Hip-Hop Head story: I scheduled my GRE for September 11th, 2007, so that I could celebrate finishing the test (yay! triple digits!) by buying Kanye West’s Graduation album. This achieved a twofold goal of buying the year’s most-anticipated album and not buying 50 Cent’s dueling, sub-par album, effectively casting my vote in the year’s biggest rap battle.
When Graduation dropped its impact was straightforward: Kanye obliterated and effectively helped to stonewall 50 Cent’s meteoric rise while producing what was arguably his third straight classic. Graduation was great in 2007, but if you listen to it while taking into account Kanye’s subsequent musical and career moves, the project is a cohesive and deliberate farewell letter to the everyman backpacker Kanye. Even the album cover itself was a subliminal message about the Kanye we’d see from 2007 on. Yes, Graduation is a great album. But listening to it in retrospect only makes it better.
DMX’s original idea for his music was to make his first three albums a trilogy, as apparent by the interwoven story of the recurring character Damien. Kanye West ingrained a similar narrative style that pervaded his first three releases. College Dropout and Late Registration were both about Kanye Everyman – the guy with the backpack, single mom and dead-end jobs. He even wore Jordans and Polos like the rest of us. While the initial thought was that the concept of Graduation would just signal the end of the school themes and faux-Bernie Mac voice. But what we got was a bow on top of a three-album story.
Kanye the rapper was epitomized by a bear on the artwork for his first three albums. On the Graduation cover designed by Takashi Murakami, the bear is literally shot out of a cannon into another stratosphere in much the same way Kanye’s career started heading to unforeseen heights. The sign was there as soon as we picked up a copy. Yeezy was on his way out.
Then, there were the samples. While previous singles showcased samples from the likes of Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross and Ray Charles, Kanye launched his Graduation campaign with a chopped up Daft Punk sample. Possibly his most obscure, creative use of a sample came with the Can sample used on “Drunk and Hot Girls.” This was all a precursor to the darker, gothic sound and deeper crate-digging we found on subsequent albums.
Graduation stands out from the rest of Kanye’s catalogue for the fact it’s his most insulated rap album. While College Dropout featured every friend Kanye’s ever had, Late Registration included a whole opera and My Beautiful Dark And Twisted Fantasy was recorded in a think tank in Hawaii, Graduation was Kanye’s baby that he saw through with minimal help. “Barry Bonds” featured a guest verse from Lil Wayne (a surprisingly subpar guest verse from Weezy especially considering the hot streak he was on at the time), some singing from Mos Def and Dwele and that’s it.
West used Graduation to define himself as more than just a producer that raps well. Just listen to the way “Big Brother” was recorded. Notice the way he goes from the second verse right into the hook. Kanye sounds like he recorded it all in one take, not even punching in the verses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Kanye foreshadows his jump into rap’s stratosphere from the very first song – “scared of the future while I hop in the DeLorean” with “Good Morning.” He even foreshadows “Big Brother” with a Jay-Z sample that called for the next rap “hustler” to step up. What follows is an album that combined all of the best qualities Kanye exhibited with his previous works and set the stage for a more experimental West to take center stage. While many saw 808’s and Heartbreaks as a sharp left turn, Kanye had always worked with harmonies and took it further with “I Wonder” and “Drunk and Hot Girls” that featured singing and very little traditional rapping.
Graduation isn’t just a dope (the dopest?) Kanye album. It’s a musical farewell to the Kanye west that spoke for us. His first three albums played within and pushed the boundaries of traditional Hip-Hop by building on the structures already in place. After Graduation, Kanye totally recreated his sound with each subsequent album. The Polo Yeezy was a great opening chapter for Kanye West the musician. But with Graduation, Kanye closed that chapter emphatically in brilliant fashion.
And music hasn’t been the same since.