Review Summary: Chapter 3: Changing the Game
In 2007, Kanye West was on the top of the world. Two straight critically acclaimed albums that went platinum, 6 Grammies under his belt, and he was one of the biggest rappers in the game after just 3 years as a solo artist. Sure there was the occasional controversy; like posing as Jesus on Rolling Stone and calling the President Of The United States a racist. You know: the usual. He could’ve easily played it safe and stuck with his regular shtick. However, he instead did what every dedicated artist would do: Try something new.
Graduation is a major departure from West’s previous efforts, as most of the tracks on here are inspired by electronic music, a new concept in mainstream rap at the time. Many of the tracks on here are showered in flashy synths, pounding beats, and song samples from the likes of Elton John and Daft Punk, which is pulled off wonderfully. The 1st 6 tracks on here are top quality Kanye beats that are on par with his previous work. It’s quite a feat that an album that essentially brought electronic beats in rap to the mainstream could already perfect it (6 times in a row, no less!). "Stronger" takes it's sample of house superstars Daft Punk's "Harder Better Faster Stronger" and has a field day with it, "Good Morning" is charged by a cowbell of all instruments and actually pulls it off, and human robot T-Pain expertly compliments the the synth- filled "Good Life". But not every song follows in their steps stylistically. The back side of this album contains a trio of tracks that go back to West’s soul-sampling ways, and they are just as good as the songs of that variety on his previous efforts. The only spot where the album falls flat are two tracks smack dab in the middle of the album: “Barry Bonds” and “Drunk & Hot Girls”. The production on both of these songs just feel messy and out of place; quite a fall from grace following compared to the other cuts on here.
Graduation has been considered West "safe" album among his discography. It may be the fact that the electronic sound this album pioneered now dominates mainstream rap, but it could also be the fact that most of the lyrics are an introspective look at fame. This concept is nothing new; it’s common for a rappers who hit it big with one album follow that album with one that talks about how the newfound fame has affected them. But while the concept isn’t that new, it’s pulled off with flying colors. In fact, I find that this was West’s most focused album lyrically at the time. While his 2 previous efforts jumped all over the place for its topics, Graduation looks over the pros and cons of fame for the entire duration. I even see it a complete concept album, instead of just simply looking over the topic in one or two songs. The album kicks off with "Good Morning", which has West rapping about having the guts to get out there and achieve his dreams of being a superstar.
“From the streets of the league/ From an eighth to a key/ But you graduate when you make it up outta the streets/ From the moments of pain/ Look how far we done came/ Haters saying ya changed/ Now ya doing ya thing/ Good Morning”
As the album goes on, you see West enjoying fame, spitting motivational rhymes, and the album overall has an overall happy, celebratory feel. But once we reach “Barry Bonds”, the album takes a turn and shows what fame can do to a man. Relationships turn sour, arrogance sets in, women become play things, and you eventually get out of touch with your roots. This is why we see we see Kanye going back to those roots and looks over what fame has done to him, what’s been going on back home, and how the streets and fame have affected him equally, making him the man he is now. Hell, "Homecoming" is a tribute to his hometown Chicago; a prime example of West acknowledging his past. This return to roots is represented by the return of West’s signature pitched-up soul samples. The album finally closes with “Big Brother”, a tribute to his mentor Jay-Z. It tells of how the tables have turned; from making working behind the scenes making beats for Jay to arguably becoming a bigger artist than him, comparing it to a brotherly relationship. He may truly hate him at times, but he still has immense amount of respect for him, Also a shoutout to the man that taught him how to make beats, No I.D., during the chorus doesn’t hurt.
While his two previous albums definitely brought some new ideas to the rap world, Graduation easily has the most influence on music than all of West’s works. This electronic take on hip hop not only inspired many other artists to follow in West’s steps, but is cited as one of the main reasons nu-disco and electro music became more relevant in mainstream music than ever before. In addition, other aspects of like the introspective lyrics and the album sales competition with the gangsta rapper 50 Cent cause a major shift in the way non-gangster rappers were accepted in hip-hop. Artists like Drake, Kid Cudi, and Lupe Fiasco probably would’ve never became as popular if it wasn’t for this album to show people that you didn’t need to sell drugs, live in the hood, or be in a gang to be taken seriously as a rapper. But this album still delivers musically, serving as more than a milestone in hip-hop history. Not all impactful albums could still be considered one of the best years after it made its mark; if that’s not a hell of an accomplishment, I don’t know what is.