The College Dropout changed rap — and really the course of music history, full stop — more than any other album this century. It introduced Kanye West, the most influential pop icon of his generation, and his maniacal swirl of self-admiration and self-doubt. It detonated the boundaries between rap’s flossing mainstream and philosophizing underground. It spawned more hits than you can count on one hand. And even though much of it sounds positively quaint these days, it created a new template from which all of today’s most popular and acclaimed rappers sprang. It’s a landmark by any standard, and a large swath of music fans will always believe it’s Kanye’s best work. Yet I’ll always believe that Late Registration, the sophomore LP he released 10 years ago this Sunday, was better.
We’ll get to the excellence of the album momentarily, but first, some context: For all the memorable lyrics and visionary musical passages on Late Registration, the album was not the most historic thing Kanye did in late summer 2005. On 9/2, three days after Late Registration came out, he went on a Hurricane Katrina telethon with Mike Myers and uttered the first of his many legendary disruptions: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The statement followed a lengthy ramble about the media’s discriminatory portrayal of white and black refugees and several other radical proclamations including “America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well off as slow as possible”; “A lot of the people who could help are at war right now fighting another way”; “They’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us.” We can debate Kanye’s statements for days — actually, we have debated them for years — but their seismic impact on American cultural discourse are undeniable. Kanye caught wind of an important conversation happening in the margins, and he brought it to the mainstream, where it could not be ignored.
Listeners needed to get barely a minute into Late Registration to hear him spouting similar rhetoric. “And I know the government administer AIDS,” he casually submits during the first verse of gorgeously graceful opening song “Heard ‘Em Say.” His frustration repeatedly bubbles over into matter-of-fact truth bombs — Kanye wondering aloud why his grandma can’t get the same HIV treatment as Magic Johnson, Kanye blaming Ronald Reagan for the crack epidemic that helped further marginalize black America in the ’80s, Kanye questioning (via skits starring DeRay Davis) the wisdom of going into debt to obtain a college education that guarantees you nothing. He occasionally points the finger at himself, too, squirming at his own fondness for conflict diamonds and lamenting, “Why everything that’s supposed to be bad make me feel so good?” There’s also that definitive “Touch The Sky” lyric, one of a handful of lines that could work as a thesis statement for Kanye West’s career: “I’m trying to right my wrongs/ But it’s funny, the same wrongs help me write the songs.” He’s as inflammatory and conflicted as ever here, and it lends Late Registration the same feeling of rawness and spontaneity that inspired Kanye’s comment about George Bush.
The delivery system for those sentiments is far from raw and spontaneous, though. Late Registration is a carefully constructed sprawl, skipping across styles and moods but always sounding of a piece. Kanye produced almost every track (Just Blaze’s Curtis Mayfield flip “Touch The Sky” is the only exception), so the colorful textures, tweaked soul samples, and walloping trunk music of The College Dropout carry over. But Hollywood avant-pop mastermind Jon Brion, who was coming off the Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind score and Fiona Apple’s label-rejected Extraordinary Machines at the time, co-produced a lot of those songs, and he helped turn Late Registration into what I once called “a grander, flashier version 2.0.” Brion’s orchestral arrangements and prog-rock flourishes infused the music with a sense of high drama. Tracks like the concrete-shattering epic “Crack Music” and the synth-squealing hot air balloon ride “We Major” are as organic as the rich boom-bap that put Kanye on the map, just blown-out to movie-screen proportions. Even the gentle “Heard ‘Em Say” and the outright funky “Gold Digger” feel bigger than life.
Speaking of the undeniably-goofy-and-maybe-problematic-but-come-on-let-yourself-laugh-for-once-in-your-life mega-hit “Gold Digger,” let’s not forget how much fun Late Registration is. It’s not just a chronicle of inner turmoil spilling over; it’s a celebration, bitches! The album makes room for a wide spectrum of emotions, from the warmhearted tribute “Hey Mama” (guaranteed to make you smile) to the triumphant “Touch The Sky” (guaranteed to make you move your body) to the screwed Houston cruising music “Drive Slow” (guaranteed to make you drive slow). Even the guest selection is diverse, and Kanye gives them plenty of room to shine, from living legends Cam’Ron and Nas to au courant MCs Paul Wall and the Game to GOOD Music underlings Consequence and GLC. He even gives Common his own song (“My Way Home”) and lets Jay-Z have the best line on the album (“I’m not a businessman / I’m a business, man!”). And while I don’t miss rap skits at all, I still crack up every time I hear the broke-ass fratboy character tell Kanye, “Don’t you ever come back smelling all good, taking showers and shit like that.” The album elicits a whole range of involuntary reactions like that. Think of it as Kanye’s monument to human experience, his Songs In The Key Of Life.
At 68 minutes, Late Registration is a behemoth, and appropriately enough, it ends with an extended mic drop. Despite some stragglers — the inferior Jay-less “Diamonds Of Sierra Leone” and the inessential hidden track “Late” — “Gone” is the record’s proper closing track, and it stands out as a titanic parting gesture even in a discography that also includes “Last Call,” “Lost In The World,” “Big Brother,” and “Bound 2.” “Gone” is a victory lap with the scope of a grand finale, a six-minute symphonic banger full of inspired musical flourishes and head-slapping forced rhymes only a Kanye-sized ego could pull off. (“Sometimes I can’t believe it when I look up in the mirro’ / How we out in Europe, spending Euros.”) It’s a huge way to end a huge album. And in between all those howlers, it contains more than a few prophetic boasts about Kanye’s place in music history.
“I’m ahead of my time, sometimes years out.” Check. “And the powers that be won’t let me get my ideas out.” Check. “They claim you never know what you got ’til it’s gone / I know I got it, I don’t know what y’all on.” Double check. And then there’s the bit about opening up a school for inspiring MCs, Kanye picturing a new generation of rappers banging down his door for inspiration. He couldn’t have known how right he was at the time, but that’s exactly what happened. Look at how Kendrick Lamar stepped into Kanye’s old lane, bringing a backpacker’s conscience to West Coast gangster rap. Look at how Drake flipped 808s And Heartbreak’s melancholy hip-hop singsong into an entire career. Look at how J. Cole built an empire by playing the part of JV Kanye West. The guy’s influence has been as massive as he imagined, and when you revisit Late Registration, it’s easy to see why.