Jonah gives Kanye West’s latest a failing grade; I’d put the effort closer to B/B- territory. Graduation might be his weakest effort overall, but there are some compelling tracks here (as well as some total bombs). Here and elsewhere, Kanye’s production style is as forward-thinking as ever (see the jazzy, Moondance-like strings on the standout track on Talib Kweli’s latest). While Graduation is trebly and synth-heavy at times, it’s balanced by innovative beat structures and soulful string arrangements that make some of these numbers prime hip-pop (a term Jonah applies with implicit negatively, which is off-base).
Here’s the wonderful thing, people: Hiphop is big enough that you don’t have to love Graduation to love hiphop. You can get off the bus with Phat Kat and POS, Jonah, because there are plenty of other routes. The one that Kanye’s on isn’t gonna please everyone, especially purists. I’ll get to them in a minute.
The song “I Wonder” is the best example of everything Jonah hates about Graduation, the best place to start deciding whether you’re on the Kanye bus or not. That old soul vocal/piano sample (reminiscent, really, of Pete Rock’s sped-up soul samples), Kanye’s broken cadence and his relentless self-aggrandizement, the humming, New Wave synth lead that masks the beat, and that righteous, Matthew Herbert-esque bass-n-strings ride-out at the end… It’s a new sound, innovative, and not easily placed in the club or the Jeep. What it is is just a damn good song, flawlessly produced and arranged, mildly annoying in its subjectmatter. It’s lovable and hatable (kind of like you, Jonah), which I find fascinating. That’s Kanye at his best.
The same way that “Good Life”—the next track—is T-Pain at his best. Just when I thought I was beyond capacity to like the guy, Kanye coaches him into his coolest appearance in, like, ever. This is the only way T-Pain should be heard—on the hook, singing a deeply soulful chorus, before getting his ass kicked back to the strip club. It’s another amazing song, two in a row for Graduation. (Though Lupe Fiasco and Gemini do an even better take of the same anthemic hiphop/pop/soul song structure with vocalist Pooh Bear on “We On.”)
To say “it should be required by law that hiphop albums have some fucking bass” is basically to say that all hiphop albums should sound the same. Again, maybe purists would argue for some kinda Hiphop Code of Enforcement, but purists are idiots.
The reason you can’t get the Daft Punk sample from “Stronger” out of your head, Jonah, is because it’s a badass track and a brilliant use of a sample. The problem is, again, Kanye’s own ego. “You can be my black Kate Moss tonight…” “I’ll do anything for a blonde dyke…” Sheah, that’s not adding much substance to the hiphop canon. Neither is the atrocious “Drunk and Hot Girls,” which is the biggest mistake to end up on tape in a long time. If it was just one of these ego rants at a time, mitigated by something deeper, more conceptual, or funnier, they’d go down easier, they’d mean more in contrast.
Kanye nearly figures it out on “Everything I Am,” the album’s one slow jam, reminiscent of some No-I.D piano plaintiveness from One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Finally, a tiny crack in dude’s towering ego. There’s self-deprecating humor here (“People talk so much shit about me at barbershops they forget to get their hair cut”) and a passionately delivered vocal: “People talk shit but when the shit hit the fan, everything I’m not made me everything I am.” Points for this soulful, never-make-it-on-the-radio joint; wish Kanye wasn’t afraid to delve into bigger issues like he almost does here.
“The Glory” is maybe the most evenly balanced track on the album, banging and lyrically tolerable, but Kanye already produced it and Jay-Z already recorded it with “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”
And herein lies the biggest problem with Kanye—despite all the progressive production, the well-placed Chris Martin cameos (really, it works—like T-Pain [am I comparing T-Pain to Chris Martin? The need for such a comparison is what makes this album discussion-worthy], Martin’s voice is more effective on a hook than over the course of a four-minute song), we only need one ego-exploded king of hiphop. Jay-Z already established his reign with a more interesting backstory, better flow, and stronger lyrics. Intriguingly, Kanye himself addresses this issue at the end of the record.
“Big Brother,” Graduation’s closer, is all about Kanye’s relationship with Jay-Z, Kanye comparing his career to Jay’s: “My big brother was B.I.G.’s brother…” “Big brother saw me at the bottom of the totem/Now I’m at the top, everybody on the scrotum…” “To be number one I’ma beat my brother…” “I told Jay I did a song with Coldplay/Next thing I know he got a song with Coldplay…”
The track—and the album in general—proves a few things: Kanye’s got guts. He’s got crazy talent behind the boards. He’s got charisma to spare. But he’s positioned himself as a cultural icon before his time—either you’re on the come-up with him, changing the game and taking over, or you’re ready to roll him down the mountain for good. It’s not a sustainable position to be in. It doesn’t allow for grey area; as fascinating as a character as Kanye West is, I can’t fully embrace him for that reason. But it definitely gets people talking, and maybe even sells a few records.