Review Summary: I never thought he would take it this far
There are many reasons for calling an album a classic. Some are because of the sheer quality of the material, like Prince’s Purple Rain, while others are considered classic because of their retrospective influence on the genre, like Paul’s Boutique. Kanye West’s venture into pop-rap Graduation could probably be quantified as a classic for no reason other than its impact on pop culture and mainstream culture during the latter portion of the 2000’s but also deserves such status because of the balance it achieves between excellent production, catchiness, and trademark Kanye rhymes.
The beginning of Kanye’s journey as culture defining kingpin began in 2005 with his wily declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” during a prepared speech about Hurricane Katrina. This moment made the world turn its head and look at Kanye and wonder if he is crazy or if the lateness of FEMA’s response was because the president didn’t care. Regardless, that singular moment, coupled with his smash-hit Gold Digger, had a lot of people eyeing West curiously. His statements, such as speaking out against homophobia, were amplified by his reputation of sparking controversy in the right places. It seemed as if the entire hip-hop culture was waiting on his every word when he started a feud with 50 Cent about who would sell the most records when their albums dropped on the same day. Kanye was officially becoming a phenomenon.
And then Graduation hit the shelves. Between the shutter-shades sporting bear on the cover, the support of lead single Stronger (which even convinced a friend of mine that Daft Punk stole the beat from Kanye, not the other way around), and the fact that Graduation outsold 50’s album, Curtis, by a good margin, Kanye was officially a megastar. Everybody knew who he was. Teens flocked in droves to their local vendors in search of the shutter-shades that Kanye, and the bear, were wearing. The release of the album was more than just about Kanye West, it was about keeping up with the mainstream. It sold nearly 500 thousand copies on the first day, nearly 1 million by the end of the week and everybody had an opinion. Basically, if you weren’t Team Kanye, you weren’t with it.
But perhaps the most surprising part of the whole ordeal is that the album lived up to the hype. Kanye evolved his sound from the soul-samples he had favored to more electronic beats. Guest appearances were, for the most part, limited to the choruses rather than having a different stable of guests on every track. Every guest makes his presence felt: from Lil Wayne’s verse on “Barry Bonds” to Dwele’s lesson on how to write a hook on “Flashing Lights” none of the guests fall flat and each improves the song that they’re on. The beats wouldn’t be out of place in a Europop song but Kanye, who also produced 12 of the 13 songs, is one of the best producers in the game and knows exactly how to make a beat catchy without being annoying or intrusive. He truly is a master of the craft and Graduation is a shining example of his talent.
Even though the hype helped to win the battle against 50 Cent, the deciding factor about which album you buy is always going to be whom you want to listen to more and the answer was a very resounding Kanye West. His flow is elastic in the face of the more-or-less static beats in the background. His vocal variation is first-rate: raising and dropping his voice to provide emphasis and guide the listener along to understand what he’s trying to hint at. His lyrics are as candid as ever while still effectively mixing in humor. He may not be as great a wordsmith as Eminem, but he’s still a lot of fun to listen to. Even on tracks where he confronts his flaws, such as “Everything I Am,” he still finds a way to keep from sounding too serious and whiny despite confronting a serious topic. And honestly, how often do you get to hear Kanye eschewing greatness in favor of self-deprication?
So the question remains: does this pop-culture phenomenon deserve a classic rating? My answer is a firm yes. Not only because of the feud or because naïve teenagers will buy anything that famous people tell them to but because it ultimately comes down to the product. Ultimately, the people chose to side with the poppy college dropout over the gangster persona that 50 Cent carries. This signaled a change in the variety of rap music that sells today- do you think Drake would be as big today if this album never happened?- and also produced the most polarizing pop-culture figure of the decade. This album is what made Kanye West, and perhaps popular music, what he is today and cemented him as a genius in the minds of many. This album changed the course of teen culture and sent shakes through the recording industry: sounds like a classic to me.