I love food and drink. I grew up in Singapore, surrounded by some of the best food and drink imaginable, from every Asian culture imaginable. Cuisine all the way from the deserts of Rajasthan to the Tropical Island of Hainan graced my palate and they have come to define how I see food. It is an experience; a choice that people make that brings people together. It has transcended necessity and become a source of community. Irrespective of who you were or where you came from, the food you ate was essentially the same. It is one of the few things that make us quintessentially human.
“This is a Gospel Album”
This was a Gospel Album. It was also a Trap Album, a Tribute album and a Retrospective Album. But despite all these labels the only one that I can accurately attribute to this album is Classic. This is easily the second best album Kanye has put out, next to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and will be remembered in the annals of rap for the rest of history.
Try as he might however, this album will not MBDTF. Arguably the perfect hip hop album with perfect production and perfect features, this album comes close but falls short on some key aspects.
One could devote an entire thesis on the rollercoaster this album took to finally reach its release date. The first recorded mention of a sixth Kanye West album dates back to 2015 but even then there were reports that the album was being recorded in 2013 while MBDTF was being recorded. Back then the album was known as So Help Me God and it had a completely different album cover. It depicted the catholic symbol for the Virgin Mary, this may have been an indicator from the very start that Kanye was going to take his listeners to church. Religious Kanye isn’t a particularly new Kanye, he has made no apologies for his faith and it has always been a theme in his music. “Jesus Walks” was unapologetically Christian and even when he was featuring God on his tracks on Yeezus his faith was never brought into question, rather he saw himself as equal to the Almighty.
The Life Of Pablo takes his faith back to how it was in Late Registration. God was above him and he was looking to the heavens for advice and answers. The first three tracks of the album leave no question about the current spiritual state of Kanye and stands out to the rest of the album, save for Wolves, as obviously Gospel inspired.
However, from then on there was a very long period of silence following the announcement of the new album. Well, not silence. I am of the belief that Kanye West could never be silent for too long. He continued to intermittently drop tracks such as God Level, All Day, Only One, Famous (Known as Nina Chop) and Wolves. Only two of these songs made the final cut, one was renamed and the other was completely remixed from the version that he debuted. There was an impression that he felt a fair amount of pressure to deliver after Yeezus. A polarizing album which you either thought was the best thing Yeezy ever put out or you missed the “old Kanye”, something which he touches on in the track “I Love Kanye”. After Yeezus, Kanye needed to continue to reinvent himself but still remain true to his music and his roots, a feat he has achieved in The Life Of Pablo.
The features on this album are a pantheon of modern hip-hop stars. While every single part is well crafted and none of them over shine Kanye on his own record, it does seem a bit like a struggle to remain relevant. That being said, I reiterate the fact that he stood toe to toe with arguably the best MC out there right now (Kendrick Lamar) coming off the back of one of the most critically acclaimed albums ever released and managed to hold his own ground, something which other artists (cough, Big Sean) have found difficult.
One of my principal criticisms of this album is how disjointed it sounds. This may be an artistic choice, but it is one that has flown over my head and left me confused. Gospel to Trap to House is extremely confusing and there feels like a story is missing to tie the tracks together. When Kanye revealed that the Pablo in question was Saint Paul, I imagined it would be at least a core theme of the audio experience. However, soon it was a small part of a collection of themes and ideas that made up this album. Every single song on this album is good enough that I would enjoy listening to multiple times during my monthly play through of Kanye’s discography. This is a greatest hits album with completely new hits. Every song could be placed logically into the Albums, which came before, and you would not know the difference.
In terms of actual rapping, even as a Kanye apologist, I feel this wasn’t the greatest showcase from him. That doesn’t mean the rapping is particularly bad, (see Spoons by Macklemore for an example of bad rapping but rather it seemed like lyrics weren’t a particular focus for this album. There are a couple of exceptions found in No More Parties in LA and Wolves. But when Kanye hits, “If I fuck this model//and she bleached her asshole//if I get bleach on my T-shirt//Does that make me an asshole” I physically cringed and considered skipping Father Stretch my Hands. I will no doubt read these lyrics on some shitty metal-core Facebook page where people will then cherry pick guttural vocals and claim them to be more meaningful than hip-hop. Closely followed by exasperated white people asking for the return of “real music” and some neo-racism blaming police violence on “Kanya West”. But I digress.
The album was less about the lyrics and more about the production. An eclectic combination of sounds drawing from older albums headlined with new features. Yes, the album was jumpy and didn’t seem to have a flow to it. That doesn’t mean that the songs don’t sound good, and the songs were very very good. Be it Gospel, Trap or just plain-old Hip-Hop, it was executed extremely well.
For me, waiting for the album was part of the experience itself. Going to Yeezy Season shows at ungodly hours during the semester. Getting up at 6am to finally see a preview for the album. Checking Kanye’s twitter for any mention of the the album. This was a daily routine of looking forward to this album. In those two years my music taste has changed and grown up significantly. I have gained a greater appreciation for both newer artists like Kendrick and respect for older artists like Big Pun. I grown both as a person and as someone who enjoys music. No longer having to wait for this album will leave a big empty spot in my day. But it was the journey to it, the controversies, the fashion shows, the TV Promos, the Video Game. This was an album experience unlike any other and I am very happy that I was alive to see a man spend 2 years on an album. Even if that man wants to fuck Taylor Swift.
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.