Late Registration // Kanye West

The album cover for Kanye West's Late Registration

Everybody feel a way about K but at least y’all feel something.

I have vivid memories of this album. I won’t lie, that’s one of the things I like about it so much. Sitting in the backseat, listening to my dad play “Wake Up Mr. West.” Running in the evening with “Roses” playing in my ear. Walking through my hometown, soundtracked by light piano and brazen horns. It’s so tied into my personal growth and development, that it’s a little jarring to see how it was such an obvious forerunner of Kanye’s life of narcissistic celebrity.

On Late Registration, Kanye demonstrated that he had a flair for the personal, tying his music more closely to the intimacies of his lived experience. And not a royal, shared personal experience, but literally a ticket to the Kanye Zone™. Kanye’s music has always been about him, but with Late Registration, he had less to prove and more to flaunt. His talents didn’t have to go into demonstrating he was great; after The College Dropout, that was clear.

Of the original trilogy, Late Registration is the best. Musically, it’s more coherent than The College Dropout, and bolder than Graduation. The former was a little more scattered, and the skits a little less interesting. Skits #1-4 are interesting reflections on wealth and fame, and give us our first broader insight into how Kanye sees himself as a celebrity: held down by people around him who don’t want him to succeed. For anyone confused by the rapper’s recent headlines, it’s important to understand that he’s always been like this — though perhaps to a lesser extent.

Bolder than Graduation, huh?

Absolutely. Graduation is too much a relic of its era. It’s one of those albums where Kanye isn’t innovating. For the cult of personality Kanye has cultivated, it’s crucial that he be a pop superstar pushing the boundaries of rap music. With Graduation, he didn’t do that. On Late Registration, he did.

There are definitely a few standout tracks. “Gone” and “Drive Slow” are perfect for riding around town with the windows down, with Consequence’s verse on the first a perfect example of enjoyable gimmickry. The bouncing piano and slippery snares of “Drive Slow” make it an absolute cruiser of a song, and Paul Wall and GLC create an air of gliding smoothness with their verses.

A painting of Echo and Narcissus

“My Way Home” and “Addiction” also have that gliding quality to them, looping guitars with just a touch of anxiety. “Roses” and “Hey Mama” dial down the mood for beautiful, family-focused balladry. The focus on family and hospitals on “Roses” is a bit of a precursor to what we’ll see on some of Kanye’s future albums, and the way he now vilifies medical and mental health professionals.

But there are also songs like “Touch The Sky” and “Gold Digger,” certified bangers that have widespread appeal and stride with bravado. “Crack Music” and both versions of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” bring a much-needed realness to the album, a social message that was much more present on The College Dropout.

Stepping back from larger societal concerns to focus on the individual is the entire point of Late Registration. In fact, it’s the entire point of Kanye’s career. To tell the story of the narcissistic artist, the story Kanye has been telling throughout his life, we need to see where it starts. The College Dropout has its big, braggadocious moments — but these are typical rap boasts, peacock feathers, posturing. Late Registration is a much deeper focus, and it is here where Kanye explicitly focuses on himself for the course of the entire album. No mixture of “Jesus Walks,” “Breathe In Breathe Out,” and the “School Spirit” skits. With Late Registration, Kanye’s mission statement is clear: he’s here to talk about himself.

For those interested in the Greek tragedy of Kanye West, it’s a pretty powerful statement.