“Graduation” is Kanye West’s third album. The other two, “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration,” are both laying on the desk as I write this. Looking at them again, a funny thing occurred to me: His favorite trademark – that teddy bear thing – appears on all three covers while Kanye himself is mysteriously absent. Very strange, considering all the criticism he gets for an inflated ego…but on the other hand, putting his photo on the cover seems wholly unnecessary, since his music speaks for itself. If other rappers could admit their fears and desires with the same confidence Kanye has on “Graduation,” we’d have more music as effective as his.
While “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration” took full advantage of the CD’s 80-minute length, “Graduation” has a more reserved pace at just 51 minutes. The new album is just as satisfying as the twin peaks that preceded it, though: Mr. West wakes up smiling on “Good Morning,” contemplates Nietzsche on “Stronger,” defies authority on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” dances a bitter waltz with “Drunk and Hot Girls” and even shows some love for “Big Brother.” As a writer, Kanye’s lyrics are as fresh as ever, even when he barks them in monosyllables on “I Wonder”: “You! Say! I! Think! I’m! Ne-! -Ver! Wrong!/You! Know! What?! May-! -Be! You’re! Right!”
Lil Wayne comes very close to stealing the show on “Barry Bonds,” but the beat is too seductive to be distracted from. Although the beats on “Graduation” aren’t as labyrinthine as the ones on “Late Registration,” the inventive production is still there and the beats are as brilliant and creative as Kanye West beats can be. Even the samples are unique: I had to play “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” again to hear where the samples for “Good Morning” and “Good Life” came from.
Kanye says more than he realizes on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”: “Old folks talking ‘bout ‘back in my day’/But homie, this is my day.” It’s a quote that shows you how he relishes the present while running from his past. Still, things get brighter on “Everything I Am,” where shortcomings are transformed into salvation: “I never rocked a mink coat in the wintertime like Killa Cam/Or rock some mink boots in the summertime like will.i.am/Let me know if you feel it, man/‘Cause everything I’m not made me everything I am.”
“Graduation” was slated to debut on Sept. 18, but was pushed up to Sept. 11. 50 Cent, whose “Curtis” dropped the same day, said that if Kanye’s album sold better than his, he’d never make another one. That was either a joke or a rumor, since both artists actually worked with each other just fine in the studio. “50 said ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ was his favorite song, so I said, ‘OK, that’s my first single,’” says Kanye in Rolling Stone. “We push each other.”
As for the date itself, 50 sees a bright side: “9/11 – we take a negative thing and make it into something positive.”
There’s a big moment on “Graduation” where Kanye samples his mentor, Jay-Z. His voice chimes in at the end of “Good Morning” with a variation of a lyric from “The Blueprint”: “Gather ’round hustlers, that’s if you’re still livin’/And get on down.” That was a bite: Jay lifted it from Slick Rick, so Kanye’s version is therefore a quote within a quote. Maybe he should’ve included a line from Jay-Z’s “Kingdom Come” instead, something like “If this is your first time hearing this, you are about to experience somethin’ so cold,” a bite from Kanye’s first line on “The College Dropout.”