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Songs in the Key of Kanye

 

Kanye West: Late Registration

Roc-a-Fella, 2005

Rating: 3.8

 

Posted: August 29, 2005

By Laurence Station

Shorter and comparatively tighter than his debut, with the benefit of additional live instrumentation and an incredibly pop friendly vibe, Kanye West’s Late Registration is a sophomore effort in the truest sense of the term. If last year’s phenomenally successful The College Dropout was a hook-laden attention-grabber that didn’t offer anything particularly new but catered to easy-nod beats and can’t miss samples, Late Registration is the more assured second- year progression as he matriculates through the School of Hip-Pop Music.

Nagging freshman habits persist: Cedric the Entertainer’s humbling of the cocky Kanye via skits and West’s middling rhyming ability. And a pair of family-oriented cuts -- the overblown, gospel-embellished “Roses,” in which West visits his ailing grandmother in the hospital, and the derivative shout-out “Hey Mama” -- feel like forced counterpoints to the harder-edged (and considerably more interesting) politically slanted material.

“Heard 'Em Say” delivers a terrific hook and features the soulful crooning of Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. And even if West misfires wildly with claims that the “Government administered AIDS,” the confrontational nature of the track ensures it will leave a stronger impression than some run-of-the-mill club-thumper. “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” (appearing in both its original and Jay-Z-featuring remix versions) uses Shirley Bassey's familiar James Bond theme to a similar effect as Dropout’s "Through the Wire" did with Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire." But the lyrical content couldn’t be more different, with “Diamonds” tying the bling Americans wear to the strife and horrors visited on the people of the distant African country. On “Crack Music,” West offers up the pointed line “Former slaves trade hooks for Grammys” and, similar to the polarizing AIDS comment, links the introduction of drugs into the black community by those in power as a controlling mechanism to keep his people down.

Late Registration’s best moment is a political statement more personal in nature. The lively, playfully accusatory “Gold Digger,” which starts off with Jamie Foxx channeling his Oscar-winning incarnation of Ray Charles before allowing a sample of the late music legend’s "I Got a Woman" to take over, champions pre-nuptial agreements, especially for opportunistic women who “Ain’t messin’ with no broke niggas.”

The use of live brass throughout helps brighten Registration’s sound -- though serving up a 20-piece orchestra on the zero-calorie “Celebration” ("You know what this is? / It's a celebration, bitches") proves a bit much. And co-producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, the Magnolia soundtrack) deserves credit for couching a more unified sound than Dropout possessed. West is still a better assembler of talent than he is an MC. And the army of guest stars blend nicely, despite some getting the shaft, as Common does on the underdeveloped, too brief “My Way Home.”

While Late Registration might not attain the enduring status of any of Stevie Wonder’s early to mid-’70s output (an ambition about which West has made no secret), it nonetheless deserves credit for being a shamelessly commercial work that isn’t afraid to make controversial or brash statements. For this reason, and thanks to a handful of truly excellent tracks, it merits a passing grade. Final judgment will be reserved until after the upper-class challenge of years three and four (Graduation and A Good Ass Job, respectively) have been released.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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