Kanye West twisted the rap game with his debut album The College Dropout. Although groomed by Jay-Z and joining the Roc-A-Fella crew helped matters, a hip-hop icon was born. He exploded in a way that, in recent years, has only been matched by The Neptunes. The follow-up, Late Registration, was eagerly anticipated – and I had no fear of Kanye suffering a second album that would flatter to deceive.
Ever since Diamonds From Sierra Leone, with its Shirley Bassey sample, it was clear West would at the very least equal the quality of his debut. The radio friendly track that explores the irony of a people only recently (in relative terms) emancipated from slavery fuelling the diamond trade which in itself is a slave driving industry. It’s sugar-coated “revolution”, but the remix featuring Jay Z is an excruciatingly haunting yet masterful piece of work.
The movement from one extreme to another is eased by the album opening with a jovial intro before launching into the happy-go-lucky tune of Heard ‘Em Say. It is tinged with the outlandish statement “I know the government administer Aids”. But there’s nothing to substantiate that argument, until the heartfelt Roses; “Magic Johnson got a cure for Aids and all the broke motherfuckers passed away”. He merely asks the questions.
Touch The Sky reeks of familiarity. It’s a commercial track and is not exactly overloaded with musical or lyrical merit, but laying the lyrics over Curtis Mayfield‘s Move On Up takes you from the bitter to the sweet. Then forthcoming smash Gold Digger, featuring Jamie Foxx, hits you with standard pigeon bashing (refer to the male answer to TLC‘s No Scrubs). But it’s a Ray Charles sample that gives the track the feel of a rejuvenated Negro Spiritual song.
Crack Music utilises the grittiness of The Game‘s rapping style and unrepentant gangster persona to parody the music business with the drug world. Kanye even leaves room to name check and lay into (who else?) George Bush, but it is not much more than a fleeting reference. Lyrics aside, the beat is ridiculously thumping but without being obscenely punishing.
Bring Me Down makes you stop. It’s one of those rare tracks that makes everything else seem unimportant for the little over three minutes that it lasts. Whether that’s down to Brandy showing signs that she can take Mary J Blige‘s tiara as the queen of hip hop, or whether it’s down to the finalistic beat or the tangible emotion in Kanye’s voice is unclear. But it is a stunning piece of music.
Donna Leace‘s Today Won’t Come Again provides the basis for the chilled Hey Mama, which funnily enough is an ode to Mrs West met with the unmistakable soulful voice of John Legend in a low key but perfectly suitable performance. Late Registration doesn’t fade away into nothingness but eases you out. There’s no final blaze of glory just a soft sense of closure. It’s a cleverly and thoughtfully composed album, bereft of filler and loaded with style and substance.