The complicated Mr. West
September 1, 2005
Despite immersing himself in the traditions of jazz, blues and gospel, Kanye West could probably give lessons on completely mixing things up. West – perhaps intentionally, perhaps not – creates a body of work in “Late Registration” that wouldn’t recognize its own hands or feet. There is little continuity from song to song, and while some musicians painstakingly structure their albums to be as fluid as possible, West seems to have thrown his assortment of tracks into a bag and arranged them at random.Listening to West’s new album “Late Registration” is like a ride up a switchback, a nod to the fact that West has produced for the likes of Beanie Siegel, Ludacris, Talib Kweli and Alicia Keys. It’s only natural that on his own album, West would attempt to blend a universe of styles with miles of samples.West’s strength and weakness both lie in his willingness to experiment. From wearing yellow pants and a pink cable-knit to inviting Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to sing hooks on “Heard ‘Em Say,” West revels in obliterating classic hip-hop stereotypes.
“Late Registration” is strong. While not as consistent as his debut “College Dropout,” his new album proves he can survive longer than the average rapper, whose half-life tends to be about two-thirds of a CD. His creativity and knack for breaking down boundaries makes “Late Registration” one of the most distinct albums of the year, but also gets West into trouble.West sometimes kills his own song by reaching too far. On “Bring Me Down,” featuring Brandy, West calls on an entire orchestra, down to a contrabass and flugelhorn. The production overwhelms his uninspired verse and Brandy’s drawn out hook makes it seem like West is doing a guest appearance on her album rather than giving her the (mistaken) gift of being on his. “Bring Me Down” is painfully slow, a tempo where West is at his worst. His unique cadence deflates into monotony that refuses to move forward, leaving the listener to do it instead.Consistently, when a track plods, its aesthetics fall apart and the lyrics fall with them. On “We Major,” West, Nas and Really Doe talk and rap over an unnecessarily emotional and celebratory Orange Krush sample that might serve better as the intro to a particularly emotional episode of “Laguna Beach.” Completely lacking in personality, bass, melody and purpose, “We Major” wastes the pairing of Nas and West, similarly introspective and observant voices.Maybe West saw it as an opportunity to set up “Hey Mama” and “Celebration,” two songs that deserve to be outsourced to Bad Boy Records or SoSoDef. Both are slow, spineless and difficult to picture where exactly a listener should be – physically or mentally – to enjoy them. Each is thickly permeated with hooks and one-word bars. Granted, the topics are worthy: an ode to his mother and to a not-yet-born child, but the patent West wit is absent.
West, who said, “It’s hard when people are depending on you to have an album that’s not just good, but inspired,” seems uninspired. Traditionally the Chicago native spars with his beats, lyrically trying to one-up his acoustic creation. When those beats are a weak opponent, West does a nose dive.These tracks luckilyin the West portfolio. “Gone,” with its drawn-out strings and dark cello accents breaks the preceding trio of mediocrity while accentuating West’s strengths and the reason he consistently goes platinum. Otis Redding’s soulful voice leads into a heavy bass layered with skipping pianos. West doesn’t waste a bar before breaking into patent double-meanings and literalisms (“She says she wants diamonds/I took her to Ruby Tuesday’s”).West is strongest when his beats inspire his rhymes. After all, he was a major producer before he ever picked up a mic. His most dominant tracks on “Late Registration” are those with crisp meters that bounce rather than languish – those where the spacey R&B tune is ripped out and replaced with a distinct heartbeat.In the addictive “Gold Digger,” West samples Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” changes up the words and hands they lyrics over to Jamie Foxx, who continues his impersonation of the late musician with surprising soul. Simultaneously, West layers ‘Gold Digger’ with a jab-step keyboard that sounds like the offspring of a stern French horn and a loopy accordion. He and Foxx pour enthusiasm over the beat rather than waiting for it to pull them along, as is the case on “We Major” and “Bring Me Down.”
The most impressive track however, is ‘Drive Slow’ featuring Paul Wall, which encompasses the factors that make “Late Registration” please and disappoint. Here, West melds his own style with Wall’s Houston drawl, all while rapping over a slow distinctly West-Coast beat. He also throws in a trumpet for kicks.”Late Registration” is full of contradictions. Whether lyrics, samples or guest artists, West is unafraid to pair (or triple up) traditionally incongruous elements. Not as fluid as his first album, “Late Registration” shows that he’s willing to drastically experiment. However, he sometimes get caught up in making a track overly ambitious, leaving the listener to decide what work and what doesn’t.Vail, Colorado