Late Registration came out 11 years ago Tuesday, and it’s Kanye West’s best album.
No, wait. I take that back. Graduation is his best album. Or maybe it’s 808s? Yeezus? Every Kanye album has been “Kanye’s best album,” because with every new album release, a tectonic shift is created in hip-hop’s discourse. Any discussion about which is the best is bound to wear out before a conclusion is reached. It’s pointless, like having an argument about what “illusory superiority” means or whether people from Phoenix are, in fact, called “Phoenicians.” Besides, you could just look those answers up on your phone.
The answer to what is the best Kanye album depends on the context in which you’re asking the question. Did it rain today? Did I come outside to a street-cleaning ticket on my car? Am I still in college? When’s the last time I had sex? What season is it? Also, what if Late Registration had no skits and “My Way Home” wasn’t on it? What then?
Late Registration doesn’t have the cogency of Graduation, the lovable slapdash feel of College Dropout, nor the purview of later works like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But it does have Jon Brion, and Jon Brion is a fucking lot. Partially because of Brion’s production, the album rewards plenty over its 70-minute runtime: Kanye rapping “Can I talk my shit again?” before the beat drops from Willis Tower–height on “We Major”; Cam’ron and Kanye sharing time over Otis Redding on “Gone”; Kanye weighing the idea of spurning fame and moving somewhere in the breadbasket in search of a simpler life over brash violins, also on “Gone.”
But I just want to appreciate Late Registration’s best song. The best song is “Late.”
Let’s start with the sample. “Late” pulls from the Whatnaut’s 1971 single “I’ll Erase Away Your Pain.” It’s one of those sappy ballads from a time when more people believed in the singularity of “true love,” and Kanye picked it apart with an MPC and sped it up just fast enough to port it from its ooey-gooey origins to a place of campy aloofness. And so, the Whatnaut’s line “I’ll erase away…” morphs into Kanye’s “I’ll be late for that,” and what was once an intimate embrace with the apple of your eye on a vacant dance floor becomes a middle finger extended out of the driver’s side window as you speed away.
Back in 2005, Kanye was just learning to wear blazers and peacoats with his Air Force 1s. He was approachable. When Noisey tried ranking his albums last December, Kyle Kramer said that “most people don’t tend to come to Kanye looking for a friend so much as an idol, but if there were a moment in Kanye’s career where he was the former, it was [on Late Registration].” That’s true, and “Late” was the comforting hand I needed on my shoulder when I was cramming myself into a major, and again when I was sleeping on various floors and couches trying to figure this writing thing out:
This is different than Present Day Kanye, who stomps around about his genius. Late Registration’s Kanye, the Stunting Beyond His Means Kanye, was stressed about money even after the acclaim that College Dropout afforded him. He managed to wrestle with that, exploring the black American experience with nuance and clarity on the album (“Crack Music”) and testing a sitting U.S. president’s chin on live TV, smiling through all or most of it. This is when he first became comfortable in his public outspokenness, and I imagined that I could maybe become comfortable in mine. Late Registration had scenes conveying a perfect combination of traits I could aspire to, and things to which I could relate.
Like that very vivid image of rushing to get into the courses needed to graduate on time toward the end of the first verse on “Late”:
Each run through the revelation feels fresh: Wow. I too require constant praise and validation and demand to be taken seriously but allowed breadth for my unpardonable fuckups. It’s like being sopping wet at a stranger’s front door in the middle of the night seeking warmth, and seeing the light flicker on in the master bedroom.
Finally, if you’re looking for something truly worthy of Brion’s artful, dewy strings, look no further than this right here:
Woooooooofuckyouthatisart. And I do mean “art” in the brass-framed, old-dead-guy, baroque sense.
Plato didn’t have Plato to read, and Edmund Burke didn’t read Edmund Burke. They had to come to their own conclusions about what did and didn’t constitute “art.” And to an extent, for worse or — in this case — for better, so has Kanye West.