Excepting the oddity of a non-hip-hop album to come, this is Kanye West’s worst album—though it’s still not bad, just lazy. Despite the title suggesting that this would follow in a linear form after The College Dropout and Late Registration, Graduation is a completely different album. Both those albums were inherently backwards-looking; their twenty-some and skit-filled tracklists a nod to golden era hip-hop albums while beats were inspired by 60’s R&B, and despite these nostalgic properties, they still sounded modern (probably because golden era hip-hop albums and 60’s R&B still sound timeless today). Graduation on the other hand, with house or house party-inspired tracks, seeks to put itself in the now, and six years later, the now has inevitably only become the then. And while tracks like “Stronger,” “Good Life,” “Flashing Lights,” “The Homecoming,” found their way onto the dancefloor in a way that most of The College Dropout and Late Registration, despite being better, couldn’t, they had the shelf life of other dancefloor hits (that is to say, the shelf life of unrefrigerated milk). Oh, and the lack of skits hurts Graduation. As far as I’m concerned, this album serves as a testament that hip-hop albums need skits. As I’ve said before, the best hip-hop albums use skits for variation and humour, and without them, Graduation has a monotonous feel that neither The College Dropout or Late Registration did. Oh, and the album is never humourous, or at least, if it ever is, it feels like an inside joke.
Which is why I’ll hold that “Stronger” isn’t the only totally boring song here – I’ll get to that one momentarily. “Drunk and Hot Girls” is the worst song here (and in his discography at large). It’s not the fact that guest feature Mos Def isn’t rapping — he hasn’t really shown an interest in that for some time at this point — it’s that it’s just a terrible track that was a bit of drunk fun between the two artists meant only between them. I suppose, if Kanye West had dicked around with autotune around this time as he would a year from now, the track wouldn’t be half-as-bad, but the slurred out and off-key singing annoys me to no end (get it? “Mos Def sounds drunk because he’s singing about drunk girls”—lame). I’m not quite sure who the track is supposed to appeal to; the typical Kanye West fan is probably equally thrown off by the off-key singing and despite what most music sites will try to tell you, Can-fans make up for a very small percentage of the population. It doesn’t help that it’s also the longest song on the album and follows after the second worst track on the album. I could overlook similar faults on The College Dropout which had a number of weaker tracks (“Breathe In Breathe Out,” “The New Workout Plan”), because the good more than compensated for them, but Graduation has none (or at most, very few) of the highs that The College Dropout boasted. Moreover, the pacing of Graduation is another problem; it takes a while for the album to get going at all, and once it finally does, it crashes and burns to a backlashing-concussion-inducing halt before starting up again and ending shortly after.
People who complain about Kanye West’s lyricism might as well complain about the acting in pornography. Still though, with Graduation, it’s hard to avoid, because of the album’s laziness. It’s around this time that Kanye West had donned his trademark sunglasses (honestly, placing third in a list of stupid sunglasses that celebrities have worn, behind Soulja Boy and Bono) and lost any shred of humility. There’s no “Family Business” or “Hey Mama” to be found; two tracks on each of his preceding albums that shed some sympathy on one of the biggest assholes in modern times. There’s no “All Falls Down” or “Jesus Walks” to be found either; two tracks on The College Dropout that could have made Kanye West into the voice of our generation if he chose to go down that path. What he says over the course over 50 minutes is tantamount to him saying nothing at all. Well, I guess he’s saying something on some of these tracks, but when he drops a line like “My big brother was BIG’s brother,” an ass-kissing reference to Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G., I just can’t take him seriously.
Sometimes, I can overlook it though, because we ought to look to Kanye West for the production, which is what made him a household name in the first place. That’s why, even whenever a line comes up that gives me a huge case of the eye-rolls and the headaches like the needless namedropping that doesn’t really hold up under any sort of scrutiny other than rhyming for rhyming’s sake, “Dwayne Wayne became Dwayne Wade” and “I’m like Gnarls Barkley meets Charles Barkley,” or the braggadocio of “That tuxedo might have been a little guido / But with my ego / I can stand there in a speedo / And be looked at like a fucking hero,” or the namedropping of rappers who enjoy silly nicknames, “The hood love to listen to Jeezy and Weezy / And, oh yeah, Yeezy!”, I’m able to look past them because the beat is so good. All those examples come from “The Glory,” and it’s still the best track on the album. And back to my first paragraph, Kanye West looks to 60’s gospel for a sample, taking the best 4 seconds out of Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry (though that’s selling it short – it’s a fantastic album), but whereas he would’ve kept it as it was 2-4 years ago, he warps it so it’s barely decipherable into a chipmunk-type thing that singlehandedly carries the track through.
It’s unfortunate then, that comparatively, he doesn’t really do anything with the rest of the samples. I’m convinced that people would be more appreciative of “Stronger” if the Daft Punk sample that basically comes up untouched and that is still too-fresh on our minds weren’t there at all, since he raps harder on that track than on most here. Ditto “Champion,” which uses Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” which is basically cut-up and teases us after each line, only to fully materialize as the hook before taking its immediate leave thereafter and doing nothing that opener “Good Morning (Intro)” didn’t do. Which is why “Flashing Lights” and “Homecoming” are some of the best tracks on the album. It’s not just the beat (which are fantastic in both), but because Kanye West brings in outside talent to deliver great hooks instead of just riding on a lazy sample. I suppose, despite ending the school trilogy on a mostly unremarkable note and not offering any sense of linear narrative at all, the title of Graduation is fitting. I just finished my fourth year of university, and having fucked off too much in my first year, I’m here for one more. Most of my friends however, graduated this year and there was a huge outbreak of the fuck-it’s, mostly from those who resolved that they were not going to try for a master’s program and didn’t care so much about the marks. That’s essentially the attitude Kanye West adapted throughout the entirety of Graduation—why bother going hard since he’s already made it? Because fuck it.