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Published on April 15th, 2016 | by Andy Sedlak

‘Graduation’ — Kanye West [2007]

‘Graduation’ — Kanye West [2007] Andy Sedlak

Summary: While "Graduation" is Kanye West's worst album to date, it is aptly titled as it marked Yeezy's graduation from hip hop superstardom to pop culture mastermind. His focus would never be solely on music again.

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Released: Sept. 11, 2007

Length: 51:12

Label: Roc-A-Fella

Producers include: Kanye West, Jon Brion, Mike Dean, Nottz, DJ Toomp

Peak Billboard album chart position: No. 1

Top-40 singles: 3

Is Kanye West the architect of synth rap as we know it?

It’s certainly possible. In 2007, no one had embraced EDM to the extent he did. His third album was characterized by twitchy electronics and airy synth lines that fed into a sense of coked-out vulnerability. West’s skepticism was apparent before he even started rhyming.

Graduation, released that September, signaled yet another growth spurt for the artist.

Three years earlier, West had drilled into the bedrock of rap’s subject matter and took listeners to astonishing depths in The College Dropout. West’s follow up the next year, Late Registration, somehow pushed the ball even further by staking out Bush-era defenselessness.

But Graduation, it would turn out, was at least his most aptly titled release. Never again would we find West so unattached. Lovelorn laments, magnum opuses, KimYe, European fashion obsessions and social media provocations would soon rule the day.

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Being a Kanye West fan was a much simpler joy in 2007.

His newest album, The Life of Pablo, was released this past February. He once predicted its commercial success would be on par with Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. (30 million copies sold and seven Top-10 singles).

For those reasons and more, I thought it would be appropriate to look at the record that, for all intents and purposes, was probably his last pop effort.

First, I stoutly believe Graduation is waterlogged by its hits – “Stronger,” “Good Life” and “Flashing Lights.” These songs account for roughly a quarter of the record and nearly all of its commercial notoriety. Conversely, its strengths come from subdued musings – “Good Morning,” “I Wonder,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Barry Bonds.”

The record also contains “Big Brother,” which is the most pathetic song of West’s career.

Graduation opens with the record’s sparest beat. Ruminating in an empty room, “Good Morning” picks up where Late Registration left off. West takes his last licks at the American education system before boarding a luxury charter for the proverbial good life. In a not-so-subtle attempt to remind his audience where he got his own education, he repurposes lines from Jay Z’s “The Ruler’s Back.” While Jay himself never appears on the album, he shadows over it. Especially on the notoriously limp final track.

From “Good Morning:”
Some people graduate, but we still stupid
They tell you read this, eat this, don’t look around
Just peep this, preach us, teach us … Jesus
Okay, look up now
They done stole your streetness

“Champion” squeezes Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” to surprising lengths, zeroing in on West’s father. It’s a subject curiously absent from his first two records.

From “Champion:”
Every summer he’ll get some brand new hare-brained scheme to get rich from
And I don’t know what he did for dough
But he’d sent me back to school with a new wardrobe…

“Champion” sounds different in light of the birth of West’s own son.

From “Champion:”
I don’t know, I just want it better for my kids
And I ain’t sayin’ we was from the projects
But every time I want it… layaway or a deposit

You would hardly be in the minority if “Stronger” was your introduction to Daft Punk. The single’s success finally propelled the duo into the Middle-American mainstream. They won a Grammy for Album of the Year a few years later. Credit “Stronger” as a cultural benchmark of sorts, but don’t count it as a creative high-water mark for West. It nearly samples the totality of its source material — a disreputable shortcut — and is lyrically engineered by warmed over bumper sticker wisdom.

“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” — a darker, ballsier song — was released before “Stronger.” The simmering track, however, didn’t resonate with antsy pop fans.

“Stronger” and “Good Life” were Top-10 singles (“Stronger” hit No. 1). Both songs centered on one of West’s favorite themes: resilience. The latter ushered in a new era of yacht rap. It was an unfortunate consequence.

But no matter how many nautical miles he logs on the Moonlight II, Kanye’s heart will always be in the gutter. “I Wonder” and “Barry Bonds” find him nearly swallowed up by it, in spite of his newfound position at pop’s imperial table.

From “I Wonder:”
What you about – on that independent shit?
Trade it all for a husband and some kids
You ever wonder what it all really mean?
You ever wonder if you’ll find your dreams?

“Barry Bonds” pits West and Lil Wayne — maybe the only person more famous than him — against usual music industry expectations.

From “Barry Bonds:”
I don’t need writers, I might bounce ideas
But only I could come up with some fresh shit like this

Unfortunately Graduation is weighed down by airy cuts when it could have used more of West’s aggression. It’s heavy on atmosphere and light on grit. “Drunk and Hot Girls” and “Flashing Lights” both represent moments when I wish West would have tapped into his progressive hostility. Both are synthy. Both feel European. He never shies away from flaunting his IQ (mom was a college professor), but an overabundance of color and context slow the pace of the record.

There are too many scene-setters.

“Everything I Am” is perhaps the most emotionally naked moment – a biographical account of one-time weaknesses turned into realizations of individuality and identity. It’s the only spot on the record where West sounds neither jaded nor excessively triumphant. Rare indeed.

“The Glory” and “Homecoming” bring West back into the winner’s circle. The latter is a love letter to his native Chicago with a jaunty piano line by Chris Martin.

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Part of Graduation’s marketing buildup was West’s feud with 50 Cent. The pair dropped albums on the same day, with West winning the sales battle.

The album ends with “Big Brother,” a Jay Z suckfest. The beat plods. West’s lilting hook never flickers. It borders on cyclical. And I always thought that the track would have worked better the other way around.

Graduation debuted atop the Billboard album chart. Its high number of digital sales raised industry eyebrows in 2007. It slid to No. 2 in its second week on the market, unseated by Reba McEntire’s Reba: Duets. A slow decline ensued.

In the end it would still sell more than two million copies. That put it on par with his first two releases.

Graduation is West’s weakest studio album. Perhaps it will be remembered most for marking the end of an era. Its author had his sights on other prizes. Some pristine. Others obscene.

But it would never be simply about hip hop again.

 

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About the Author

Andy Sedlak is a former television reporter who lives in Dayton, OH. He grew up in a household that pumped Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel every weekend. He instantly became a new man when he discovered Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” in junior high.



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