I Had a Dream I Could Buy My Way to Heaven - Kanye West's 'Graduation' turns 10
There are a few things to keep in mind when talking about Kanye West’s third album, Graduation, which celebrated its tenth anniversary at the beginning of the month. The first is that it was his third studio album in only a four year span of time—releasing The College Dropout in early 2004, the quick turnaround of Late Registration in September 2005, taking 2006 off, and then returning with Graduation.
The second is that, at this point in his career, the only really controversial thing he had done is explain that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people—this was a pre-Taylor Swift, pre-Kardashian, pre-Twitter, pre-on-stage rant world for West. In 2007, he was an incredibly successful, albeit egotistical, rapper and producer who rose rather quickly to auspicious highs.
The third, and possibly most important thing about Graduation, is that it is West’s transcendence into a full fledged pop superstar—at the time it was his most streamlined record, trimming away the obligatory skits that weighed down his first two efforts, clocking in at 13 songs, and for the most part, foregoing his trademark production techniques (e.g. old vocal samples sped up.) It found him sampling Daft Punk (with whom he would later collaborate), and exploring the use of more synthesizers to create a rather jubilant and large sounding record, presented in rich, at times dizzying, Technicolor.
A decade after its release, it is fascinating to look back on Graduation and think about what it meant for West at the time, what it meant as a listener, and what it means now in his body of work. For the most part, it still holds up—though the songs that were always bad are still bad (“Drunk and Hot Girls” gets an automatic skip every time I put the CD in) and the songs that were incredible are still incredible (“Flashing Lights” is still fun as hell.)
Rap and hip-hop have always been about clever wordplay—quotable lines that become iconic, or surprising punch lines that still make you laugh years later. Graduation finds West operating to the best of his ability at the time, being a ‘luxury rapper’ before he coined the phrase ‘luxury rap’ in 2011. He boasts “I’m like the fly Malcolm X—buy any jeans necessary,” on the album’s opening track; then, later on the album’s pensive and reflective “Everything I Am,” he exclaims, “You see how I played a big role in Chicago like Queen Latifah,” (so god damn clever) and “People talk so much shit about me in barber shops, they forget to get their hair cut.”
I consider myself a Kanye West fan (maybe not his output post-Yeezus) but I don’t, like, listen to the man every day. So it’s been quite a while since I’ve sat with Graduation from start to finish, and in revisiting it, I forgot just how much time I spent with this record in 2007, and just how many lines from it have stuck with me, and entered into my, as well as my wife’s, lexicons—specifically the “end up apologin” line from “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and the Do The Right Thing-non sequitur “Ds motherfucker Ds—Rosie Perez!” from “Good Morning.”
I think music that we listened to in 2006 and in 2007—we listened to it a lot; and in some cases, we burned ourselves out on it and lost interest. There are rare cases where it has aged well, and aged with us. I’m not sure Graduation falls into either camp.
The first half of Graduation is all triumph and bravado—I mean, I guess the whole thing is kind of like that too, but, like, it’s more noticeable and focused (if a thing like that can be focused) in the first half. It begins with the aggrandizing and aforementioned “Good Morning,” before moving into “Champion,” which is built around a slightly annoying hook and is one of the less successful (though not terrible) songs on the record, then sliding into the album’s first single, the Daft Punk sampling “Stronger,” which again, features some pretty memorable lines, like “You know how long I’ve been on ya—Since Prince was on Apollonia/Since OJ wore Isotoners.” In turn, it also features West rhyming Klondike with “blonde dyke,” which was cringe worthy in 2007 and hasn’t gotten any more palatable over the last decade.1
Graduation hits its first bit of reflection on the somber “I Wonder,” which I think at one point may have been in the running to be the album’s opening track. Slow burning with its slight trudge of a beat, and grand with its sweeping string arrangements, lyrically it finds West turning inward, but not completely in the egotistical fashion he usually favors. There’s a kind of bittersweet longing that is tucked into the song that you can hear alongside pat on the back lyrics like “God calling from the hotlines—why he keep giving me hot lines?”
The cameos on Graduation are one of the things that, unfortunately, haven’t held up well. It is not a very feature-heavy record, but the guest appearance are very of the time—a pre-Carter III Lil’ Wayne turns up on “Barry Bonds” to croak out a few bars, notably “I don’t practice, and I don’t lack shit,” which has certainly stuck with me over the last decade; and auto-tuned crooner T-Pain shows up on “Good Life,” though he seems to be going through a bit of a late-career, possibly ironic and most definitely self-deprecating renaissance right now. “Good Life,” as well as the late arriving, victorious shuffle of “The Glory” are all cut from the same cloth as “Champion”: not terrible songs, but not great either, falling into a place of bombastic, colorful, and celebratory arrangements with lyrical content that doesn’t really stick with you.
The sinister sounding production of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is one of the album’s high points. Slow rolling and incendiary, the song features the album’s hardest flossing from West, who angrily vaunts over hard hitting percussion and heavy synthesizers; juxtaposed later on with the mournful, chopped up piano samples and minimal production on “Everything I Am,” finding West less confident of a protagonist.
Graduation as a whole can be looked at as a bit of a love letter to Chicago—it’s one of the last times he was directly associated with the city. It’s mentioned throughout, but it culminates on the Chris Martin featuring “Homecoming,” structured around a jaunty piano sequence and stomping percussion, while West uses the conceit of Chicago as a woman to discuss his relationship with the city, and how the city felt about his sudden fame.
The album’s final song is, now in retrospect, it’s most heartbreaking. “Big Brother,” which covers his professional relationship and friendship with Jay Z—streamlining the story he covers at the end of The College Dropout’s lengthy “Last Call,” and updating it to include Jay’s guest verse on the “Diamonds (From Sierra Leone)” remix, and references the fact that they both have songs featuring Chris Martin. The song was always a little bit of a bittersweet way to end the album—but given the tension now between the Jay and Kanye, it’s difficult to listen to the admiration. During an on-stage meltdown near the end of 2016, West called out Jay Z and Beyonce, implying that the two of them hadn’t talked in a long time. In response, Jay took shots at him on “Fuck Jay Z,” from the 4:44 album; muddying things even more is West’s financial involvement with Jay’s streaming music platform TIDAL.
Graduation is far from a perfect album, but it is still an accessible and fun album, and it arrives before West’s life went into upheaval. Within two months after its release, his mother passed away—something from which he probably never recovered. A year later, he released the confusing (yet brilliant) 808s & Heartbreak, before spinning out of control in 2009, only to resurface with his unrivaled though dense masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010.
Even though it’s not a perfect album, it is still, somewhat surprisingly, looked at as important one for both West as well as rap music—West’s experimentation with production on Graduation is what, apparently, opened up doors for artists that would come up in the next few years, like Drake and Kid Cudi, among others; and what I always looked at as a footnote of a factoid for the album was apparently actually really important—Graduation came out the same day as 50 Cent’s Curtis, and as expected, outsold it.
I never really understood 50 Cent—he had mainstream hits, touted himself as a ‘gangsta,’ may have been the reason Jam Master Jay was shot, but he always was a terrible and boring rapper. But I guess in 2007, people still considered him a big deal, and two marquee name rappers releasing their records on the same day was huge, and Graduation’s success is now looked at as the end of the gangsta era, ushering a different direction the genre was going to take.
Quotable, bombastic, and now nostalgic, Graduation is representative of a different time—both for Kanye West, and for us, as listeners. It’s not an inessential album in his canon, but it is also not as impressive as what he had done prior, what he would be capable of in the future. Like many of his albums, it captures a specific moment—and in 2007, that moment was one of growth as an artist.
1- It seems worth mentioning that West uses the word ‘dyke’ twice on this record, once in “Stronger,” and once again on “The Glory.” It seems uncharacteristic of him to resort to slurs like that since he hadn’t before, and hasn’t since. But it also does seem characteristic of him to glorify and lust after a woman who is sexually attracted to other women.