By Chet Betz | 8 November 2007
Kanye’s street cred has to be approaching something like Anticon-cold negative values, even if he can manage an MTV party that gets Suge Knight shot in the leg. Rolling Stone well-noted Mr. West’s proclaimed obsession with Portishead and Fiona Apple and Coldplay, how he wanted something of that pretty, grand, Caucasian-as-fuck sound to permeate Late Registration. “I’m a cracker with a sweet tooth for hip-hop and a cavity where my soul hides,” and Kanye’s Willy Wonka, because Late Registration blatantly flips Ray Charles and Curtis Mayfield, and Common raps over Gil Scott-Heron. So, really, Kanye’s gone a good way beyond the juvenile white music vs. black music mentality and has recognized that hip-hop is, at its core, a culturally incorporative artform. In his sample and guest selection, the man’s almost absurdly populist, but one accepts the “Ms. Jackson” lyrical riffing and Bond movie hook of “Diamonds” because Kanye drops his chops right in place on his beat, he ends each stanza with an ill key line, and his self-conscious social consciousness is far more conflicted (and thus more interesting) than many of the prone-to-preach messages of the underground.
That same underground pickets Kanye for his arrogance even though arrogance is about as common in hip-hop as, well, rapping. Others choose to look past the huge production and completely dismiss him because of his obviously average mic skills, but Kanye’s never been so much a technical rapper as a fun, distinct emcee personality, mild cleverness and little pulled-syllable hooks his primary weapons (“Damn, I know you say he killin’ himself / Got a little bitty deal now he feelin’ himself—YUP!”). Still, West’s critics simply will not be fazed, and if nothing else they can resort to vaguely evaluative statements about his work in relation to its target audience; David Drake of I’m So Sinsurr accused the Common and Kanye venture Be of being music for “upwardly mobile professionals, people who like to have a glass of pinot grigio while wearing well-knit sweaters.” Meanwhile, Rhymefest ghostwritten/co-written “Jesus Walks” appears on the trailer for the next film by Sam Mendes, Jon Brion and Kanye become producing buddies, and Late Registration not only features disparate whiteys like the Noz from Maroon 5 and the superhumanly ugly Paul Wall, but somehow makes both of those dudes sound good. Haters want to hate, lovers want to love, but Kanye, apparently, just wants to make everyone his bitch.
That’s what the Jon Brion buddyship thing’s all about. To many it’s a WTF pairing, but for those who have seen Brion perform at the Largo in Los Angeles, it’s not all that strange. A one-man Dick Van Dyke music box, Brion sweats his way between his guitar and his bass and his keys, playing the pieces and looping them on to each other, shit usually congealing with the most impact around the time that he gets behind the drum kit and lets loose with what ends up sounding like a string of primitive breaks. The realization comes that Brion creates pop beats, and that’s something that a PTA soundtrack or a Fiona Apple record doesn’t let on to quite as much. When considering that Brion makes from scratch the pieces that he collages, Kanye’s solicitation of his help on Late Registration and Kanye’s talk of his current music being influenced by OutKast (whose album credits mention guitar players as often as records from which guitars were sampled) are two things that suddenly make a lot of sense together. In that found sense comes a new realization. By collaborating with Brion and moving forward in a pretty damn inclusive way, Late Registration is a mainstream shot at being bigger than genre boundaries, a larger-than-life, lavishly funded attempt at erasing the stagnation that’s come from nearly a decade of hip-hop having changed mostly through internal factionalizing.
So “Drive Slow” feels like Aimee Mann’s “One” in Houston, and Kanye and Mr. Wall and GLC roll on by in a silver Royce, keeping pace with stillettos for the ho-up, doing so in a musical context that’s as lightly ominous as a Magnolia cue. And on a playlist it fits comfortably next to “There Is a Light” off the upcoming Minus Story. Minus Story. The Game-featuring “Crack Music” appropriately sounds like gangster opera, a live drum track marching atop Dre-ish strings and vocals, but Kanye and Brion must have been listening to “How To Disappear Completely” because at 2:30 they twist the backing, a scraping saucer noise whirling above the wobbly bows of an orchestra pit on the come-down. Hip-hop with scope and ambition and freaking movements? Music threatening to overwhelm content, Kanye the producer steps down for Kanye the personal storyteller on “Roses,” sounding like he just tossed the boards off to Brion before he took hold of the mic. With no percussion to give the footing to his flow, Kanye rhymes on the watery chords, utilizing his talent for melodic rapping to a different end. Then, just to make sure that no one knows what’s what, the drums come in for the gospel choir chorus and drop back out for the second verse. It’s a conceptual application of beat composition to a song’s mood and theme, and it’s a completely successful one, unlike most the stuff on Sole’s last record.
Really, though, “Gone,” the sorta-last-song, is the full B&W synergy of Don Kanye and Sancho Brion’s mad reaching for the stars. Prancing keys, Brion’s just bobbing away on two chords. He brought his sympony with him, though. Otis Redding sample, Kanye’s just using his celebrity power to clear whatever shit he wants to have cleared. He brought Consequence and Cam’Ron, too. The song is six dynamic minutes long, and it’s, like, universal. Paul McCartney’s paging Kanye for a future guest spot. Gut-busting one-two: the record pairs the Shirley Bassey-based “Diamonds” remix (featuring Hov) to the 7 1/2 minutes of “We Major,” which sounds like a primo MF Doom production and has Nas starting off his verse with “I heard the beat / And I didn’t know what to write.” Nasty’s scared. Late Registration terrifies because it goes beyond David Drake’s demographic tracking. It’s hip-hop for abso-fucking-lutely everyone —- for heads and hippies, heteros and homos, girls and squirrels, backpackers and minotaurs, and, yeah, parents. Note courtesy of Blueprint: DJ Rare Groove groups MF Doom and Kanye together as producers that use “their mamas’ records.”
The paradox is that this is not nearly the singles record that College Dropout was, but that’s because its aspirations are much higher than revivalism and putting one’s self on the map. Late Registration really wants to be an album album, which makes all the more frustrating and undermining the fact that it mirrors the flaws of its predecessor: the glut and the stilted sequencing. Not that there aren’t some impeccable placements and connections of songs. “Heard ‘Em Say” sets the tone for the record nicely; Just Blaze flipping Mayfield’s “Move On Up” blares perfectly in the get-‘em-hyped two spot; Kanye spits, “Hear that, what Gil Scott was hearin’ / when our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin,” right after nudging “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” into beat-form; and, c’mon, the Jay and Nas tracks are adjacent (perhaps the album’s most in-hop demonstration of its unification agenda).
Kanye misses out on a huge thematic throughline for the middle of his record, though, when “Roses” and “Bring Me Down” divide “My Way Home” and “Crack Music” from “Addiction.” “Bring Me Down” should have been cut; lyrically, it’s the kind of “my-how-I’ve-struggled” chest-beating that Kanye’s indulged in countless times before, so, in keeping with Late Registration‘s complementing its songs with its production, the music’s blase: tinny 808 drums… maudlin strings… Brandy. “Roses” could then have kicked “Hey Mama” out of its spot, the latter forgetting that “Family Business” was great because it deftly toed the line of sentimentality rather than diving in head-first: “Can’t you see / You’re like a book of poetry / Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni / Turn one page, and there’s my mommy.” While “Celebration” hands out cigars with a Chappelle wink, its excision would have afforded a space for Late Registration dropout “We Can Make It Better“ to comment on Kanye’s past (upped-RPM chipmunk vocals) in the closing of his more progressive present. Separately tracked skits basically beg to be removed, and no one’s going to want to listen to plain old “Diamonds” again, not when the remix has Kanye hating/loving his ice-rocking self and Jay-Z drunkenly chuckling his way through his verse, or when the “bonus” of the original just makes the wait longer for the beautiful, cleverly delayed “Late.”
On “Touch the Sky,” Kanye says, “I’m trying to right my wrongs / But it’s funny, them same wrongs helped me write this song.” The foil of excess seems inevitable in Kanye’s grab at standard-bearing, his lack of restraint part of his boldness, his boldness a big part of why he succeeds. His career’s quickly reached that point where Kanye gets what Kanye wants, and Kanye wants it all, and he wants it all mashed up beneath his name. It’s a means to music that seemingly precludes Kanye from ever making an unquestionably great album; if he leaves behind the giddy reaching that stretches thin his records’ skin, then he loses the very spark that makes so many of his individual songs shine. After Kanye has done his part, it’s easy enough for the listener to customize the tracklists of College Dropout and Late Registration and various leftovers (“Homecoming”!) into thoroughly solid mixes. Kanye can’t do that himself; his excluding principle’s busted, rattling in reverse, inhaling Jon Brion and Aquemini, Maroon 5 and his mama’s records. He’s swallowing a nation of millions.