Gorgeously textured and musically ambitious, this album is a testament to West's top-of-the-game production skills, but as an MC he's still got a few lessons to learn.
Let's just get this out of the way up front: Kanye's latest album is album-of-the-year at best, not album of the next 20 or 30 or 40 years, which is what various publications have insinuated by giving 'Ye's sophomore effort perfect scores. Even Time magazine was subliminally saying Late Registration is the best thing since pockets on pants when they recently put Kanye on the cover. The problem with all of this is that Late Registration is not all that. It's more like this:
Late Registration continues where The College Dropout left off, opening with a skit featuring Bernie Mac as a school administrator still unsatisfied with Kanye's classroom performance. Mac's tirade fades into the beginning of "Heard 'Em Say", featuring Maroon 5 leader Adam Levine. With its sweet piano chords and Levine's gentle cooing, the track is probably the best hip-hop lullaby to come along since Slick Rick's "Children's Story", as Kanye preaches, "Nothing's ever promised tomorrow, today". But Kanye saves his show-and-tell talent for the end of the piece. As Levine fades out, the track rides on, incorporating various bells and whistles, which move into a warped bass and scathing synthesizers. And here is where we are introduced to 'Ye's special guest of the day, Jon Brion.
As the producer for Fiona Apple, the Brion choice seems to be nothing more than Kanye's way of telling people, "I'm too cool for hip-hop," but Brion's presence is evident from the beginning, and it's hardly a bad thing. As a colleague of mine wrote, the two of them together have created "some of the most sophisticated, baroque hip-hop ever."
Take "Gone", for example, featuring Consequence and Cam'Ron. Kanye combines his stock-in-trade production method -- chopping up Otis Redding's version of "It's Too Late (She's Gone)" -- with Brion's short bursts of dense strings, which weave in and out over a "Chopsticks"-like piano line. When the chorus comes in, a full orchestra lays down a plush soundbed underneath Kanye and Cam'Ron, who harmonize "We strive at home / I ride on chrome" along with the Redding sample. Cam'Ron then abandons form on his verse by continuing to rhyme well into the chorus. And on Consequence's verse, more violins are added as the piano drops out completely.
This kind of complex creativity is found throughout every track on Late Registration. Together, Brion and West have made the most musically ambitious hip-hop album since Outkast's Aquemini. But what prevents Late Registration from achieving that unequivocal classic status is Kanye's alter ego: Kanye, the rapper.
While he certainly sounds more comfortable on the microphone on songs like "Crack Music" and "Drive Slow", there are more than a few tracks and guest appearances that show Kanye's rap game still needs work. On the remix to "Diamonds from Sierra Leone", Jay-Z's witty reference to the sampled track ("Shirley Bassey's in the rear saying exactly / What I've been saying practically, my whole career / The diamond is forever / I've been mining this forever") outshines Kanye's conscious (albeit, noble) talk about the horrors of the diamond trade. The majestic "We Major" is another musical triumph, but the guest appearance by Nas, in which he claims, "I'm Jesse Jackson on the balcony when King got killed / I survived the livest niggas around", takes the cake for the song's best line.
Ironically, Kanye has played an integral role as a producer in classic albums by Jay-Z (The Blueprint Vol. 1) and, more recently, Common (Be), thus proving Kanye is at the head of the class. But what made those albums classic had just as much to do with the MC's as it did with the beats Kanye provided. As Kanye says on "We Major", the album's title was chosen because he's "taking these muh'fuckas back to school", and he does that, musically. But lyrically, Kanye is still a few credits short of graduating to the next level.