I must agree with Kanye West when he says, just as Bob Marley would, "sometimes I feel like music is the only medicine." That's from West's song "Crack Music" off his new album Late Registration, where he argues people have been kept impoverished and oppressed so long that it's created an insatiable demand for escape that can be met only by the producers of pharmaceuticals, Hollywood entertainment and music.
Sharing co-production credit on that track, as well as on 11 more of the 15 tracks here, is Jon Brion, the séance-inducing music producer who scored the fantastic work of Fiona Apple, along with films by P.T. Anderson (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love).
The question is, does it matter?
The fact is, it probably matters to no one other than West, and maybe Brion, but it's curious how Fiona Apple's entire CD can get shelved because of Brion's musical clockwork-orange-workings, but West's gets greenlighted for the same work. Will hip hop notice, though?
Maybe not in a song like "Golddigga," but in "Roses" you get it. It begins with West rhyming with only a slow buildup of keyboard chords behind him, before the mélange of congas, bass, choir and sample vocals drop in, creating something truly moving. West questions how the poor remain sick and die early while the rich have the luxury of adequate medical treatment. It's the greatest and probably only hip-hop critique of America's health-care crisis since Ice Cube's "Alive on Arrival" from Death Certificate.
"Addiction" examines the struggle between man's desires, lusts and excesses and our humanity. "Why is everything that's supposed to be so bad makes me feel so good? / everything they told me not to is exactly what I would."
It's also the point of the album where Brion's influence arguably outshines West's. I don't think West is capable of pulling off the tricky, trancey tracks he sometimes aspires to. West's best skill is in transferring soul through the ghosts of the old soul samples that glimmer through his instrumentals. But Brion is basket case, and has that cerebral sound West goes for and accomplishes best in "Addiction" -- which makes sense because most of what amounts to addiction is mental.
"We Major" continues the push, bending string orchestrations all around while Nas delivers a verse that rises from a coffin to embody his "God's Son" title like nothing else he's ever spit. Nas begins, "I heard the beat and I ain't know what to write," and spends the next 30 seconds contemplating aloud his approach like Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation before dropping the final stanza: "I'm Jesse Jackson on the balcony when King got killt / I survived the livest niggas around / that's longer than more than half of you clowns / look, I used to cook / before I had the game took / either way my change came like Sam Cooke."
Wow. Fucking wow.
Like College Dropout, Late Registration is about five songs too long. The Brandy-assisted "Bring Me Down" gets no love while "My Way Home," featuring only Common, sounds like Kanye pinched the bag of Be he sold to Common and kept it for his own stash. It's one of those drum-less, sample-wrapped tracks that treads too close to late '90s Puff Daddy-ism -- where a song isn't sampled, just jacked for its instrumental. It's lazy production and doesn't fit into the almost Anthony Braxtonish ensembles cooked throughout the rest of the album.