Later Registration: Kanye West 10 Years On

Scott Wallace
3rd Sep 2015

A decade ago, at fourteen years old, something about Kanye West's sophomore record Late Registration made me sit up and pay attention. At the time I was an avowed anti-rap rock fan (prejudice that I have thankfully left in adolescence where it belongs), but reading a five-star review of the album in Rolling Stone, I became genuinely interested in who Kanye West was and what he was doing. 

Almost exactly 10 years on from the release of his second album, Kanye West took the opportunity, upon being awarded the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, to announce his proposed candidacy for U.S. President in 2020.

If only we had the technology to beam the above sentence to a rap fan in 2005 and see their reaction. Throw in that before taking the stage he joyfully kissed a heavily pregnant Kim Kardashian and ten years ago Kanye’s eventual ascendancy to pop culture ubiquity would seem quite bizarre.

It’s an ascendancy that arguably began with Late Registration in 2005. His first album, The College Dropout was a great album, but still bore many of the same hallmarks of Kanye’s previous production work such as Jay-Z’s masterpiece The Blueprint. Late Registration is the sound of Kanye West the artist reaching the next level, and even today it sounds fresh and intriguing.

Singles like “Gold Digger” and “Touch the Sky” were all over the radio, but they’re in fact among the least exciting tracks on the record. One of the most disarming moments is the luscious “Drive Slow,” built around a curlicue of a sample from alto saxophonist Hank Crawford. With the help of producer Jon Brion – normally known for working with the likes of Fiona Apple – Kanye pulled hip-hop into strange new shapes.

Late Registration was a move toward pop music, but in doing so it never sacrificed any of the power of what Kanye had to say. “Heard ‘Em Say,” featuring Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, is hiding under a gorgeous vocal melody and piano sampled from a Natalie Cole’s “Someone That I Used to Love”, an exploration of the harsh realities of the impoverished and disenfranchised living in a society that just doesn’t care for them; “Nothing’s ever promised tomorrow, today.”

For many, including Kanye himself who still closes his live sets with it, the album’s strongest moment is “Hey Mama.” The song took on a new resonance when Kanye’s mother Donda West passed away in 2007. The simple promise of devotion, of doing anything he can to help the woman who raised him, was continued in last year’s surprise single with Paul McCartney “Only One,” which is sung from Donda’s perspective looking down on her son’s new family.

The complete emotional honesty of Late Registration was not entirely new for rap, but the way Kanye presented it without cliché and with such bold, widescreen production was like a reinvention of what hip-hop could be. Without this record, we would arguably not have records like Kendrick Lamar's autobiographical masterpiece Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City or Vince Staples' darkly nostalgic Summertime '06

It’s popular to hate Kanye West, but those haters should be directed toward Late Registration. The album shows a musical sophistication that would only become more pronounced in the years that followed, as well as all the tenderness, goofiness and self-consciousness of which he was capable before his outsized public persona became the all-consuming monster that it is now.

With the benefit of ten years hindsight, Late Registration has only become more powerful. Perhaps in half a decade, President Kanye West will take the proverbial throne as the head of the United States, and this remarkable record will sound more humble than ever.