Like a lot of Kanye West records, I have a strange relationship with this album. When it first came out, I was intrigued by some of the stand-out tracks: the Daft Punk-sampling Stronger and the relatively tame radio hit, Good Life.
I found the rest of the album reasonably enjoyable, but puzzling and often at odds with itself. It was, in my opinion, a decent attempt at a good album, but not quite there: a mediocre one that could’ve been great.
And I was wrong.
With an artist like Kanye, you have to consider the album’s context.
Screw Death of the Author.
Graduation came out in 2007, Kanye’s third album following the 70s-soul inspired The College Dropout and the baroque, orchestral Late Registration.
The College Dropout and Late Registration were both widely acclaimed hip hop albums (both were nominated for the Grammy for Album of the Year) but were very much that: hip hop albums.
They featured an IMDB-page worth of well-established hip hop figures like NO I.D., Talib Kweli and Common, as well humorous skits between songs and a storytelling lyrical delivery.
This all changed with Graduation, because Graduation isn’t a hip hop album. Not really.
It’s a European synth-pop album.
From the synthesized vocals on album opener Good Morning to the robotic Stronger, the album crescendos and hums with with bright techno-infused synthpop. Drunk and Hot Girls, a creepy meditation on late-night lust, even samples German krautrock synth band Can’s song Sing Swan Song.
Like the European synth genre that influenced it, Graduation is full of delicate melodies and soft strings. It features Chris Martin on vocals, for God’s sake. It’s a fragile balance of sounds – one that sometimes caves when listened to in a loud setting – and that definitely benefits from being listened to late at night.
But what sounds they are.
The melodic vocal sample and techno groove of I Wonder (possibly one of the least-appreciated Kanye tracks) are unlike any other sound in hip hip, before or since. The dude’s rapping over the most beautiful melodies.
The same is true for Can’t Tell Me Nothing and Everything I Am. It sounds a little weird sometimes – Kanye rapping about haters and stuntin’ over butterly-like strings and violins, for example – but this is genre-expanding stuff. It’s experimental in a way that Kanye’s previous albums weren’t.
When Graduation came out, it was an unprecedented sound for a rap album, which many people -even fans – disliked. But now that we know what would come after Graduation (the AutoTuned minimalism of 808s and Heartbreak, the boom bap maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the industrial noise of Yeezus) we can see that this was just Kanye beginning his new trend of experimenting with a new sound on each album.
It marks the real beginning of the Kanye West formula: rap lyrics + backing music not normally found in hip hop.
Even the lyrical style is very different from his previous two efforts. Where The College Dropout and Late Registration focused on a storytelling approach to rapping, with an emphasis on issues in middle class society, Graduation instead features short, quote-able bursts of of rap, much more similar to the stadium-rock verses of bands like U2. The lyrics here are much more introspective and – like all of Kanye’s best lyrics – are generally about Kanye.
And this new lyrical style is the one that’s stuck with and defined Kanye’s later sound. This minimalist rap technique can be heard in the simple but emotional verses in 808s and Heartbreak, in the rapid-fire boom bap of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and in the abrasive, assaulting, meme-spitting of Yeezus.
Graduation isn’t perfect. Homecoming falls rather flat, and Champion is melodramatic and repetitive. But even when the sounds of rap and melodic pop don’t quite work together, they’re still the sound of a man pushing musical boundaries. Graduation is the first Kanye album where we see the sonic innovator really at work, exploring new sounds and possibilities.
Some of these experiments don’t succeed, but when they do they’re spectacular. The Glory is an electro-soul powerhouse. Barry Bonds has one of the darkest and grooviest beats of Kanye’s career.
And it can’t be denied that this album was influential. The rise of techno-inspired and introspective hip hop in the late 2000s is a testament to that.
So, in conclusion:
Graduation is a flawed masterpiece. It’s yet another example of Kanye breaking hip hop’s barriers and attempting to create new pop soundscapes.
It’s by turns melodic and melodramatic, sophisticated and over-the-top. Often alienating and hard to listen to, sometimes irresistibly sharp and well-made.
It’s a genius album that’s completely bizarre and ridiculous.
How very Kanye.