Kanye Omari West. A name which elicits two polar reactions when heard. One is a face contorted in disgust, citing his recent run-ins with other notable musicians or paparazzi. The other is a visage of a person who is able to separate the artist from his or her art and recognises genius when he or she hears it. Irrespective of which one of these people you are, you can not deny that the effect that Kanye’s third album Graduation had on the state of Rap/Hip Hop music is substantial.
Graduation was the final part of the Trilogy. The Return Of the King. The New Hope. The Revenge of the Sith (it wasn’t that bad a movie, you plebs). The final piece of a three album jigsaw that began with The College Dropout (2004) which burst Kanye onto the scene. An album that took FOUR YEARS TO MAKE. Simply because the record label wasen’t confident in his ability to rap. Boy were they slightly wrong. But Yeezy don’t care.
What was he doing in the meantime you ask? Well, my slightly curious reader.
The Blueprint. Commonly referred to as one of the greatest Hip-Hop albums of all time. Yes, OF ALL TIME. There are many reasons why this might be the case. Some people would argue it’s Jay-Z’s lyricism. Some people would be wrong. Kanye only produced three of the fourteen tracks on this album. But having listened to the album countless times, it’s almost as if Mr. West has managed to influence to majority of the sampling on this album, and that is one of the core reasons why this album was so successful.
Anyways, back to the album. The College Dropout came out, there was a big hullabaloo, something something, Dark Side, something something, Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, something something, one of the greatest albums of all time, something something Four Million Records sold.
The facts speak for themselves. As far as introductions go, this went as well as any artist debut could. One of the best things about The College Dropout though, was Kanye’s movement away from the gangster rap culture that was beginning to plague hip-hop. Realising that the genre could benefit from expanding its horizons would prove to be as important as the dawn of gangster rap as a sub-genre.
Following this was the release of the second part of his trilogy, Late Registration, and frankly the commendations from the critics didn’t change.
Again Kanye was the recipient of the Grammy for Best Rap Album and it dominated the charts for months. Not only that, it spawned a song (Gold Digger) which would go on to bring him to everyone. Everyone.
But Alas, like all good trilogies, it must end and as we all know, the last installment is usually the best,
or is it?
This brings us to the album currently being looked at now.
Was it a great finale though? Was it a Return of the King or was it a Jurassic Park 3? Was it Return of the Jedi or The Revenge of the Sith?
It had comparatively weaker sales when compared to the other albums. But music isn’t always a popularity contest. Of all the albums in the trilogy, why was this chosen for the retrospective?
Simple. It was the end.
It was the end of the Kanye that “muh 90s” kids knew. One only has to listen to the albums that follow to realise that something drastically changed after this album was released. It may be the breakdown of his relationship with Alexis Phifer. It could be the tragic death of his Mother. Speculating what Mr. West would have been if these events had not happened is as useless as taping water to a tree. We will never know. What we do know is that this album was heading in that general direction, and that as far as I can hear, that direction is a good one.
Graduation remains to this day the only album worthy of a listen from start to finish at anytime, in any circumstance.
Notable Tracks include: the entire album
This entire album felt very introspective, which suits the name when one considers it. From personal experience, graduation is always a time of reflection. Looking back on the people, experiences and situations that end up defining who you are at the culmination of that point in your life. This sentiment is felt throughout this album.
The very first track off the album, “Good Morning“, begins with Kanye‘s traditional ad-lib of grunting punctuated by very poppy toms. The background vocals give the track a very ethereal feeling similar to what one gets when they wake up after a late night. The lyrics, keeping with the theme, address the failures of education and how the pressure of higher education on the population actually serves a detrimental effect on we as humans and our natural desire to be well rounded as opposed to specialists in a single field. In the words of Kanye, “Some people graduate but still stupid”.
Immediately following this comes the sultry tones of Steely Dan as Kanye samples “Charlemagne” in this anthem. With vocals from Connie Mitchell, this Jazz/Reggae combination anthem is a testament to Kanye’s ability to really branch out and bring old music a fresh chance in the limelight. “Champion” is and forever will be a testament to the lack of role models in the world for kids to look up to.
As I sit here, 2 am in the morning, smell of wet laundry permeating the air, the taste of cup noodles in my mouth and the fast approaching deadline for an assignment, in my gut there was only this album that could seek to calm my nerves.
As the outro to “Champion” plays, I brace myself for the next hit. This entire album was a hit but the next song holds a special place in my heart.
The first time I heard “Stronger”, I was in year 7. This was my second year in Australia. I was 12 years old. It is around this time that adolescents get sent upon their musical journey. This is something that will end up defining everyone. I was already semi interested in Linkin Park (I was 12). But I found that I was drawn more to the rapping of Mike Shinoda then the rest of the actual band. I was taken aback. This language, the English language. Something that has been drilled into my head with these context and grammar and rules that guided strictly what could and could not be said were being thrown to the dogs for the sake of rhyming. This primal urge we all have to see patterns in words and the way we communicate gave birth to this. With my mother being an English Teacher, to have someone (Shinoda/Kanye) operate within and without the structure that has defined English to get a message across astounded me. That is why I love the genre today and that is why I will love it tomorrow. The first time I heard “Stronger” something clicked in me. The sample of Daft Punks “Harder Faster Stronger” was familiar yet at the same time different. The drums were perfectly placed in the cacophony of autotune. “Bow in the presence of greatness…//You should be honoured by my lateness”. I was aware of the plight of the African American minority at that point and I felt it mirrored my experience growing up in Australia as a first generation immigrant. To hear another minority be so brazen about his own greatness in the face of everything else in the world brought me a great deal of confidence and shaped the way I behaved then and now.
The song was a massive hit and one of the first songs that sent me on my personal musical journey. This journey will continue to define who I am as a person and Yeezus is the only person who I can credit for that.
“I Wonder”, “Good Life” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” were all songs that I saw as shaping a different part of who I came to be. “I Wonder” was a smooth sampled reminder to strive for success. “Good Life” told me to aim for the material but realize that it’s the things that you can’t buy that will bring you real happiness: your family, your friends, the people you care about. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, for a long time kept my ego big when life wasn’t really working out in my favor.
While the next three songs “Barry Bonds”, “Drunk and Hot Girls” and “Flashing Lights” weren’t particularly influential in whom I became, this album would have felt incomplete without them. So for that they are integral.
“Everything I Am” featuring DJ Premier is a song whose meaning I never truly appreciated until I grew up. It has since remained one of the most important pieces of music I have listened to and its lyrics are applied to situations in my life even today.
I am a sucker for a good piano riff. Even now, whenever I hear a rapper bounce on a beat with some keys I know that he/she has the lyrical prowess to be a worthy listen. Your flow has to be impeccable when you spit over keys because for the most part, that’s all the accompaniment you get. Historically pianos are renowned for their ability to produce a range of sounds and as a result a range of emotions, and as a rapper you have to do the same thing with your flow or your lyrical content or both. This is an extremely difficult task but when it is perfected you get a song like “Everything I Am”
Kanye’s flow on this track was the perfect accompainiment to DJ Premier’s scratching and the sublime piano riff. Everything matches up, it is the aural equivalent to finishing a puzzle and seeing the big picture. That metaphor could be used for this entire song. It is a completed puzzle with many pieces that look like they don’t fit.
The subject matter hits home in this track. The lyrics are so important to me that they are probably the only words I would get permanents put on myself. The hook especially. “Everything I’m Not, Made Me Everything I Am”. This is my mantra, my motto, the first thing that goes through my mind and the last thing. I would have everyone in the world repeat this every morning so we can learn to appreciate the most important person in our life. Us. It is at this point reader, I realise that going on about this song would result in me gushing on about feelings and loving yourselves and others and happiness and rainbows, but I’m not going to do that. This song is 3 minutes and 48 seconds of what it means to see the world from behind my eyes.
“The Glory” and “Homecoming” are songs of celebration; seeing that we are nearing the end of this arguably perfect album, it makes sense to celebrate the journey that has been completed. Take a little time to blow up your own ego because we deserve that shit.
The final song on this album, “Big Brother”, is a song that you will never see another rapper do. It was a complicated look at the relationship that Kanye shared with Jay-Z, his mentor. This song goes from Kanye being too nervous to even speak to Jay to being as, if not more, famous than him. I have a little brother who I care about dearly. He is someone who I would like to see be successful in what ever he would like to do because I believe that he deserves it. “If you admire somebody you should go on head and tell em//People never get flowers while they can still smell em”.
Looking back at this album, all one can say in conclusion is that Kanye was never the same post-release. From 808s and Heartbreaks to Yeezus, his sound has constantly been reimagined and he draws from his own life experiences. Which is a great thing considering it was his life experiences that allowed him to make one of the best albums ever produced in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The reason this album remains the most important is just that his Graduation was exactly that. A graduation. The end of an era. Kanye was no longer a new kid on the block. People were no longer impressed by the producer-turned-rapper. Yes, he could produce a radio hit. But so could any monkey with four chords and a hook. Kanye, in a very real sense, graduated and hit real life, where he was forced to constantly reinvent himself to remain relevant.
Luckily for us, he thrived.