Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Jon Brion, Devo Springsteen, Just Blaze, Warryn Campbell
Features: Adam Levine, Lupe Fiasco, Jamie Foxx, Paul Wall, GLC, Common, the Game, Brandy, Jay Z, Nas, Really Doe, Cam'ron, Consequence, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Rhymefest
Generally, people who love Late Registration most rank Graduation at the opposite end of Kanye's discography. People who consider Graduation to be peak-Kanye often think of Late Registration as the weakest of the solo releases. But the first time I heard Late Registration, I heard the Kanye West album I'd wanted to hear since before College Dropout arrived: A lush, beautiful hip-hop chamber pop album, full of brilliant hooks and train-stopping lines that could vacillate from hilarious ("Gold Digger") to serious ("Diamonds") to poignant ("Heard 'Em Say") and double-back again, into expertly distilled Kanye braggadocio.
The best part about revisiting Late Registration—an album that has aged beautifully, and doesn't date itself at every possible juncture (hello, Graduation, with its Daft Punk and its Chris Martin and its painful Weezy verse)—being reminded of all the album's contributors that everyone often forgets. Sure, you've got Adam Levine doing the opening hook, Jay Z throwing up the Roc, and Jamie Foxx doing his Ray Charles schtick on "Gold Digger," but what about Nas, on "We Major," on the same album as Jay, at the height of their feud?! Or Killa Cam’s knock-knock verse on “Gone”? Brandy? Lupe Fiasco's career-launching verse on “Touch the Sky”? And, most notably, the presence of producer Jon Brion across the album, lending Kanye a level of technical expertise and pop mastery that he had yet to achieve on his own. Clearly, this album was crucial in terms of Kanye's career development. Is it perfect, though?
No. Hell no. The Paul Wall/Common/Game midsection suite is a trifecta of clunker beats and clunker guest verses. [Ed. Note—This is insane. “Drive Slow,” “My Way Home,” and “Crack Music” are as strong a string of songs as Kanye has ever recorded. But I'll let Foster finish.] And do us Late Registration fans really think that any of these songs match up to the sheer genius of “Can't Tell Me Nothing” or “Champion,” or that “Heard 'Em Say” compares to “Good Morning”? Of course not. But that’s also why we love Late Registration: It’s imperfect. It’s flawed. In a lot of ways, it’s quaint.
It's the last Kanye album to follow any kind of conventions, like album-spanning skits. It's too long by at least five songs. But it's also the last time we heard the mortal rapper Kanye on the mic, as opposed to stadium-status Kanye, broken-hearted-robot Kanye, outcast-monster Kanye, or demon-deity Kanye. And the socially consciousness Kanye raps—from the “Allahu Akbar and throw ’em some hot cars” bars that start the album to the first verse of “Roses” to “Diamonds,” and so on—are as contradictory and nuanced as they'd ever be, at least until the extremist reckoning that is Yeezus. But the reason fans really love this album is best summed up by the album's closer, “Gone.” It's odd. Why put Cam'ron on a closing track? Or let Consequence deliver a filler verse? Especially on this, the original Kanye-Otis Redding sample song, that already has so much going on?
Kanye's resounding response is Why not? In many ways, it's just another solid rap song, and yet, it transcends another-solid-rap-song norms, with Kanye slapping together bars too clever for their own good, and overindulging his guests. But at the end of the track, he runs through a theoretical scenario in which he abandons rap and imagines what that would be like for us, the listeners. Given the drastic tidal shift Graduation represents, the foreshadowing couldn't have been more prescient. Because that Kanye, the mortal rapper Kanye, did basically disappear after that. Years later, it still stands out as one his best verses. And it's been forgotten by many, too. “Gone” in its own way. But it is representative of the smallest (but a key) reason why we love Late Registration: because you don’t know how to. And that’s fine by us. —Foster Kamer