Monday, March 26, 2018
Kanye West: Graduation (2007)
There are people out there who'd prefer if Kanye West just remade Graduation for the rest of his life, and at the worst of times -- for us and for Kanye -- many of us can at least understand the sentiment, not so much because West hasn't outdone himself many times over since 2007 but because the allure of the moment in which the record existed, and the vacuum it managed to fill, is so strong. We're drawn to it because just a decade later it already seems impossible, like it didn't really happen: Kanye West couldn't just put out a victory lap like this, a cap on his initial trilogy of commercial LPs, and sort of leave it at that. (Music rags already couldn't -- remember the extremely silly Blur vs. Oasis-style "battle" with the already waning 50 Cent over first-week album sales? -- but this was notably the last album cycle in which West, still relatively gracious in many of his interviews despite his swelling head, had a relationship with the entertainment press that wasn't entirely adversarial.) A huge record company couldn't generate a multi-platinum event just from a CD that really comes off in retrospect as a final exercise in the style West had established on The College Dropout and Late Registration, never achieving their consistency and only occasionally duplicating their heights. It's not as if the dregs of Iraq and the Bush years that it only addressed in passing were such a bright time, but when you hear this album, doesn't it seem like an entirely different world? Or maybe I'm just older. Kanye certainly is.
The title, Graduation, reflects a ripening and coming of age, and its September 2007 release also handily marks the turning point when West became a bona fide mainstream celebrity rather than an unexpectedly successful producer-turned-rapper taking the "alternative" nerd-wing of hip hop to the masses for the first time in over a decade. He'd pretty much always remain an outcast, often seemingly by choice, but he'd never again be anything less than a household name. It's also his last record that seems at all dedicated to Giving the People What They Want, meaning both his own established audience and the kind of people he tried and often failed to win over while on tour opening for Usher (2004), U2 (2005-06) and most improbably the Rolling Stones (2006). Additionally, it's the first and only of his albums whose primary concern is such crowd-pleasing, with hardly a difficult moment of confrontation to be found all across it; that nice boy Chris Martin (interviewed a couple years before this for XXL gesticulating wildly about his love of hip hop, sounding like the "I love pineapple" kid in The Virgin Suicides) even sings on one cut. West's turn away from any sort of pure commercialism -- every record he's issued since has openly courted alienation -- may have something to do with his own feeling that he'd already tried that route in '07, but it probably has a lot more to do with the death of his mother Donda before the year was out, which every armchair psychoanalyst plus the man himself has cited as generating a complete upheaval in his life and output, quite understandably.
For now, though, the difference between "Gold Digger" and "Drunk and Hot Girls" is a lot like the difference between "Dead End Street" and "Low Budget": both are pleasing and enticing, but one (the older, in both cases) actually probes, challenges with wit and thorniness and leaves you no less giddy for it. Years later West would, with wild but not inaccurate egotism, compare his body of work to gourmet food in a world of drive-thru while talking to Dorian Lynskey: "I challenge people with sonic beauty. For a society that's been greyed out by mediocrity, it’s like eating a whole bunch of McDonald's and then you get some real food. What's actually good is challenging when you've been served bullshit so much." Graduation sticks out, then, as the one Happy Meal in the man's catalog, but the thing about McDonald's is it tastes fucking good, it's a drug designed to keep you in its holding pattern, and I'd rather listen to "Big Brother" while wolfing down a snack wrap than make another attempt to comprehend The Life of Pablo.
The obvious deficiencies with Graduation in comparison to its predecessors aren't altogether new problems, they're just more blatant, maybe a bit more careless, which in turn could make them a more honest reflection of the artist's personality. West's flow is extremely goofy throughout; sometimes he's actually funny and self-deprecating, sometimes he's reaching for rhymes and catchphrases that just aren't there, and here he finds a new and inexplicable attachment to some highly suspicious faux-inspirational showboating. I mean, "tha-tha-that that don't kill me can only make me stronger"? Martin's presence semi-derails the sincerity of the Chicago song "Homecoming," revised from an early mixtape track. "Big Brother" is sentimental but not totally charmless pap about West's rocky relationship with pal, collaborator, boss Jay-Z. And while it makes sense in context, the presence of the line "man, killing's some wack shit" in "Everything I Am" could give a detractor enough ammunition for several weeks of Buzzfeed hit pieces. All that said, West bridges the gap as always with ingenious, incredibly malleable production. If Graduation has proven less influential than any of West's other records save Pablo (and who's to say about that one yet), it's most likely a sign that West achieved what he meant to rather than the opposite.
That's because his chief inspiration -- again, going back to his strange opening slots for various megastars who are now arguably no more famous than he is -- was arena rock at its broadest: he wanted these to be big, dumb anthems, and wanted them to fill sonic needs for the people they'd reach. He interjects at one point: "Lauryn Hill said her heart was in Zion / I wish her heart still was in rhymin' / 'Cause who the kids gon' listen to, huh? / I guess me if it isn't you." Constructing music as a language with very base appeal for maximum impact isn't ignoble by default -- isn't that what Bob Marley spent his career doing? -- but citing Keane and the Killers as influences is certainly a unique way of thinking of such outreach. If we're talking big and dumb, it can't get much bigger and dumber than "Drunk and Hot Girls," yet the song was -- let's see -- coproduced by then-indie royalty Jon Brion, superficially inspired by Can, features a guest verse from Mos Def, and despite that pedigree still manages to be almost defiantly insubstantial, its best line the immortal "'ahhhdadadaya' / that's how the fuck you sound." "Barry Bonds," meanwhile, was so instantly outdated despite a Lil Wayne verse that it may as well have been a track from summer 1996 dissing Richard Jewell. And as much as you and I love "Good Time," critics would've been all the hell over Nicki Minaj if she dared to release something so fluffy and frivolous in the "Starships" era.
If you're cynical, you say in 2007 that it's the sound of an individual getting absorbed in the system; but no one did, at least almost no one, maybe because already then no one was willing to doubt West's own control over his work, or maybe because -- unbelievably -- the source of actual controversy at the time was West's heavy use of synthesizers, which led to pre-leak rumors that he was going to make a Vince Clarke record or something. Every West record is seemingly led by whispers that it's the one on which he goes Too Far, and usually it's true for at least some of his heretofore dependable cult (which now includes too large a proportion of the population to be called a cult), but anyone who turned away from West because Graduation had a lot of keyboards was some kind of shortsighted boob.
But getting back to the cynical perspective: Graduation itself answers the suspicion, and it does it by sheer force of the mastery West knows he has that he probably doesn't even know how to properly modulate. The thing about "Stronger" -- incidentally, the song that turned me personally into a fan after several years of skepticism (I'd only heard the singles, and if I understood why I didn't hear them as brilliant at the time -- prompting me to avoid both albums despite repeated insistence from one particular friend that I would love them -- I'd explain it to you) -- wow, sorry. The thing about "Stronger" is that it qualifies as every bad thing you could rattle off about the album: those synths are as cheesy as something from a Journey record, the Daft Punk hook is obvious and never really expands upon the original track or takes it anywhere, and the lyrics and delivery are simplified and robbed of much of West's usual texture and nuance... plus it sounds, yes, like music meant to fill all the crannies and crevices of a stadium, like a performance for the wings (or, uh, a performance by Wings). But "Stronger" doesn't score (and didn't hit #1) because West is lowering himself, but because it's a discovery of his new and almost frightening capacity for selling its drama in full-on widescreen. The song is oversized and outrageous, and West meets it at every point, sonically and in his verses, and in a chorus that overwhelms the potential for corn with conviction there's simply no room left to doubt. And there's a reason it was a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon, a lot of it verbal; even if you think the chorus is flat and dopey despite its mounting energy, "you should be honored by my lateness / that I would even show up to this fake shit" makes you fall in love with the dude all over again, and "let's get lost tonight, you can be my black Kate Moss tonight" is an opening salvo almost worthy of Prince.
The Grammy-earning "Good Life" similarly operates by maximizing itself, making its relative thinness impossible to sense because it feels so deep and so high. And the triumph of the anthemic approach is probably "Can't Tell Me Nothing," an immediate classic that harnesses the theoretical primordial appeal of blues-rock, held together with a beautifully layered vocal sample by Connie Mitchell and the confidently menacing contributions of Young Jeezy, to generate a working-class anthem of sorts despite focusing almost exclusively in the verses on West's own experiences with fame. (His consternation about TV appearances is prophetic, with the worst yet to come, though the one he seems to spend the most time regretting -- challenging George W. Bush over the Katrina response live on the air -- is one he absolutely shouldn't.) Like the music and production, the lyrical approach is a sort of backwards way of stumbling upon populism: he courts his largest audience to date of mainstream hip hop fans by drawing from basically unrelated genres, and celebrates the lure of financial freedom by focusing yet again on his own success. The song probably works in large part because of West's sense of humor, an aspect of his work that's never been studied enough, lost under the flood of boasts and a childish tendency never to forget a slight that he shares with lots of other brilliant people.
Certain songs do exist on an obvious continuum from The College Dropout and Late Registration, coming across as agreeable leftovers from that era. "Champion" demonstrates what sounds like an impatience with West's traditional soul-lifting methodology, its repetitiveness calling forward to stranger experiments on Yeezus; and you could be forgiven for mixing "Good Morning" up with one of several of his earlier songs, even though it's a delight. (The lack of skits, a first here, is an even bigger delight.) And there's the more than respectable "Everything I Am," and the Laura Nyro-sampling "The Glory," which covers a lot of the same lyrical ground as "Can't Tell Me Nothing" but seems to create an intentional musical counterpoint to West's words, fleeting moments of a staring out into the void that call almost eerily ahead to the sharp turn he was about to take in his career.
The most prophetic song here as well as the best, and perhaps the most complete and singular creation in Kanye West's catalog, has some of the same musical properties. "Flashing Lights" is a masterpiece, a prolonged glare into the unknown and a time-stopper that brilliantly harnesses the controversial synthesizers to turn their own roller-rink sound into a feeling, at the hook, of the coldness of infinity; on Yeezus this would all mark dread, on 808's and Heartbreak loss, on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy it would be in service of a warts-and-all introspection, but here these glimpses of something darker have a glorious, druggy weightlessness about them, like something that's been discovered without full knowledge of its utility. The strings and synthesizers create a complete atmosphere that West chooses not to bring down to earth the way he does on the sometimes equally barren and disturbing "Can't Tell Me Nothing"; instead, he wanders on despite it, like someone ranting to themselves as some horrible David Lynch scenario plays out around them, and the chorus, sung by Dwele acting as a Kanye surrogate, serves to complement and affix itself to the soundstage. The entire song starts to seem as if it's floating above the listener, increasingly out of reach. This is the sound of a party whose attendees are growing antsier and more paranoid as the seconds pass like years. It already couldn't be clearer that West's ambitions go beyond hip hop; that's not to say hip hop isn't plenty huge an umbrella, just that any such label or limitation would seem trite to him, and his restlessness on this song gives the lie to much of Graduation, which then ends up sounding like what it turned out to be: a goodbye, of sorts.
Hearing Graduation today is a more jarring experience, for whatever reason, than hearing any of the rest of Kanye West's first six records. The other five all harnessed and foretold so much about the cutting edge of modern music that it seems they could each be simultaneously released today by five different artists. Graduation, on the other hand, sounds like a time capsule -- or, to paraphrase Greil Marcus' description of Sgt. Pepper, a tombstone for its time. In 2007 people mostly talked about how pervasive West's fixation on himself was becoming, and how little skill he seemed to really have for the kind of philosophical introspection that would justify his narcissism. In 2018, we know so much more about him than he does as of Graduation, and his own impulses covering the record now seem to be largely beside the point; what Graduation is finally about is not him, but us, especially because his stated intent here is to pass along pleasure to his increasingly vast audience. At your arm-waving frenzy as "Good Life" plays for the millionth time, the camera turns on you; and maybe, on "Flashing Lights," the camera catches the moment when you fall backward, horrified, and wake up now.