Humor me for a second. Let’s play a game: Can anyone remember a time Kanye West was known predominantly for his music? No? No one? Okay, what about a time Kanye West was known only for his music? There’s an answer to that last question, and the answer is Never.
Kanye’s public stunts have elevated his ego to legendary status. From him bluntly proclaiming George Bush doesn’t care about black people to him interrupting Taylor Swift’s VMA speech and the subsequent controversy of a certain lyric on “Famous,” etc., etc. The examples are endless. So how did all of this happen? When did the Kanye of the past become the Kanye we know today?
Graduation, Kanye’s third album, acts as an enterprise, a proclamation: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. West is in the building. Graduation is chocked full of almost everything one desires in a mainstream hip-hop album—perfect features from artists all over the sonic spectrum (T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Daft Punk, Mos Def, remember Chris Martin?) give the album a “Most Relevant Artists of 2007” feel. The production is as crisp as ever; no note feels out of place, no piano key left hanging or unnecessary sampling or intruding gospel choirs. It’s a remarkably clean and tailored experience. However, Graduation significantly splits from Kanye’s first two outings. His sound is more diverse, drawing from a wider range of genres. Gone are the days of Kanye’s near religious dedication to soul-based music. Alternative and indie rock riffs, bumping house music, lush string arrangements and delicate piano lines now take their seats in the sheet music. “Stronger” and “Everything I Am,” though somewhat similar thematically, draw from two very different places musically. The vox-box electro-pulse of “Stronger” leads to a strolling piano intro in “I Wonder,” which quickly places synth and beat at the forefront and then mixes and matches the two for the duration of the song. I hesitate to pigeonhole Graduation as just a mainstream hip-hop record. I would say this is Kanye’s best version of concert music, and maybe his first foray into maximalism. There’s a lot of harmonious sound; the record moves at an elevated pace and is most certainly meant to be played in front of a sold-out crowd.
Especially noticeable in Graduation, even more so than Kanye’s departure from soul-influenced samples, is his shifting lyrical focus. Graduation is an introspective record, highly personal and revealing. There’s no greater example of this than “Big Brother,” detailing the ups-and-downs of Kanye’s professional and personal relationship with Jay-Z, his mentor and close friend. This is truly the point where Graduation turned Kanye into Kanye. Most male artists, especially rappers, would never cap an album with a song dedicated to explaining their feelings to another man. And still, for all of it’s heartfelt examination, “Big Brother” toes the line of idol-killing: “I guess big brother was thinkin’ a little different/And kept little brother at bay, at a distance/But everything that I felt was more bogus/Only made me more focused, only wrote more potent/Only thing I wanna know is why I get looked over.” Kanye realized that in order to truly grow as an artist, a man, and a friend, he needed to have some sense of transparency. Call him what you like, but not once have I ever accused Kanye West of being dishonest, especially to himself. It’s not in his bones.
Graduation is an album full of hits, for a number of reasons. It’s harder, faster, and stronger than any Kanye music that preceded. It solidified his stay in the mainstream and inflated his celebrity status—but most evidently, it illustrated that Kanye West is willing to adapt and, in turn, thrive in ways that were not evident before; he has grown into a man, capable of mature and honest expression in his music. He’s graduated.
Favorite tracks: “Good Morning,” “Stronger,” “I Wonder,” “Big Brother”