The following is the third in an eight-part series documenting the discography of Kanye West. Each week, Arts will feature a piece de- tailing the merits of one of West’s albums, in Ichronological order.
Imagine a 14-year-old white kid listening to “Good Morning” as he warms up for his track event—not the most novel thing in the world, but that was me a lot.
“Graduation” is Kanye West’s third stu- dio album, and it’s also his most masterful. It was the point where Kanye transitioned from gunning up-and-comer to hip-hop, and therefore pop, icon. It’s important to remem- ber just how many great songs are on this album. Following a tour with U2, Kanye was inspired to make music that would move arenas: songs that weren’t just for the club or car, but for the swarm (Genius, “How Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ Changed Music,” 09.08.2017).
Capturing the artist’s moment is an acces- sible foundation to any album review. When it comes to Kanye, it’s even more tempting. What does it mean that Elton John, Chris Martin, John Mayer and Steely Dan (what!? Is this a rap album or an extra cheesy camp- fire sing along?) are all featured on this al- bum? Besides being sampled for “Gradua- tion,” those artists all share well-proven pop sensibilities.
“Graduation” isn’t so much a stand-alone album as it is a transition album. The soul- fulness of Late Registration and Dropout came from the music they sampled and their reflective tone. The stadium-inspired “Grad- uation” is a tabulation of anthems. Nearly every song on this album could be a single, and Kanye’s gravitation toward synthesizers further supports the point. More proof? I’m going to run out of ways to describe elec- tronic noises by the end of this review.
Kanye West earned his stripes producing for the biggest names in hip-hop. His lyrics have always brought fame and infamy, but his perfectionist ear also made his music stand apart.
This special ear is evident in the masterful clash of electric and drum beats on the first track, “Good Morning.” It’s awash in wavy layers of synth, but measure is found in the thumping kick drum and reverb-soaked snare. It gives the song a marching beat feel, uniting the masses behind his iconoclast lyr- ics: “Look at the valedictorian/scared of the future while I hope in the DeLorean.”
The lyrical repetition of “Stronger” lets his new influences shine. Prior to sampling them on this track, West had never heard of Daft Punk. He isn’t so much rapping but using his voice to match the single-note key- board fills that ring out and give the song its futuristic feel. It’s the most popular song on the album.
My two favorite songs from “Gradua- tion” are also the most unique. The first is “Good Life.” T-Pain is featured on this track, and he adds a colorful punch to an already sing-songy song. T-Pain sings, “Now my grandma-ma ain’t the only one calling me baby.” (I mean, come on!) T-Pain’s feature is really noteworthy. His unapologetic love of autotune is credited with inspiring modern rappers like Migos, Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug, who use their voices to drive mel- odies and fill the beat. Their mumble and glam rap is criticized for being inauthentic to a genre that’s all about the spoken word, but why should hip-hop have to play by dif- ferent expectations than all other forms of music?
My other favorite song is “Everything I Am.” It’s the most lyrically deep track on the album, and is also a return to his earlier work. There’s no noticeable synth, and the scratchy turntables are a welcome reprieve from the futuristic sound of the rest of the album. The piano fills descend between the molasses-slow drum beats as Kanye raps, “I’ll never be as laid back as this beat was.” It’s relaxed, honest and self-aware: “Cause they want gun talk, or I don’t wear enough Baggy clothes, Reeboks, or A-di-dos/Can I add that he do spaz out at his shows/So say goodbye to the NAACP Award.”
Again, there are a lot of incredible songs on this album. “Flashing Lights,” “Home- coming,” “Champion” and “I Wonder” all deserve deeper dives, but we’ve all heard “Graduation” enough times to know them well. “Homecoming” is a long letter back to a girl that taught Kanye how to grow up— in fact, it’s Chicago itself—interrupted by Chris Martin hooks.
“Flashing Lights” is densely soaked in string instruments and club-like riffing synths. The rich backing track mirrors the high, fast-paced haze of wealth and fame. It’s also got the “I’m Kanye West, so I’m gonna shoot my shot,” lyric of the album: “My memory’s museum/I’m just sayin’, hey, Mona Lisa come home, you know you can’t roam without Caesar.”
“I Wonder” and “Champion” are just plain fantastic songs. “Champion” flutters on a Steely Dan (!) beat and a pounding drum. It’s a song about responsibility: in hip-hop (“Lauryn Hill said her heart was in Zion I wish her heart still was in rhyming”), the kids (“They got the dropout keepin’ kids in the school/I guess I cleaned up my act like Prince’d do) and Kanye’s own father (“I don’t know what he did for dough/But he’d send me back to school with a new wardrobe.”)
“Graduation” is part of early Kanye in more ways than the presence of the classic “College Dropout” bear from the first two album covers. Most would describe Kanye’s early work as authentic, which is to say, most representative of his own feelings and mindset, meanwhile subverting norms. In the arc of a long career, authenticity is something the artist sacrifices to sustain success. But when it comes to Kanye, his authenticity has run parallel to his propensity to self-de- struct. And anyway, who’s to say that rap- ping about growing up in Chicago is any more groundbreaking than rapping about mental health issues, as he does in “Ye”?
There is plenty of precedent for rapping about making it out of the streets, and not much when it comes to issues of mental health and vulnerability. Honesty doesn’t come without retribution. As Kanye puts it on “Good Morning,” “You graduate the mo- ment you make it up out of the streets … hat- ers saying you changed, now you’re doing your thing, good morning.”
So, does “Graduation” enlighten anything about contemporary Kanye? A revisit 12 years later seems to require that analysis. But it’s hard to say. Can we really compare Kanye before and after his self-diagnosed, controversial claim that he has bipolar dis- order (not even attempting to answer if it excuses his recent actions)? That declara- tion in itself reveals contemporary Kanye’s tendency towards insensitivity: in talking about bipolar disorder, he seemed to make strides toward destigmatizing that mental illness—but this was quickly reversed when the artist revealed, in a conversation with Donald Trump, no less, that his doctor ac- tually specifically told him he did not meet the criteria for that diagnosis (NBC News, “Kanye unfiltered: Rapper talks mental illness, ‘the universe’ in Trump meeting,” 10.11.2018). Regardless, how can you evaluate a person who has so clearly abandoned his former self? And yet, who are we fooling, he’s still Kanye West. The perfectionist. The producer.
By the way, I still warm up to “Good Morning.”