Kanye West has certainly become an enigma
within Hip Hop. His soulful and eclectic production, knack for artistic
expression and overblown yet misunderstood ego has created the monster known as
Mr. West. After blowing people away with two totally different
albums (the soul chop of College Dropout and the glossy polish of Late
Registration), what is Kanye West to do now? He's set the
bar so high for himself that one has to wonder if he can exceed expectations
yet again. Is he able to surprise listeners again with the third in his school
themed trilogy titled Graduation?
In hindsight, College Dropout has become the classic album while Late Registration was the excellent, although slightly flawed, follow up that crushed the sophomore jinx. With Kanye so enamored with himself these days, nobody should be surprised if he took the fabled Big Daddy Kane line ("If I fart on a record, trust me nigga it'll sound good") literally. So the challenge for Kanye is to continue to progress himself while remaining familiar to his audience - who already think he has a few screws loose. But this is Kanye West we are talking about here. Who are we to think that he would follow anyone's rules?
Graduation was built around a concept that Kanye wanted an album to sound good while he performed in front of tens of thousands in huge arenas with ear popping sound systems. Production wise, Kanye accomplishes this for the most part. Big sounding production sprinkled with synthesizers is prevalent throughout the album and accomplishes exactly what Kanye set out to do. Evidence of this can be heard on the throbbing bass of lead single "Can't Tell Me Nothing."
The illuminating "Flashing Lights" is definitely the one that stands out the most on the album and envelopes this concept thoroughly. With Dwele sashaying through the dense bass and triumphant synths, Kanye drops jewels about the meddling cameras that seem to follow Kanye's ego everywhere he goes these days. The clever Daft Punk flip on "Stronger" may be an acquired taste to some who don't seem to "get" what is so wonderful about the song. Elsewhere, what sounded like it may be an ill-fated combo turns into what may be the feel-good song on the album. The "PYT" sample and the voice box of T-Pain sound cheesy in theory, but when applied to create "Good Life" all doubts are washed away.
Lyrically, Kanye continues to step his game up. He sprinkles his wit and cleverness over Graduation with slick one liners like "People talk so much shit about me at barbershops they forget to get their haircut" or "The fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary" while still delivering self conscious rhymes that break the mold of bling and things rap heard on the radio today. But it just wouldn't be a Kanye West album if you didn't have to endure his cheesiness. On "Good Life" when Kanye rips the groan-worthy "Have you ever popped champagne on a plane/while getting some brain/whipped it out, she said 'I never saw snakes on a plane'" the line is so inexplicably corny that it is laughable. But if you've been a 'Ye fan for years, you know what to expect.
The most interesting song on the album is the ode to Jay-Z titled Big Brother. It's is unclear if this is really an "ode" per se, as Kanye approaches the song as if he is about to simply give praise - but reminds the listener that Jay was also the person that he perceives to have held him down. The reality is that Kanye looks at Jay with the same sibling rivalry and resentment that younger brothers harbor for their older siblings. Whether or not Jay has ever held back Kanye doesn't matter much to Kanye. Instead he feels that he may never get the same credit that Jay-Z has received over the years.
Oh but it isn't all great kids - Graduation is flawed more than any other Kanye release. This time it is because Kanye himself has become his own worst enemy. The issues stem from the fact that nothing really delivers the "Oh Shit" factor aside from "Flashing Lights" and the brilliant Daft Punk flip in "Stronger." While there are many head snapping moments delivered on Graduation, there isn't a mind blowing song like "Two Words," or a fit of neck snapping drums like "Crack Music" present. Definitely not saying that Kanye coasts on his third outing, but his bag of tricks do not contain the element of surprise that one may expect.
Graduation turns out to be an album that's mindset sits right in the middle of College Dropout and Late Registration. For the most part, if Graduation was revealed to be a bunch of songs that didn't make College Dropout or Late Registration, I don't think anyone could argue the statement. Case in point, "Champion" feels very College Dropout like with its chopped up Steely Dan sample being dragged relentlessly for almost three minutes. On the flip side, the silky smooth "Everything I Am" feels like it had been recorded towards the end of Late Registration. Even the progressive lyrics and subtle wit that Kanye displays on "Everything I Am" can be classified as Kanye circa 2005.
There are also a couple of hiccups that become awfully blaring for a trim 13-track offering. "Drunk And Hot Girls" is a definite head-scratcher that seems like it was fun as fuck to make with Mos Def in the studio, but doesn't really turn the same trick when listened to in the context of this particular album. What seems to become the prerequisite before dropping an album, a Lil Wayne appearance, is entirely too forced and out of place on Graduation. Nothing on "Barry Bonds" feels like it's there because of necessity to accelerate the artistic nature of the album. Instead, the Lil Wayne guest spot seems utterly ridiculous - and not to mention cookie cutter, especially for Kanye's always racing mind. Combine all this with the fact that the school theme that was so prevailing on his previous releases has almost non-existent here - except for the title - and you have a flawed album.
So is Graduation a failure? Not by any means. Kanye's biggest opponent is himself and while he does make another great album, it doesn't surpass his debut and falls right in line with Late Registration. But compared to all the other bullshit that's out? Kanye has created another must have album that will continuously bump on your CD players and MP3s for months to come. That's the state of Hip Hop music in 2007 kids.