For those familiar with Kanye West’s well-documented braggadocio, it may come as a surprise that the rapper/producer found plenty wrong with his Grammy Award-winning debut, “The College Dropout.” With his sophomore effort, “Late Registration” (due Aug. 30 on Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam), West aimed to correct his perceived flaws in flow, engineering, instrumentation and lyrics.
“Some of what we did on [“Dropout”], like ‘Last Call,’ was rushed, although people liked it,” West says during a recent phone interview from Chicago. “But it was pseudo [compared] to what we’re doing now. It wasn’t authentic like a Portishead, Radiohead or Fiona Apple. I’ve always wanted to sound like I was rapping at the top of a mountain. I wanted to change the sound of music.”
Enter songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, the production whiz behind such artists as Apple, Rufus Wainwright and Aimee Mann, plus Grammy-nominated soundtracks to the films “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Magnolia.”
With Brion onboard, “Late Registration” expands the “Dropout” premise to include live instrumentation, with violin, viola, cello and French horn, not to mention “Eternal Sunshine” director Michel Gondry on drums.
Brion calls his working relationship with West a natural fit. “His knowledge and understanding of records across the board is great,” Brion says. “That’s the reason why we got along: We don’t see music as something that happens in one genre.”
By now, most have heard two examples of what West and Brion’s collaboration sounds like: lead single “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” and follow-up “Gold Digger,” which features Jamie Foxx doing his Ray Charles impersonation alongside samples of Charles’ own vocals.
“Diamonds” peaked at No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at No. 21 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. “Gold Digger” currently stands at No. 4 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and at No. 27 on the Hot 100.
“Late Registration” finds West once again waxing about serious subjects that most contemporary rappers sidestep. West, who condemned gay-bashing in hip-hop during a recent MTV interview, speaks his mind.
On “Dropout,” his rap sheet was a diverse commentary on everything from gettin’ down (“Slow Jamz”) and consumerism in the black community (“All Falls Down”) to personal triumph (“Through the Wire”) and spiritual inspiration (“Jesus Walks”). On “Late Registration,” the subject matter is just as wide-ranging.
“Diamonds From Sierra Leone” cleverly ties in the bling of West’s post-fame life with the horrors of the African country’s ongoing civil war, which is fueled by the illegal diamond trade (“I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless/until I saw a picture of a shorty armless”). Another track, “Heard ‘Em Say” featuring Maroon5 frontman Adam Levine, talks about being honest with yourself in a world that is not. One of the lines is, “I know the government administered AIDS.”
West also trains his lyrical sights on drugs in the black community (“Crack Music,” featuring the Game and a gospel choir), his grandmother’s hospital stay (“Roses”) and racism/self-hate in “Bring Me Down” (with Brandy).
It is not all serious, however. West’s tongue-in-cheek, fun side emerges on “Gold Digger,” then he gets the party going with the ’60s/’70s flashback “Celebration.”
West also dips back in the vaults for his trademark bridging of hip-hop and soul, pressing into service recordings by Bill Withers (“Rosie”), Natalie Cole (“Someone That I Used to Love”), Curttis Mayfield (“Move On Up”), Otis Redding (“It’s Too Late”), Etta James (“My Funny Valentine”) and others. He even dusted off jazz/pop vocalist Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever.”
In addition to the aforementioned guests, West enlists the vocal services of Jay-Z, John Legend, Keyshia Cole, Consequence, Cam’Ron, Charlie Wilson, Nas, Common, Paul Wall, GLC and newcomer Lupe Fiasco. “I look at voices as instruments,” West says of selecting guests for the album. “I wasn’t going after the person or the name. I wanted their voice.”
As expected, Def Jam is planning a full-court marketing blitz. West landed on the cover of Time magazine’s Aug. 29 issue, which is dedicated to hip-hop. He also won the best male video for “Jesus Walks” at the recent MTV Video Music Awards, and also performed “Gold Digger” with Foxx at the ceremony.
During release week, West travels to New York for an in-store at the Tower Records location near Lincoln Center and appearances on MTV’s “TRL,” BET’s “106 & Park” and various local stations. From there, he heads to Chicago, where R&B/hip-hop WGCI is sponsoring a Sept. 1 in-store at Borders Books & Music. The next day, it is back to New York to play an outdoor concert at Lincoln Center for “Good Morning America.”
West joins such acts as Green Day in a musical lineup that will kick off the NFL’s 2005 season Sept. 8 in a live ABC special. Also airing that day is West’s guest stint on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Additional visits are planned for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Last Call With Carson Daly” and “VH1 Hip-Hop Honors.”
A big tour draw last year opening for Usher, West is anxious to jump back on the road. Dates are being negotiated for possible shows in October and November. “I love performing,” West says. “I love the feeling of these tracks playing, getting the opportunity to hear them really loud and see what’s connecting with people the most.”
With all the hoopla surrounding “Late Registration,” West is finding it hard to devote time to other musical pursuits. His GOOD (Getting Out Our Dreams) imprint through Sony Music Label Group U.S. is taking up any spare moment. “And even with my GOOD music artists,” he says, “unfortunately, I don’t have the amount of time I want to cook up every single beat.”
The imprint scored a hit with Legend’s 2004 set “Get Lifted,” and GOOD acts Consequence, GLC, Bentley Farnsworth and production collective Sa-Ra have releases scheduled for the coming months, West says. “If you think about it,” he adds, “I’ve done way fewer tracks this year than last year.”
West’s production helped fellow Chicagoan Common reap critical and commercial success for his album “Be.” This, after West made a name for himself producing everyone from Jay-Z and Alicia Keys to Talib Kweli and Twista. “I have to narrow back so I can focus on making music of a certain caliber,” West says.
In fact, he is already planning the next two albums in his continuing education series: “Graduation” and “Good Ass Job.” His to-do list includes directing and soundtracks (“There are some things in the works. But I won’t say what, because I don’t want anyone to take these ideas”). Lauryn Hill and Eminem are on his collaboration wish list (“They write really cold verses”).
In the meantime, West seems pretty certain that what pulls him away from GOOD is, well, great. “This album is so good, it’s scary,” he declares. “I would be shittin’ if I didn’t have involvement in this. People are either going to try way harder or just quit.”
Excerpted from the Sept. 3, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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