Kanye West's 2004 debut, The College Dropout, was nominated for ten Grammys and sold 2.6 million copies – but with his second album, August 30th's Late Registration, he's aiming much, much higher. "They say you can't be all things to all people," West told his new production partner, rock studio whiz and film composer Jon Brion. "But I want to be all things to all people."
The most obvious sign of West's quest for universal appeal was his genre-defying decision to hire Brion – best known for his lush, quirky orchestral arrangements for Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and ET. Anderson movies, including Punch-Drunk Love – as co-executive producer. "Some people who hear about this assume it's just total madness," says Brion, who had never worked on a hip-hop track until West sought him out on the recommendation of mutual pal Rick Rubin. "But why not make the attempt to bridge as many gaps as possible?"
Brion helped with song structure and played guitar, keyboards and other instruments – but his most noticeable contributions are the album's prominent strings and the extended codas on some tracks. Among West's other collaborators were guest vocalists Cam'ron, Brandy, the Game, Jamie Foxx, Jay-Z and Maroon 5's Adam Levine. "This is definitely not just a hip-hop album," says Brion. "But it is also by no means overtly arty, or non-hip-hop. I don't think it's a weird record by any means."
"Heard 'Em Say," with Levine doing his best Stevie Wonder on the chorus, is likely to be the album's next single. "It was really a cool, organic process," says Levine. "Kanye's lyrics were beautiful."
The disc begins with the triumphant "Touch the Sky": "I think I died in that accident – this must be heaven," West raps over blaring horns and strings, referring once again to the car crash immortalized in Dropout's "Through the Wire." One of the album's most dramatic songs, the diss track "Bring Me Down," opens with an orchestral flourish and a Queenlike choir of multilayered Brandy vocals. The jazzy "Drive Slow" nods to Houston with a chopped-and-screwed coda, while "Crack Music," the album's rawest song, pays lyrical homage to the Black Panthers over a martial beat and Dr. Dre-style synth line.
"I think there was a great deal in common between us," says Brion. "Kanye is absolutely obsessed with wanting to make something really good."
This story is from the August 11th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.
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