It’s hard to believe that Kanye West’s groundbreaking hip-hop classic album, Late Registration, turned ten years old this summer. Man, wasn’t that a fun time? At the 2006 Grammys, all this gem did was earn an Album of the Year nomination and take home the Best Rap Album of the Year award. Oh, and he also won Best Rap Song for scathing political commentary-turned-club banger “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”. Rolling Stone hailed it as a “sweepingly generous, absurdly virtuosic hip-hop classic”. While it’s easy to debate the varying significance of his numerous and unique albums, there’s no argument that Late Registration is representative of a version of Kanye West that has, for the most part, long since passed away. Whether you like it or not, Yeezy has changed, and took his classic sound with him.
Think back to “Touch the Sky”: Kanye West’s smash single off Late Registration. Remember the a slowed-down sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up”? How about the energetic, hungry guest verse from some unknown rapper by the name of Lupe Fiasco? Remember how it feels to hear Kanye urge you to “come up in the spot lookin’ extra fly”, reassuring you that “’till the day you die, you’re gonna touch the sky”? Over blaring horns and frenetic drums, Kanye’s energetic and clever rhymes are as infectious as they are reminiscent and vulnerable. Kanye thinks back to the days when he and his mom hopped in the U-Haul van headed to their new home, all the while wincing at how much his new loafers just cost him. “Touch the Sky” is brimming with optimism and joy, grateful for his upbringing and how far he’s come.
That’s the classic Kanye West that we’ve grown to love over the years: chopped-up soul samples, orchestration, a thumping beat, witty, quotable punch lines, and irresistible hooks. Make no mistake: Late Registration was released during a time when Kanye was grounded and motivated. He was humble and inspired, undeterred and youthfully optimistic. He was fresh off his debut album, College Dropout, where personal, lush gems such as “Family Business”, Kanye’s soulful, choir-driven anthem on the virtues of family togetherness, and “Through the Wire”, an emotional reflection upon his near-death experience in a car accident, reigned supreme. While Late Registration became a smash hit, Kanye stuck to his roots for his polished, energetic, larger-than-life junior album Graduation in 2007. With it, he gave the people similar music, focused on happiness and celebration with songs like “Good Life”, and paying homage to his hometown in the nostalgic, appreciative “Homecoming”.
But after this album, something changed. His music got darker, and he got angrier. More defensive, less focused on the joy. In 2008, Kanye came out with the strange, autotune-driven R&B album 808s & Heartbreak, which was met with mixed critical response. Then he embarrassed Taylor Swift. As a self-proclaimed apology to the people for his actions, he subsequently released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. While it was a tremendous album, rife with lush production and tremendous music, Kanye never really got back to the old days. His music was decidedly more angry, more combative, more controversial. You could feel the joy in his music starting to slip away. Then he came out with Yeezus in 2013, hands-down his most grating, sonically unappealing, lyrically offensive work to date. So what happened? What changed him? Why was old Kanye acting so differently than the Kanye of today?He wasn’t dating Kim Kardashian. He never felt marginalized by the media and victimized by his celebrity. He wasn’t obsessed with pushing his
questionably-designed, ratty clothes. He wasn’t going on stage to publicly shame Taylor Swift for winning an award. He wasn’t announcing his candidacy for President of the United States. (The list really does go on). Somewhere along the line, something changed.
While I don’t know the man personally and don’t pretend to be a psychoanalyst, I think two things happened: he tragically lost his mother and best friend, Donda West, to complications from cosmetic surgery in 2007, and broke up with his long-term girlfriend of five years shortly thereafter. Following these events, the sound changed and, with it, so did Kanye’s attitude. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we can attribute Kanye’s change to increased cynicism after having been in the industry for so long. Maybe it’s impossible to stay humble and grounded when you’re as rich and famous as Kanye has become. Maybe he just got bored with music and wanted to move on to different things. Regardless, after ten years, this is as good of a time as any to take stock of one of the greatest musicians of our generation. Late Registration, after a decade, is a time capsule. An injection of youthfulness, optimism, and stunning creativity that can only be harnessed a handful of times in a lifetime. I’m not sure what Kanye is gonna do next, but it can’t hurt to put on “Touch the Sky” while we wait and see.