It looks like, with every album, Kanye West is trying to add more ingredients into his stew. He went from relying solely on the "chipmunk soul" and a balance of flash and thought in his rhymes on College Dropout to sneak-attacking the game, bringing in Jon Brion, and beefing up his style of production with loads of orchestration and wild arrangements with Late Registration. It seems that he has spent Graduation chilling with A-Trak more, digging into a more electro sound, which really only mirrors what's been going on in the South, especially in the Miami, Florida area. He's also repeatedly spoken on wanting to create an album full of anthems. Has he done this? Did he alienate any fans? Was it all worth it?
Yes, no and hopefully. In terms of anthems, you only need to see throngs of high school age kids bounce when the chorus of "Stronger", his Daft Punk-jacking official single, comes on, to see how far this guy who got introduced to many by his Blueprint work has come. He has always been able to drop the "right" track, for his albums always come with loads of singles, and he does not stray from that. While "Stronger" has mass appeal, "Can't Tell Me Nothing" almost sounds like his take on some of the "get money" anthems that seem to flood the market from the Dirty. It's not just the DJ Toomp-laced instrumental, which is all brooding and depressed and proud at the same time; nor is it the Young Jeezy adlibs in the chorus. If you break down his words in the chorus, he isn't really saying anything different than what they speak about in terms of cashflow, he just attacks it from a different angle. He has the same cocksure attitude, but can come up with decent lines ("don't ever fix your lips like Collagen/to say something where you gon' end up apologin'"), showing you his wit and his attitude. "Champion" is an uplifting wake-up call for those who think they can't get it done - positive reinforcement in the form of a slick start/stop beat that hits you instantly. He also gets to showcase his introspective rhymes - we realize that he has always been a clotheshorse, even if his Pops used to tell him "if you see clothes, close ya eyelids" - more ghetto yout need to hear this track.
In terms of production, 'Ye comes hard with the synths. I read that he didn't really want to go with "Good Life", possibly because it was just too easy: how hard is it to take Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T.", beef up the drums and synthline, sprinkle in some T-Pain and boast about the finer things in life? Not hard at all, especially if you are aiming to make anthems. This is one of those summertime anthems for those who made it to the Hamptons. "Flashing Lights", aka Billy Sunday's favorite joint, had the smooth feel to it, with the bumping kicks, which cascade into a wash of key stabs. Really big sound, but the fact that he kept the tempo down on this one is a good look, making the track sound like the club it seems that Kanye found some of these "Drunk & Hot Girls" in. He's not just a synth-maven, though. "Barry Bonds", on of Kanye's "real Hip-Hop" moments, is Nottz and 'Ye cooking up something monstrous in a pretty simple beat that brings forth one of the hottest fills I've heard on a mainstream LP this year. Yes, he does drop into a synth bed, but this one is all about those hard drums (and the fact that Lil' Wayne's verse is raped by Kanye's - who would have thunk that).
This CD does contain moments that make me shake my head. For example, I do wish that "I Wonder" was shortened by 2 minutes, not so heavy on the electronics, and sans Kanye's "raps". He wasted a pretty sly piano/vocal sample with the sonics. I also can't stand listening to "Good Morning", the intro that birthed his "I'm like a fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary". I mentioned "Drunk & Hot Girls" before, which is just an excuse to not have Mos Def rap on another album. I can't really see anyone other than rich, drunk frat boys getting into this joke-turned-ugly of a track. Imagine a crew of them singing this, driving their sports cars around a club. Now try to forget that image. Can't do it, right? "Homecoming" was also something that was unnecessary on my front, but his "track with Coldplay" sounds much better than Jay's.
Speaking of Jay(-Z), I can't end this review without speaking on "Big Brother". Possibly one of the most heartfelt pieces of poetry coming from the Roc camp since "Momma Loves Me", this track really gets into Kanye's psyche: his arrogance and attitude shines through, but when you look at it in the scope of him just imitating "big brother", you can see why he feels so adamant about his status: to hit Hov status, you need to be firing on all cylinders. The problem is, Kanye is not Jay. Kanye is not on Jay's level lyrically, or business-wise. Until Kanye can truly charter a ship on his own (and G.O.O.D. Music is a start), he will stay being "little brother". In hearing 'Ye lay it down in this way, you can definitely see why he seems to overcompensate on the clothes and in his boasting. He just misses the mark, it seems.
Which is the story of this album: it's almost "there", but in terms of being a classic album? Not right now, not in this era. 'Ye ditched the "Broke Phi Broke" this go 'round, but seems to have left some of the substance on the cutting room floor. People flock to 'Ye for his beats: they stay for his mind. When he masks it in too much "fresh to def" talk, it muddies our overall perception. This is one disc to party to, one to fuck to, one to keep you going during your day. Will you be passing this down to your children's children, though?
rock the dub gives Graduation a 3.5 out 5. Kanye goes for broke and brings a sonically pleasing package that screams "we did it!"... but for all that he is, the things that he's not is what holds him back from being the people's champ - but he is still the hipster's choice.
Essential Cuts: "Everything I Am", "Barry Bonds", "The Glory", "Champion", "Big Brother"
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