Happy 10th Anniversary to Kanye West’s third studio album Graduation, originally released September 11, 2007.
50 Cent and Kanye West stood on stage at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, face-to-face, ice-grilling each other. 50 Cent was clad in a jacket and jeans, while Kanye was wearing a tux and sneakers. West stood on his toes so he could look 50 eye-to-eye. It was Sunday, September 9th, less than 48 hours before the release date of both artists’ newest albums. 50 Cent was set to drop Curtis, his fourth effort, and Kanye was preparing to release his third album, Graduation.
The hype leading up to this release date was something that rap music hasn’t seen since. Months before, Def Jam Records had decided to move up West’s release date in order to directly “compete” with 50 Cent, then an unstoppable sales juggernaut. The “rivalry” was marketed as a referendum on who would be the face of popular rap music moving forward. The lead-up was filled with all of the hype of a congressional race, with photo-ops and bold pronouncements. At one point, 50 claimed that he’d retire if Kanye outsold him in the first week, later modifying his statement.
Kanye “won” the competition, with Graduation racking up 957,000 units sold in its first week compared to 50 Cent’s still-impressive 691,000. There was lots of ink, digital and otherwise, spilled about how Kanye had crushed 50 Cent, but I doubt there’s a mainstream rapper out today who wouldn’t give up a pinkie-toe for almost 700,000 in first week sales. Truthfully, both artists benefited greatly from the hype around their competition. Curtis was 50’s last platinum album, and much of its success sprung from the hype leading up to its release. Without the context of the orchestrated rivalry, it remains an album of little note. Meanwhile, Graduation was, well, Graduation. The album sold 2.7 million units, earned West three Grammies, and is one of the strongest entries in his catalogue.
Over the last decade, much has been discussed about how with Graduation, Kanye changed rap music. Most of it centers on how by besting 50 in first week sales, he finally “killed” gangsta rap. However, that read on the situation pretty much misses the point. The success of Graduation was less about Kanye ending 50 Cent’s dominance, and more about Kanye’s transformation into a bona fide rap superstar. Graduation marked the beginnings of West’s ascendance to what he has become today.
To be clear, the Kanye on Graduation isn’t “Me and my girl split a bucket at KFC” Kanye. It isn’t “Benz and a backpack” Kanye. It isn’t even “Louis Vuitton Don” Kanye. Rather, it’s the first appearance of “Stadium Status” Kanye. Inspired by his experience opening for U2 on their “Vertigo” tour, West professed his desire to record the type of material that would play well in front of crowds of tens of thousands. And much of the music on Graduation was created with that goal in mind.
The days of West rapping over sped-up soul samples were drawing to a close. Now he spoke of mostly listening to alternative rock groups like The Killers, Modest Mouse, and Feist. As a result, the production and rapping on Graduation shifted, as he even further simplified his lyricism and delivery to make it more appealing to mainstream audiences, and delved into rock and electronic music while creating the soundscape for the album.
It would be reasonable to believe that an arena rock inspired rap album would collapse under the weight of its excess, but West holds it all together and turns all of the apparent pretensions into a great album. West may have sounded insufferable when he lectured about what he was trying to do with his music, but the execution remained strong. Graduation was one of the better albums of 2007, and a case can be made that it's West’s best overall album.
The album begins with “Good Morning,” West’s mission statement for the album, showing his “graduation” from his previous persona to megastar. West kicks three straight-forward eight-bar verses showcasing his new flow and production style, as he raps, “Good morning, look at the valedictorian / Scared of the future while I hop in the DeLorean.”
Much of Graduation’s success was built around its singles. The four tracks rely heavily on synthesizer grooves, pop melodies, and catchy hooks, and possess an irresistible charm. The defiant “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” was the first entrée to the album, and serves as West’s self-proclaimed paean to his own success. Here West uses an uncomplicated flow, with each rhyme punctuated by sampled vocals, as he explains how he doesn’t have times for naysayers and how he remains true to himself even amidst all of the fame.
“Stronger,” Graduation’s second single, showed the beginning of Kanye’s dalliances with electronic music. The song samples Daft Punk’s "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” with its pulsing, trance-inducing drums and the vocoder-effected vocals repeating throughout the track. Rap music’s previous flirtations with house music in the late ’80s were quite often cringe-inducing. But here Kanye makes it work, mostly by keeping the beat’s rap sensibilities. “Stronger” would also be the building block for a later partnership between West and the French house duo, as Daft Punk would go on to produce several songs for Kanye’s 2013 album Yeezus.
“Good Life” was the album’s third and best single, a loud and boisterous club anthem/concert pleaser. The soaring synths and the warped vocal sample from Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” make this salute to his own victories feel especially epic, though it only clocks in at three and half minutes in length. The hook and bridge are sung by T-Pain, who was then at the height of his powers and popularity, and he lends it his own infectious charisma. The album’s fourth single, “Flashing Lights” is similarly synth-driven, but is much more deliberate in pace. Here Kanye explores a failed relationship that continues to haunt him, this time with assistance from a hook featuring the soulful vocals of Detroit’s Dwele.
Graduation shines on its album cuts as well. “Champion” is West’s upbeat dedication to his father and family life in general, sporting both rock and reggae influences. “I Wonder” gradually builds to the levels of bombast of other songs on Graduation. The track starts off with Kanye kicking short phrases between the Labi Siffre vocal and piano sample. Kanye adds layers of synths and a full string section as the song builds to a crescendo, while he reflects on his rise to fame.
“Barry Bonds” is the closest thing on Graduation to a braggadocio rap track, as Kanye kicks probably his best verse on the album. Over a solid bassline and sprinklings of keys, West utilizes fairly clever wordplay, rapping, “They say ‘He going crazy and we seen this before’ / But I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go / And I’m doing pretty hood in my pink polo / N^&*a please, how you gonna say I ain’t no Lo-head? / ’Cause my Dior got me more model head / I’m insulted, you should go ’head / And bow so hard until your knees hit your forehead.” Lil Wayne contributes a suitably lean-induced verse, proclaiming that he’s “still cole like Keisha’s family.”
There are occasional flashes of the “Chop Up the Soul” Kanye on Graduation. “Everything I Am” is the most reserved track on the album, with West rhyming over a beat originally intended for Chicago hip-hop pioneer Common. Featuring a simple and elegant piano loop backed by scratches courtesy of the legendary DJ Premier, the song would fit comfortably on either College Dropout (2004) or Late Registration (2005).
“Glory” splits the difference between West’s previous proclivity for using sped-up soul samples and his new production techniques. West and Plain Pat teamed-up behind the boards, sampling Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country,” backing it with the drum break from Mountain’s “Long Red,” and adding a full string section and gospel choir for additional vocals. Lyrically, Kanye explores his precipitous rise to fame, transforming from “Dwanye Wayne to Dwayne Wade” in just two years.
West makes a few missteps on Graduation, as sometimes his execution can’t keep up with his ambition. “Drunk and Hot Girls” is a ponderous, sluggish slog that’s also the worst song Kanye had recorded to that point. The inebriated reinterpretation of Can’s “Sing Swan Song” has occasion bursts of humor, but it completely overstays its welcome.
“Homecoming,” featuring vocals from Coldplay’s Chris Martin, isn’t as big of a misstep, but it’s far from the home run that Kanye probably envisioned when he recorded the song. Originally intended to be the album’s first single, the track is a take on Common’s classic “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” with Kanye exploring his love for their home city of Chicago, rather than hip-hop music itself. Kanye had recorded versions of this song dating back to his 2001 demo tape (it was then entitled “Home (Windy)”). Here he expresses regret for abandoning the city of his youth in order to pursue his rap music dreams, but the result is inoffensively bland. Kanye probably figured getting Martin to sing the chorus was going to be a coup and guarantee the song’s crossover success, but Jay-Z managed to beat him to the punch, enlisting Martin to sing on “Beach Chair” on Jigga’s Kingdom Come comeback album.
Graduation closes with “Big Brother,” West’s in-depth exploration of his relationship/friendship with Jay-Z, the man who in many ways put Kanye on his path to stardom by rapping over his production during the early ’00s. Since the beginning of his rap career, West has been gifted at explaining how he got involved in the rap game, as evidenced by his eight-minute plus spoken outro to “Last Call” on College Dropout. Here, over a thumping track by DJ Toomp, Kanye explores the ups and downs of the dynamic of “walking in the shadow of a giant” that he idolized.
Throughout the song, West explains the triumphs, such as first playing his beat for Jay and enjoying the financial success through both Jay and his record sales. But he also expounds on the slips, such as being denied backstage passes to Jay’s infamous “farewell” show at Madison Square Garden, being out-shined by Jay on the “Diamonds are Forever” remix, and discovering that Jay had also recorded a song with Chris Martin that had made it to the market first. Through his explanation of his complicated feelings, Kanye maintains a level respect and reverence for his “older brother.” Now, a decade later, their relationship has famously soured and is the fodder for Kanye’s infamous protracted concert screeds.
It’s not accurate to call Graduation West’s high-water mark, but it’s the point where he was best able to balance both his ego and his ability to make very good music. West remains one of the more controversial figures in mainstream music, always in the spotlight for one reason or another. He’s certainly endured his share of triumphs and tragedies since this album, and has used all of them for motivation to keep himself on the audience’s mind. But with Graduation there is a level of self-awareness that is lacking in his later albums.
It’s probably safe to say that if Kanye had never made Graduation, he never would have toured the world many times over and become one of the most popular and influential people making rap music. He also wouldn’t have famously interrupted Taylor Swift, married Kim Kardashian, or met with Donald Trump after the 2016 election. Graduation remains the source of Kanye’s celebrity and one of the reasons he still endures today.