A Look Back at a Kanye Triumph

Henry Robinson, Guest Reviewer

Aside from being that emotionally questionable candidate in the 2020 presidential campaign, Kanye West is one of the most talented music artists of all time. It is no exaggeration to compare him to greats like Freddie Mercury and Elton John in terms of expansive discographies.

“Late Registration” (2005) was only Kanye West’s second studio album, but it is far more impressive than the peak of most other artists.

Being the middle act of a trilogy of albums, “Late Registration” is allowed to build upon the success of its predecessor (“College Dropout”) without having to take time to conclude the series and its loose ends as in the finale (“Graduation”). With this freedom, “Late Registration” soars to certain heights that Kanye has only reached on a few select occasions in the 17 years since its release. 

In Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” the album currently ranks 117 (one of only four albums released this century in the top 150)

To fully understand where this album ranks among Kanye’s illustrious pantheon, some background information is necessary. “Late Registration” was recorded over the course of a year in various studios based in Los Angeles and New York City.

It debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. Eight hundred thousand copies were sold in the first week of its release, and three million were sold in total. To promote the album and increase Kanye’s already massive notoriety, five songs on the album were released as singles with accompanying music videos.

“Late Registration” was rated the best album of 2005 by Rolling Stone and Time Magazine. In Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” the album currently ranks 117 (one of only four albums released this century in the top 150).

There is no true consensus on where this album ranks compared to Kanye’s 11 other albums. Some are passive towards it and place it toward the middle of the pack, while some affirm that it is one of his best.

When Kanye West made his debut as a rapper in 2004 with “College Dropout,” he chose a bold and subversive mascot to represent his brand. Kanye chose a teddy bear to be the face of his new album. This borderline goofy choice stood in defiance of the vulgar image of rap at the time.

“Late Registration” continues the theme of education and the teddy bear imagery. The album cover depicts the wide-eyed bear walking through the halls of Princeton sporting a letterman jacket.

The packaging design was covered by Morning Breath Incorporated, and its artwork was inspired by the American satirical artist John Currin.

While the front cover has the bear entering the lecture hall, the back cover shows him exiting. Although this album features a teddy bear on the album cover, many of its tracks wrestle with mature themes.

For one, “Roses” criticizes the American healthcare system while documenting how his family came together over his grandma’s hospitalization. Trinity senior George Baldridge goes so far as to say it’s among the best songs ever written.

Other examples include “Diamonds from Sierra Leon.” Trinity senior Jackson Klazack points out how this song focuses on the corrupt blood diamond industry that funds civil wars in Africa.

“Crack Music” speaks of a desperate man who is fed up with institutional racism and chooses to retaliate by selling drugs.

Kanye West has said that he wished to make “Late Registration” an album that people from all walks of life could relate to. While the album has its somber songs, Trinity senior Luke Goins said it also has more uplifting pieces like “Touch the Sky” and “Hey Mama.”

Although many of the tracks have their own identity, there are a few interludes sprinkled throughout the album that I’m not a fan of. These “skits” were presumably included to add levity and defined transitions. However, for repeated listeners of “Late Registration,” these become annoying at best.

Many rap albums at the time used instrumental beats with lyrics dubbed over. With “Late Registration,” however, Kanye chose to use a 20-piece orchestra to capture his sound. He experimented with unconventional instruments like harpsicords, berimbaus, and Chinese bells.

Some songs that rely on Kanye’s uniquely assorted orchestra are “Bring Me Down,” “Celebration,” and “We Major.” Since his debut, Kanye has been known for his adept use of music samples to enhance his tracks as well.

By taking clips from old songs and speeding them up, Kanye can instill a sense of nostalgia into his listeners. This subversive take created a new subgenre named “chipmunk soul.”

The songs on this album that employ this include  “On my Way Home,” “Gone,” and “Heard Em Say.”

The union of Kanye’s vocals, his chipmunk soul samples, and the multi-faceted orchestra make for a sound far ahead of its time. When you hear rap fans saying that they “miss the old Kanye,” this era in his career is what they are talking about.