and braggadocious lyrics to introspective beats. Sandwiched between “The College Dropout” and “Graduation,” the often-overlooked “Late Registration” features some of the best songs Kanye has ever made.
It is easy to forget that perhaps the most classic Kanye West track, “Gold Digger,” is on “Late Registration.” So are “Roses” and “Hey Mama,” arguably some of the most moving and innovative rap of the millennium. It is not surprising, then, that the album debuted to instant success, selling 860,000 copies in the first week of its release. The album excelled at the Grammys, winning West Best Rap Solo Performance for “Gold Digger,” Best Rap Song for “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” and Best Rap Album.
Most importantly, “Late Registration” contains the perfect mix of the absurd and deeply personal. Kanye trenches into social issues in the most Kanye way possible, diving into analyses of the flaws he sees in America and in his community. On “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” he explores his own and others’ hypocrisy surrounding the issue of conflict diamonds, mirroring the carnage of American society with that of blood diamonds, rapping: “Over here it’s the drug trade, we dying of drugs/Over there they dying from what we buy from drugs.” This brilliant wordplay, rhythm and message is quintessential Kanye, as is his use of the sample “Diamonds are Forever (Soundtrack),” from the James Bond film, which repeats over and over throughout the song. He asks “Forever? Forever ever? Forever ever?” his voice growing more incredulous with each question. This refrain is not just a shoutout to the OutKast song, “Ms. Jackson,” which features the same lyric; it is also a means by which to highlight the lack of sustainability of Kanye’s consumerist tendencies.
Later, in “Skit #4,” we hear that the same proclivity gets Kanye kicked out of his fictional fraternity Broke Phi Broke: “You march your new shoes out of here, Kanye/ Don’t you ever come back in ‘em/Don’t you ever come back smellin’ all good, taking showers and shit like that, alright?/We don’t appreciate that down here at Broke Phi Broke.” This track is one of several “skits” that are interwoven throughout the album. The skits are entirely spoken word with no instrumental component, creating a strong juxtaposition between the words of “Skit #4” and the melodic track that follows.
Indeed, immediately succeeding the skit, a soulful Otis Redding sample leads the listener into the next track, “Gone.” Redding’s voice and the melancholy tone of the song leave the audience wondering if this, too, is an introspective, mournful reflection on Kanye’s obsession with consumerism and sadness over being kicked out of his “frat.”
However, after just a few bars, the beat picks up, and Kanye clearly asserts that he is not remorseful about or saddened by his materialism. He raps, “See me at the airport, at least 20 Louis,” referring to the extremely pricy French bags by Louis Vuitton. Kanye’s self-reflection on consumerism, punctuated throughout the album by his need to show off, is the perfect precursor to the controversial Kanye to come.
Kanye’s introspection goes back and forth between the absurd and the profound. He raps about discrimination, and then makes statements like, “I know the government administers AIDS.” This is exemplified by one of his most famous moments. Just three days after the album’s Aug. 30, 2005 release, Kanye appeared alongside Mike Meyers on Sept. 3, 2005 in an NBC program for Hurricane Katrina relief. The two were supposed to trade off reciting canned teleprompter lines, but Kanye went shockingly far off script. He first proclaimed the reality for many during the hurricane, saying, “I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a Black family, it says ‘They’re looting.’ If you see a white family, it says ‘They’re looking for food’” (Genius, “On Hurricane Katrina,” 2006).
The racial injustice towards African-American victims of Katrina has been well-documented, and just like in “Diamonds,” Kanye used the Katrina relief platform to call himself out for his hypocrisy, evidenced by the fact that he himself prioritized going shopping before donating to relief funds. This profound moment of self-reflection and awareness embodied what many Americans were thinking, but too scared to say. An increasingly alarmed Meyers continued to read off the teleprompter. When he finished, Kanye looked straight into the camera and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” (Genius). This is the other side of Kanye’s activism, the absurd quote, the garbled message—the way many people feel, expressed in exactly the way it’s not supposed to be said.
“Late Registration” marks the beginning of Kanye’s dichotomies. From this point on, in his personal, professional and creative lives, he zigzags between the reflective and boastful, the liberal and conservative, the sane and insane. This propensity for paradox sustains throughout his career to date, and it is perhaps best summed up by the tagline of his most recent album “Ye”: “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome.”