Late Registration, Indeed

Shall we set the scene? Anybody hear about this?

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Can I get a “hell, yeah”? No? Well, at least allow me to explore why this statement is more than it seems through my you-can-see-the-brown-marker-lines drawing. What he’s saying here is much more than an impulsive outburst. Its repercussions should be felt far beyond the Jackson-Timberlake malfunction, not quite Public Enemy but approaching a tasteful John Lennon flavor. But even “we’re bigger than Jesus” pales in comparison to this, because it’s not about the message, people; it’s about the messenger. Hell, I could say that on TV. Reverend Al Sharpton could even say it, pulpit voice loud and booming, shaking every stone-age set of rabbit ears into distortion. But Al and I didn’t say it, and the cultural identity of the guy who did say it makes all the difference in the world.

Until recently, the post-racism, the post-homophobe, the post-sexism effects have all been melting down into a great big ignorant, indifferent pot of diversity. From the PC to the FCC, the answers are no longer as sure of themselves as right and wrong. With that said, now is the perfect time to explore some good old fashioned poverty-influenced race issues, right in tune with the most prolific and influential hip-hop artist today and his public reaction to the most catastrophic natural disaster to hit the shores of American history. There's no time like the present to put race relations back on the front burner, because after this hurricane, they are boiling over.

I know what you’re thinking: “U Can’t Touch This!” Well please, Hammer, I don’t mean to hurt ‘em. I never mean to hurt anyone with my tactless flow, but it’s out there anyway. First and foremost, beyond any ulterior motives Kanye West might have harbored in his statement, beyond the fact that I’m just a straight-up 20-something mid-lower middle (or somewhere in there) class Los Anglo girl trying to address rap and racism, the issues at hand here are passionate activism and censorship. As sure as President Bush doesn’t care about black people, I care about passionate activism and censorship. Through my eyes, these issues are color blind.

Kayne was in the midst of lending his talents to a live, televised broadcast of an all-star benefit concert to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina when he opened his mouth and went off-roading from the bland NBC-approved script. In addition to the President Bush remark, he also voiced what had become a common concern about the controversial media slants on black and white hurricane survivors. Interestingly enough, NBC cut only the Bush comment for West Coast broadcast, a move I find particularly suspect, but not too suspect, given the Administration’s close ties with General Electric, the NBC-owning, generous Bush campaign-contributing tour de force in Congressional lobbying power.

If you think about the politics of censorship, Kanye could have said anything, say, something like, “Jay-Z sucks balls” and he might not have been censored, but the Bush critique doesn’t fly as high as Janet’s shirt. The lesson here is “Don’t Mess with the President,” or more adequately, “Don’t Let Powerful, Influential Black Artists Mess with the President,” but I don’t think anyone learned anything except that they need to be even more vocal against the powers that be and continue pushing the limits of censorship to see what breaks. Although I acknowledge the network’s ownership and its right to cut anything it deems inappropriate for its viewers, NBC’s justification for censorship in this case was pretty weak and only succeeded in drawing unwanted attention to itself:

“[the benefit] was a live television event wrought with emotion," said NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks. "Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him and in no way represents the views of the networks. It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated and the millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person's personal opinion."

Now, I didn’t have the benefit of experiencing this benefit with my own eyes, but something tells me the most “wrought with emotion” moment happened when West’s emotions overrode the teleprompter and he said, "We already realized a lot of the people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way, and they've given them permission to go down and shoot us.” The chills were so freezing; they cascaded down all kinds of spines as this truth-based outburst resonated far beyond the censors. And you know what the propagandists always say: when the truth is censored, it becomes even more powerful.

Unlike any other celebrity protest, whether it be silent (Marlon Brando’s Godfatherly replacement acceptance of his Academy Award) or way vocal (Sinead O’Connor’s totally unfunny photo rip of the Pope on SNL), West’s comments will be taken seriously, because like it or not, they are timely and politically relevant. You’ve got to say, “hell, yeah” to yourself with no inner shame or embarrasment, because if this inspirational, raging egomaniac hip-hop artist, who walks with Jesus, Nas, and Jon Brion without breaking character, can’t make you impulsively say, “hell, yeah” or even “fuck, yeah," man, sadly, I don’t know who can.

Truth is, I hope everyone listens to what Kanye West has said, especially black people, because if we're talking about President Bush, we’re talking about the same man who paid the NAACP a half-ass visit right before the 2004 election to basically say, “I’m asking for your vote.” For my two-cent vote, I don’t agree that "President Bush doesn’t care about black people"; in fact, it’s more widespread than that. The real issue here? President Bush doesn’t care about poor people. However, since Kanye West was referring to the poor people of New Orleans, the majority of whom are black, he’s right on the money, and the fact that he was speaking from the heart makes it so much more profitable.

But regardless of how his political activist career works out, he’s about to make serious bank with his new album. On the strength of masterpiece-level reviews, the guest-star-sprinkled Late Registration is set to take the number one spot on the Billboards this week, no contest. In light of recent events, the same conservative Christian kids who boycotted the Dixie Chicks yet got off on “Jesus Walks” may decide to shun this record. But if you think about it, if he was alive today, Jesus would be down there in the flood right now with those poor victims, so if that's too hot for Robertson's kids, they should probably just stay away. Even though Late Registration is rife with politics and a couple more shout-outs to Bush, it’s surprisingly passionate, enough to win over the cynics.

Since I’m ramblingly arriving at the Late Registration a bit late in the game, not a moment too soon, I’ll just highlight a couple of my observations thus far. It’s funny; “Diamonds of Sierra Leone” and “Gone” are the very same two songs that Rob Sheffield grouped under the “weird” descriptor in his five-star (five stars? Come on, man, that’s classic) Rolling Stone review:

1. “Touch the Sky” – Badly utilized Curtis Mayfield sample aside, Kanye does a terrible P. Diddy (or “Diddy” for those who did not receive his name-change announcement) impersonation (didn’t think it was possible) in the chorus. “Gotta testify, come up in the spot lookin’ extra fly, from the day I die, gonna touch the sky!” From the day I die, this just kills the song.

2. “Diamonds of Sierra Leone” – At first you’re rolling your eyes at the James Bond “Diamonds Are Forever” chorus echoing in excess. “I don’t care if Jay-Z is guesting on this one,” you think, “this is too over-the-top.” Wrong. This is the actually the most politically active song of the bunch, with Kayne racking his conscience about the diamond trade in Sierra Leone and its connection to rappers’ status symbol of choice: “Over here, its a drug trade, we die from drugs; Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs; the diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses; I thought my Jesus Piece was so harmless; 'til I seen a picture of a shorty armless.” When Jay-Z says his piece, it’s a strong argument in defense of his right as a capitalist: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man. Let me do my business, damn.” When the song ends a little too abruptly, you know it's a conversation that might well continue on.

3. “Crack Music” – This fascinating look inside the crack epidemic gets really high when Kayne turns the conversation to the purity of hip-hop: “Sometimes I feel the music is the only medicine; so we cook it, cut it, measure it, bag it, sell it; the fiends cop it; nowadays they cant tell if that's that good shit; we ain't sure man; put the CD on your tongue yeah, that’s pure man.”

3. “Gone” - This has been such a favorite that it’s gained repeat status. I guess “Gone” alone can have Sheffield's five-star rating. Although I'm resistant to supporting the sample-sploitation of legendary soul musicians, here Otis Redding (my favorite), is not hung out to dry; quite the contrary, his spirit is evoked beautifully, belting out broken phrases from “It’s Too Late,” hovering over the song, supernatural yet ever-present over a choppy repetitive piano as the beat kicks in and Jon Brion’s delicately placed string arrangements accentuate the guest rappers, Consequence and Cam'Ron. Now, just left to these elements, this song would be strong, but it turns a corner into the strangely profound when, at the 3:33 mark, the instrumentation veers off the beaten path, into an ominous kind of pause where even Otis won’t follow. Kanye stutters like Jay-Z as he bursts into this drastically changed scene with some of the most intriguing self-analysis on the album: “I'm ahead of my time, sometimes years out; so the powers that be won't let me get my ideas out.”

And as Kanye West continues on about his success vs. inspiration quandary, the orchestration swelling with urgency behind him as "Gone" comes to a vanishing conclusion, his egotism becomes just another tool he can use to his advantage. For someone who’s seemingly got the whole music business at his fingertips – talented guest rappers, the best producers, Billboard, the critical establishment – Kayne West sure made a bold move on NBC. Besides overconfident, his voice is also powerful, loud, successful, and refreshingly socially conscious. Let’s hope people are listening to more than just Late Registration and notice the eerie similarity of his album title to the Bush Administration’s response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Can I get a "hell, yeah"? No? Didn't think so.


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