The sophomore slump may have started as an old wives’ tale, something to encourage students to work hard in school, but for musicians, it is a looming nightmare that has forced many of them into a cold sweat. A well-received first album doesn’t mean a damn thing in the world of music, and while the old saying “you’re only as good as your last success” may ring true, nobody wants to be a one-trick pony that will be forgotten like a relic of the past.
The sophomore album is essentially a make-it-or-break-it album for many artists. It acts as proof that they didn’t have beginner’s luck and their first album wasn’t just a fluke. Most artists don’t let the nerves of the sophomore slump affect them too much, as they are able to improve on what they did right on the first album. One such artist was able to do exactly that and more with his sophomore album, and that artist is Kanye West.
Originally an up-and-coming producer from Chicago for great artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West first appeared on the radar with his breakout album The College Dropout, which earned him two Grammys and some chart success. However, his sophomore album Late Registration, while polarizing to some, is one of the most influential albums in not only the music legend’s career, but also the genre of rap during the early 21st century.
This album, following the themes of The College Dropout included commentary on complex topics that rappers at the time did not dare speak about and stellar production that no one had heard before. Kanye began to express his true personality, one of the signature qualities that would earn him a notorious reputation for being brash, arrogant and bizarre, but also socially conscious and relatable. What separates this album from West’s first is how he expanded upon these themes and took them to a level that would transform him from a humble producer turned rapper with an album that true hip-hop fans adored, to an international music superstar.
One of the most impressive aspects of Kanye’s albums is his mastery of production, something that made his sophomore album stand out. West once again broke the mold of what was popular and dared to try something new, something different. The most interesting thing about this album is that he had to stand out from the competition, which was a direct result of him. With The College Dropout’s heavily R&B-influenced sound mixed with Kanye’s rapping, many producers started to find chart-topping success by using a similar sound, so for his next trick, Kanye went grander and stranger with his production.
The bass and drums hit harder, the horns blare louder and the samples are even more unique. Instead of R&B, Kanye’s sound was heavily inspired by old soul joints that an older crowd could enjoy with nostalgic feelings while simultaneously educating a younger generation on what black music sounded like back in the day, and what its place was in a more contemporary setting.
The production on this album took rap to a place it wasn’t used to: a level of grandeur. With a track like “Diamonds Are Forever,” which samples the Nancy Sinatra song that was made for the James Bond movie of the same name, it’s no wonder that this album carries a sense of class. In addition, Kanye makes use of a live orchestra on some tracks, such as my personal favorite, “Late,” and the song “Celebration,” which allegedly was difficult to record since Kanye’s rhymes made orchestra members laugh while they were recording. The regality of a live orchestra, the use of drum and bass kits that had never been heard before and the ability to take something old and make it new again shattered the expectation of what exemplary production should sound like on a rap album.
At the same time, Kanye’s rhymes were more concise, thought out and witty, which made him sound more mature and experienced than he was in his previous album. Once again, Kanye went to places many rappers were afraid of venturing into. In “Heard ‘Em Say,” Kanye paints a bleak picture of what it’s like to be black in America, and in “Addiction,” he has an honest dialogue about his addictions and how they negatively affect his life.
One of his most impressive tracks on the album, “Hey Mama,” is simply a song that expresses the love and respect he has for his mom. In the song, he details moments from his life where his mom was his hero, such as encouragement to get back on a bike after falling off and not letting romantic partners get in the way of the bond they shared as mother and son. There weren’t many rap songs at the time that were filled with such childlike happiness saying how great their mom was, and there still aren’t, but Kanye wasn’t afraid to put this side of him on the album for anyone to listen to and judge.
Kanye’s personality very much shines on this album, and the public got its first taste of the full Kanye West package. One moment, he’s pointing out how racial discrimination is still an aspect of the high rates of unemployment in the black community. In another he’s humorously and not so subtly implying that a woman is a gold digger. Then, on a different song, he’s bragging about his talents that make him a cut above the rest. Self-assured, witty and sometimes just plain weird, Kanye wore his heart on the record sleeve, and everyone loved it. You would be hard-pressed to find another artist that had put so much of their personality on an album and found international success.
Kanye West went from radio plays in America from his first album to having the people of France hollering “We want pre-nup” in the clubs of Paris with his second. There’s a line in “Touch the Sky” where Kanye mentions that Jay-Z once said to him “‘Damn, dawg! You where I am!’” By this, Kanye means that with just two albums, he was able to achieve the success of what Jay-Z, a mentor to Kanye, did with eight albums. Regardless of what you think of him now, Late Registration is proof that Kanye West is a brilliant artist whose individuality helped advance and transform the landscape of rap albums after him, and it earns a special place in my heart as my favorite Kanye West album.