While The College Dropout was the world’s formal introduction to Kanye West, the rapper, Late Registration represented the first time Kanye West leapt over every expectation. Sure, West’s sophomore release was highly anticipated; College Dropout’s success had ensured that, but at that point West was known as a kid who stepped out from behind the scenes and made something memorable. With Registration, he made it clear that he had a profound belief in himself. No wonder then that Late Registration was a monumental release and an important mile-marker. As an artist who would stay in front of the game with his next four solo releases — not one of them bad, or even average, which is kind of an uncanny thing — Kanye declared himself as the man to beat. No matter your opinion of West at that point, it was hard to see something on the scale of Late Registration coming.
Though West had an array of talent at his disposal — his years behind the boards guaranteed that Jay-Z or Pharrell would answer his call — he did something unexpected. He enlisted Jon Brion, a fellow audiophile who had mostly worked on pop records with a more orchestral vibe and instrumental headiness — notably Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine. (Brion also worked with Rufus Wainwright, Sean Lennon, and Robyn Hitchcock. He was not an obvious choice.) Though there are moments of Late Registration that sound dated now — there are probably one or two too many orchestral swells — the record itself was nothing but an imposing monolith of sound. When Brion and West struck it right on “Gold Digger” or “Hey Mama” or the sensational and timeless tirade “Gone,” it was studio magic.
Late Registration, compared to later records, showed us West at his messiest and most vulnerable. Still grappling with the widespread notion that he wasn’t a great lyricist, or something besides a studio freak, Kanye flipped those ideas. What Late Registration showed us was a pop musician executing something difficult, a high-wire walk between the sounds of the “now” (features from Lupe Fiasco, Cam’ron, Paul Wall) and the place he was headed. It can be hard to line up with the extraordinarily arrogant and fashion-plated West of 2015, but here was West learning how to grow into his sound while simultaneously validating his vision.
Also: Late Registration’s got jokes, son. “I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger,” West explains on Late Registration’s biggest hit. “But she ain’t messin’ with no broke niggas.” “Says she want diamonds, I took her to Ruby Tuesdays/ If we up in Fridays, I still have it my way,” he raps on “Gone.” He balances these moments with moments of seriousness: “Roses” is a song to his dying grandmother and it’s touching as shit and in a way that sometimes feels lopsided but human. Now that Kanye West doesn’t seem like a normal dude, Late Registration offers a glimpse of a studio guy becoming an artist. Nothing was the same after that.