Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ Aimed for Stadium Status and Solidified His Legend
"I like to sell as many albums as possible, but more than that, I like as many people to hear the songs as possible..."
That's what Kanye West told Rolling Stone in November 2007, two months after his critically-acclaimed third album Graduation set the record for the largest week of any album digitally downloaded. Kanye was in an amazing place in 2007. Over the previous three years, he'd gone from hottest producer in the game to most unexpected hip-hop superstar. During the years following Jay-Z's "retirement," Kanye had risen to the forefront of hip-hop, but in 2007, there were questions as to whether or not the game belonged to Kanye's heightened visibility, Lil Wayne's lyrical omnipresence, or the formidable marketing presence of 50 Cent.
With the release of Graduation, Kanye made it clear that he was without peer.
Kanye toured with U2 on their Vertigo Tour in 2005 and 2006 and it seemed to spark something in the rapper; an ambition to introduce the kind of opulence and granduer that had been epitomized by the arena rock generation. 'Ye was also immersed in the trendy rock of the early 00s. Rock's cultural sway has lessened significantly in the ten years since, but in 2007, there were still more than a few bands at the forefront of music to still be a source of inspiration for their peers.
"Those notes cut me right there," Kanye explained while playing "Goodbye" during an early Graduation listening back in August 2007. "I listen to Coldplay, Keane and the Killers. Those are notes Keane would fuck with."
Late Registration had affirmed Kanye West's status as the preeminent superstar of his generation, and he'd followed it with some of his most controversial and era-defining moments. In September 2005, he'd made an appearance on a live Hurricane Katrina benefit and gone off-message. "I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food,'" he unexpectedly blurted out during the telecast, before adding, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
And two months after that, at the MTV European Music Awards, he'd stormed the stage when Justice v Simian's "We Are Your Friends" won for Best Video over Kanye's "Touch The Sky."
"Fuck this! My thing cost a million dollars man ... I had Pam Anderson, I was jumping across canyons and shit," Kanye declared. "If I don't win, the award show loses ... credibility." As questionable as Kanye's hubris was (and remains), he was absolutely correct in his estimation of his own pop culture clout at the time. And after all of the criticism following his antics, Kanye would craft an album that would go a long way towards proving his point.
After the indulgences of Late Registration, 'Ye trimmed the fat on it's follow-up. The emphasis isn't on intros, skits and segues; just a streamlined set of songs presented at their most anthemic. The result is an album that lacks the kind of overarching faux-conceptualism that are hallmarks of many of Kanye's most celebrated albums; but Graduation finds its greatest strength in not being hamstrung by those kinds of pretensions.
With Ye's declaration that "This is where we become legendary," album opener "Good Morning" features a sample of Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," as West lays out the manifesto for his approach circa 2007: "And yer ass barely passed any and every class/Looking at every ass, cheated on every test/I guess, this is my dissertation
Homie this shit is basic, welcome to Graduation..."
A snippet of Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" forms the backdrop for "Champion," and Connie Mitchell's bridge only heightens the vibe, continuing a theme that seems more unapologetically ballerific than previous Kanye albums.
"Stronger" preceded the album that summer, and offered a hint to where Kanye was going on Graduation. With that Daft Punk-quoting hook, and those thundering synths and drums, Kanye sounded larger-than-life. Late Registration was Kanye going lush in his Jon Brion-assisted arrangements, but this was Kanye aiming for the stratosphere--the hooks are big. The beats are booming.
"I Wonder" slows things down a bit, over skittering drums and a sample of "My Song" performed by Labi Siffre. It sounds like Kanye still in disbeblief at where he's gotten in life and career; but there's his trademark angst getting in the way again: "I've been waiting on this my whole life/These dreams be waking me up at night/You say I think I'm never wrong/You know what, maybe you're right..."
"Good Life" deftly combines a sped-up flip of Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." and a winning guest appearance by T-Pain into one of Ye's most enduring and infectious anthems. It serves as the album's credo. DJ Toomp blesses Ye with one of his best beats on "Can't Tell Me Nothing," the album's first single. It became an unofficial theme song--especially following Kanye's high-profile controversies. It's followed by two of Graduation's weakest moments.
"Barry Bonds" boasts a Lil Wayne guest spot, but the results just aren't that memorable. Over the oft-sampled "Long Red" by Mountain, Kanye and Wayne drop formulaic boasts and this feels like little more than an opportunity to get the two hottest rappers of the time on a track together. One of Kanye's most-maligned tracks, there's really not much about "Drunk & Hot Girls" that's redeemable. It sounds like Kanye and Mos Def may have had fun making it--but it's clearly the weakest, most uninspired moment here.
The dramatic strings of "Flashing Lights," on the other hand, would become one of Graduation's signature moments. With an assist from Dwele, Kanye drops one of his most darkly cosmopolitan odes to the glare of the good life he was just toasting a few tracks earlier. West goes for a more intimate sound on the somber "Everything I Am." With DJ Premier's cuts and scratches and the soulful lift from Prince Phillip Michael's "If We Can't Be Lovers," its one of Graduation's quieter moments.
Perhaps this is easier to recognize a decade later, but "The Glory" feels like a farewell to Kanye Mach 1, as it trades on his earliest trademarks; an uplifting hook, carried by a sped-up soul sample. "Homecoming" hearkens back to that strange time when a Coldplay guest appearance was actually kinda cool, and the song serves as Kanye's jubilant tribute to his hometown of Chicago. "And when I grew up, she showed me how to go downtown/In the nighttime her face lit up, so astoundin'/I told her in my heart is where she'll always be/She never messed with entertainers cause they always leave..."
One of the album's most talked-about tracks, "Big Brother" was Kanye airing out his grievances with mentor/friend Jay-Z. The two superstars always had a complex relationship and, even at this relatively early juncture, it was clear that Kanye's insecurities had yielded some bitter feelings towards Jay.
West worked with acclaimed contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, the 'Warhol of Japan," on the artwork for the Graduation campaign, from the album cover to accompanying animation and T-shirts. Kanye's vision was always more than just beats and rhymes; but on Graduation, he synthesized his music, image and all adjacent properties into a pop culture movement. The shades, the shirts, the hooks--it was all born of the same creative spirit and it was inescapable.
Of course, the 50 Cent hype would come to define the album rollout. The Sept. 11 release date coincided with the release of 50's third studio album, Curtis. "It's great marketing — for Kanye West," 50 would say in a USA Today interview when asked about the budding competition. "But I sell way more records than Kanye West, and I generate way more interest than Kanye West. They think they can match us up, but they'll find out when that week goes by and the sales come back. This is no rivalry." 50 went so far as to later promise to retire from music if Graduation outsold Curtis in the U.S. The two landed on the August cover of Rolling Stone, facing off like two boxers prepping for a heavyweight bout. West turned up onstage with 50 Cent at Madison Square Garden during Ciara and T.I.'s Screamfest '07 Tour that August. Upon release, Graduation's first week sales were 957,000 against Curtis's first week sales of 691,000.
It confirmed what most of the world seemed to already know--it was Kanye West's time. Despite widespread leaks and bootlegging, Graduation was double platinum in a month.
"All those people that bootlegged the album, there's a chance they'll come to the concert, or play the music for their kids, that these songs will connect in different ways," West said in that Nov. 2007 Rolling Stone interview. "Thai's more important than sales. My goal is playing stadiums, and I don't think having millions of illegal downloads hurts that."
Kanye knew who he was in 2007. A lot happened after that, maybe he still has a stronger sense of self than anyone in music. Or maybe we just have to accept that he's not this guy anymore. West's life has been an endless roller coaster since Sept. 2007: he death of his mother, Donda West, two months after Graduation's release; the deterioration of his engagement to Alexis Phifer in 2008; the infamous 2009 MTV VMAs Taylor Swift Incident; his highly-publicized relationship with Amber Rose; his marriage to Kim Kardashian; and countless other moments that alternated between outrageous and confounding. One can't expect any person (let alone a creative) who has experienced so much to stay in one place--especially not one as famously mercurial and restless as Kanye West.
But damn--don't you miss the Old Kanye?
Watch Kanye West's Video for "Can't Tell Me Nothin'":
Watch Kanye West's Video for "Good Life":
Watch Kanye West's Video for "Flashing Lights":