Kanye West - Graduation
Is it safe to say that Kanye West is probably the biggest rapper in history to not use a pseudonym? Talib Kweli is the only other one I can think of off the top of my head, and for his purposes it’s with a totally different conceit in mind. I think there’s a lot to be said for that - even Tupac went by 2pac for his whole mainstream career.
It speaks volumes for West’s career trajectory if nothing else. Kanye is - throughout his career - marked for being an “honest” MC in a genre where being “honest” is an extremely loose term. When he released his groundbreaking debut, The College Dropout, he was lauded for being “confessional”, something that for a genre that is steeped in the concept of being “real”, is apparently unheard of. Now, I’m being somewhat facetious here, but only somewhat. Hip-hop is characteristically supposed to be the “CNN of the streets”, but that changed when the MC became more powerful than the message. Once Jay-Z asserted his stranglehold on rap music in the late 90’s, the line between playful exaggeration, lyrical wordplay, and being “real” became increasingly blurred. It wasn’t until ‘Ye blew up that being “real” took a new meaning. It was the changing of the guard, certainly.
Flash forward three years. Kanye is the biggest artist in the universe, eclipsing his mentor, and single-handedly making the biggest records in the music world (only a year after Graduation, he would best Guns ‘N Roses’ multi-million-dollar-15-years-in-the-making Chinese Democracy with an album he made on his MacBook Air in three weeks). And with that, I’ll go ahead an theorize that Graduation - while it’s an album that’s proven the test of time more than I ever expected it would - is still his weakest LP.
The good songs on this record have fucking staying power (excuse the pun). The first six tracks here are phenomenal, and if they were an EP, it would rank among the all-time greats. But for every “Good Morning” or “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’”, there’s a song like “Drunk & Hot Girls”, a song that has all the makings of a banger (a Mos Def guest spot, a Can sample), and just falls flat. On the flip side of that argument, without these early experiments, we wouldn’t have My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, period. Prior to MBDTF, I would also have told you that Graduation featured Kanye’s best production work, and I think that holds true (barring the aforementioned).
The guest spots, like I mentioned, are questionable. Weezy pops up for a lazy verse on “Barry Bonds”, a song that still feels phoned-in four years later. Mos Def’s we already covered, and even ‘Ye’s cue from Jay-Z to let Chris Martin on the record is equally ill-advised, though he’s made appearances from adult-contemporary artists (come on, that’s what they are) work before (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on Late Registration’s “Heard ‘Em Say”). But, like most of Kanye’s best tracks, his best stuff comes when he gets the spotlight all to himself. “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’” remains the standout, the precursor, the turning point in his career. If “Jesus Walks” is the father, then “Can’t Tell Me” is the son, and “Runaway” is the Holy Spirit. It’s where things go from being shitty to dire to desperate. It’s Kanye’s career in a nutshell.
If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the record that you put on when you come home hammered after a night of awful decisions, full of your own head, self-loathing, self-abusing, but still with the drunken triumph we all carry with us, then Graduation is the record you put on the next morning with a greasy breakfast, a gallon of water and a few appropriately-sized bong rips to help yourself forget. ‘Ye is an artist steeped in being real, and to say he’s offered anything less than (qualifier: “his own”) reality is pretty much a lie. He’s always revealed himself flaws and all, and that’s what makes him such a polarizing figure, but the music speaks for itself. I’d be willing to say that beyond Radiohead, Kanye West is probably the single most influential artist of the 21st century, and Graduation is his The Bends; an album that’s a little embarrassing in retrospect, but still full of the great stuff that he would prove makes him a great and “real” artist.