2005 / Music

Review: Kanye’s ‘Late Registration’ Gets Mixed Grades

Rap’s Brightest Star Released New LP, Dissed President

Only a few days ago, Kanye West was hip-hop’s golden boy.

Photo: Roc-A-Fella Records/Def Jam Records

Photo: Roc-A-Fella Records/Def Jam Records

He was the go-to producer for any artist in search of a chart-busting single. His first solo album, last year’s “The College Dropout,” won an armful of Grammys and was acclaimed as the most inventive hip-hop record in years.

In the past week, he graced the cover of Time magazine, topped the Billboard charts, and succeeded in stealing the show with his performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards.

And then, he dissed President George W. Bush and the media on live TV during NBC’s Hurricane Katrina charity event.

Now, he’s become a water cooler topic and a target of anger in the right-wing media. West will forever be labeled a performance wild card that will cause network TV censors to prime their trigger fingers whenever he makes an appearance. (Luckily for West, he’s not too hot a political football for the NFL, who said they’d still let him perform at the concert celebrating the start of the season later this week).

Of greater concern than scandalous headlines should be West’s new album.

Released last week, “Late Registration” is a thoroughly inconsistent effort. The record too perfectly looks and sounds like an album hastily put together a year after a hit. It boasts a cover and title that harkens back to its predecessor, and the erratic quality of the songs raises suspicions that West is trying to pass some musical leftovers with the new jams.

First single “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” is the record’s lone monster track. Handsomely sampling elements of James Bond movie theme, “Diamonds Are Forever,” the song has an orchestral grandness that West molds to create the perfect pocket for his well-oiled rhymes that slam detractors of Roc-A-Fella Records. (The album has both the original version of the track and an almost identical remix with a guest rap by Jay-Z).

Equally horn-filled, but more danceable is “Touch The Sky.” The song’s rhythm relies on a palpitating, strolling bassline that just swings. As an extra treat for all would-be gangstas, West repeatedly quotes James Cagney’s famous line (“top of the world, Ma” from the actor’s gangster flick “White Heat”) during the chorus.

The album’s most intriguing songs are the ones that seem to break with hip-hop norms. The all-too-brief “My Way Home” builds in tension thanks to an electric piano that plays a circular pattern, a funky high-hat cymbal rhythm and some authoritative wordplay from Common, but concludes before striking a decisive blow. “Heard ‘Em Say” combines an unorthodox, P-Funk-like murmuring bass with soft piano that improvises notes around the theme of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

The rest of “Late Registration” isn’t as interesting. Many of the songs come across as hastily devised — either using samples clumsily or employing a way too familiar song for the hook. There just doesn’t seem to be enough musical changes in the songs to keep a listener’s attention.

The half-formed tracks range from the sample heavy (the songs “Hey Mama” and “Gone” borrows huge cutup snippets of Otis Redding and Donal Leace singing famous refrains) to the uncomfortably un-hip (during “Celebration,” West dorkily imitates comedian Dave Chapelle’s Rick James impersonation while backed by a cheesy string melody and toy-like Moog organ).

Even the record’s most pointed track, “Crack Music,” has no musical plan B. By repeating the same musical motif (and an unfunky one no less), West comes across as drumbeat shrill when he takes lyrical jabs at President Bush and the others that he condemns for inner city woes.

The album’s numerous guests are also inconsistent. While West employs first-rate MCs like Common, Jay-Z and Nas and gets recording booth help from Fiona Apple/Aimee Mann producer Jon Brion, he also finds room to include unremarkable contributions from the Game, actor Jamie Foxx (dishing out his saxophone-honking Ray Charles impersonation) and Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine. Game and Levine give unmemorable performances, and getting Foxx to sing appears like West was trying to avoid having to pay for a sample of the real Charles’ singing.

Fumbling on a record like this couldn’t come at a more inopportune time. Had West been delivering “The College Dropout” at this point, his career would seem impervious to the controversy that he’s currently embroiled in. Unfortunately for him, “Late Registration” came along at a bad time.

With his profile so high, any weaknesses on his album will give his enemies more ammunition. West may become an attraction not because of his musical achievements, but because he’s a political lightning rod.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2005 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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