et’s everyone take a big step back, inhale deeply and try and make sense of this.
Galvanizing doesn’t begin to describe the musical, pop cultural, sociological, and economic reaction to Kanye West and his vanity-piece turned musical touchstone turned target turned “instant classic” otherwise known as 2004’s The College Dropout. Jay-Z called him the future of rap—not for his voice, but for his middle-class/nouveau riche background. The public told him to shut up when he pouted at award shows like a preppy kid who just got waitlisted at Dartmouth. He kept telling everyone about his genius. And only now are we getting somewhere near the truth: Dropout wasn’t a five star album, but it wasn’t totally an early De La Soul-mimicking piece of hype-trite either.
What remains: a continued dialogue with himself that’s sincere enough to hook the whole world into his psyche. Though he has a lingering obsession with college—the album’s title, the series of skits where Kanye takes aim at the black male experience in higher education—this time around he’s more focused on execution than self-delusion. Impressively enough (and I’m willing to bet that 20 years from now this is seen as Kanye’s true gift), he’s gotten everyone in the English speaking world to wonder if one man’s experiences (albeit an endlessly self-promoting man) are actually gospel. No one has asked if he didn’t have fun in college because he was lonely? Or a prick? He seems to want to talk about race and education: what are his feelings about school vouchers? Affirmative action? Reparations?
West never alienates anyone or takes a bold stand because he won’t give any solid answers (musically that is, after his ridiculous tirade during an appearance in the name of relief for Hurricane Katrina, he seems willing to take any position in public). Late Registration makes a few unremarkable, tired stands: crack was bad, Reagan was evil and white people love hearing about drugs (“Crack Music”). Oh, and our current President might be up to something. Great gumption, but the details are lacking. Musical bombs of protest that actually work, like P.E.’s “911 Is A Joke,” breathe with specific, small incidents that have the “big” topics painted in gracefully. Frustrated as he may be about the general public’s inability to feel his struggle, Kanye really hasn’t stood for anything fresh enough to turn himself into a lightning rod. He’s almost reserved now, more methodical in his song writing and certainly less laughably pompous and ignorant than he was on Dropout.
Uncertainty is a great theme for the record, producer Jon Brion’s gentler take on Kanye’s usually hammering neo-Stax vibe revels in the soft middle ground. “Drive Slow,” the most modest song in concept and one of the most fruitful in execution, is a few Chicago comfortable stories and a mournful lone saxophone. Kanye doesn’t try to out do guests Paul Wall and GLC. Then something magical happens: he manages to take the track on his own merits, no hype needed. He lingers on emotions and images and hangs with oodles of Houston car culture references. Kanye blends in.
Yet shades of the young Mr. West haunt his attempted vocal evolution. As wrenching as the memories behind “Roses” are, he can’t turn his exposed moments into a full-fledged pop song. He raps too loud over the soft, tapping xylophone. He can’t alter his vocals to fit the mood of the piece. To hijack Frost’s famed quote about free verse, Kanye’s music is playing tennis with no net.
Besides the gross, SAE cheap shots on “Gold Digger,” and the tight, mesmerizing bluster of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” it’s hard to divvy up a lot of the tracks off Late Registration into a binary system of “works/doesn’t work.” The same emotions that give one song wings cripple another a few tracks later. I still don’t know why, though I know the easy answer is “ambition.” West is “ambitious” enough to lather up a sundry of guests, “ambitious” enough to make two albums with 20 plus tracks, and most importantly he’s “ambitious” enough to never edit himself as an artist, making error after error until he hits some resonating notes. Genius? Or just foolish velocity? I don’t even think Kanye himself can differentiate between his own songs: the “public” songs have so much personal info and the “introspective” cuts have so much to do with the public.
Shamefully, the Kool-Aid has been drunk by most of the critical community (you know who I’m talking about). It’s so vital that we simply don’t put this album away as an “instant classic,” but instead hash it out like any other disc released this year. For an album that’s fixing the “stagnant” hip-hop circuit, as most critics are labeling rap in 2005, it falls prey to the same conventions: too long, too puffy (in skits), too Puffy (in absurd mogul-raps). Late Registration is a decent, decisive step forward in Kanye’s atypical, bourgeoisie ascension into the higher echelons. Not a dud, certainly not a work of cosmic art. It’s meekly above-average, though that might be the sharpest needle of all.