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‘Late Registration’: How Kanye West Handed In A Stone-Cold Classic

With ‘Late Registration’, Kanye showed he could switch his sound at will and still create genre-bending hits that would take hip-hop into the future.

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One of the most notable debuts in hip-hop history, Kanye West’s 2004 album, The College Dropout, established him as one of the genre’s most vital artists. A multi-faceted and idiosyncratic work, it was both critically adored (winning Best Rap Album at the 2005 Grammy awards) and packed with enough pop nous to go double-platinum in sales. For its follow-up, Late Registration, Kanye was ready to prove he could push hip-hop to even greater heights in the 00s.

Riding the crest of the College Dropout wave, he went straight back into the studio to begin work on Late Registration. Never one to repeat a winning formula, Kanye enlisted producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion – previously best known for his work with Fiona Apple and for the soundtrack to the film Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – in an effort to switch up his sound.

Recorded over the course of a year, across a number of studios in New York City and Los Angeles, Late Registration found West eschewing the high-paced samples of The College Dropout; with Brion’s symphonic prowess to the fore, the results were a grander, more expansive sound. The album is at its most maximalist on ‘Celebration’, on which a 20-piece orchestra gives a ravishingly grandiose backing to Kanye’s tales of hedonistic partying. Elsewhere, string sections lend the likes of ‘Bring Me Down’, ‘Gone’, and ‘Late’ a baroque-pop flavour.

There were still hits aplenty, though, while Kanye’s ear for a soul sample was as astute as ever. The Billboard No.1 hit ‘Gold Digger’ (his best-selling single to date) cleverly pairs a sample from Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’ with sharp, hammered beats and a neat Jamie Fox cameo. ‘Gone’ nicely reworked a sped-up sample from Otis Redding’s ‘It’s Too Late’, while ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)’ found West probing the ethics of the diamond trade astride a neatly segmented sample from Shirley Bassey’s ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. There are more powerful examples of social commentary elsewhere, on the likes of ‘Crack Music’, while two tracks work as tributes to the women in Kanye’s life: ‘Roses’ recounts his angst at his grandmother’s near-death experience, while the powerful and affecting ‘Hey Mama’ is a loving ode to his mother, Donna West.

Released on 30 August 2005 to more widespread critical acclaim (it went onto win the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album and gained an Album Of The Year nomination), Late Registration proved another huge hit for West, selling over 860,000 copies in its first week and debuting at No.1 in the Billboard chart, en route to going triple-platinum. The album remains one of Kanye West’s best-loved works, spawning the fully-orchestrated, live-recorded Late Orchestration the following year.

Late Registration can be bought here.

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