katstevens: (smileyculture)
Graduation is my most-listened-to hip-hop album of the decade since its release in 2007, despite containing one of my least favourite hip-hop singles of the decade, 'Stronger'. I nearly didn't buy the album at all because 'Stronger' sucked so much - a bragging fest that quickly outstays its welcome but still hangs around for a good five minutes, draining a Daft Punk sample (from a track I was unenthusiastic about to begin with) of any vitality it had and replacing it with casual misogyny and weak rhymes.

But as weak as 'Stronger' is (I still have to skip it), its inclusion makes sense as part of Graduation's theme. Kanye has emerged from the oversubscribed school of HipHop, wherein he has patiently waited his turn, playing second fiddle to Jay-Z and Nas, carefully honing his craft until the time is right to unleash the full torrent of Maximum Kanye on the world. Now he is rich, talented, established and enjoying being a superstar at the top of his game - his ego steadily inflating to keep pace with it all.

The album opens with 'Good Morning', but the real sunrise track comes straight after it - 'Champion' warps Donald Fagin into a Mary J Blige impersonator, a warm gospel cheerleader/compere supporting Kanye while he does his award acceptance speech, rambling on about how his dad is just like Will Smith (honest guv). This song is what I hear when I get to the top of the escalators at Warren Street tube and emerge into the crisp sunny morning and I know there's at least another eight minutes to go before I'll reach the office, and maybe that's enough time to think up an idea that will change the world and make me successful enough not to have to go to the office anymore. The fake Mary thinks I can do it - of COURSE I can do it! It's the same feeling with 'Good Life' except this time it's T-Pain instead of Mary ("I'ma get on the TV momma! Momma, I'ma put shit down!"). I AM GOING TO BE ON TV TOO, MUM. One day. Soon.

The album takes a darker turn in the middle section - paranoid, creeping, slower songs about the pitfalls of fame. On 'Can't Tell Me Nothing' Kanye seems more angry with himself than his haters; 'Drunk And Hot Girls' is a queasy-listening Aesop's fable that has downed too much tequila and ended up staggering into a government Drink Aware advert. 'Barry Bonds' is one of my favourite tracks: a gothic masterpiece detailing the sort of coked-up banter you might expect Lil' Wayne and Kanye to have at the end of an all-day pub crawl, each trying to outdo each other in the bragging stakes (Kanye: "I'm doing pretty good as far as geniuses go", Wayne: "I don't practice/And I don't lack shit"). It's hollow and empty and nasty and you wouldn't want to be in the same pub as them let alone the same conversation, but DEAR LORD Kanye's slow slurred chorus rhymes over that heart-monitor beat are utterly compelling:

Life of a donnnn
Lights keep glawwwn
Comin' in the club with that fresh shit awwwn
With somthin' crazy on my arrmmm
And here's another hit from Barry Bonds

It's even better when Weezy does it, squeezing "Bonds" through his throat as if he had been taking Razorblade Benylin to make his bronchitis worse. And then there's 'Flashing Lights' - my favourite single of 2008. Here's edited highlights of what I (rather excitably) said about it at the time:

The contrast between ['Stronger'] and 'Flashing Lights' is just astonishing. While the underlying plod is the same on both tracks, the strings and juddery synths on 'Flashing Lights' are like Kanye has drawn zig-zags ontop of his harsh border so the overall effect is a bit softer (like how zebras are stripey so they look grey in the distance? Does that make sense?), and the more comfortable space means that Kanye can finally open up and share with us what's been bugging him. And share he does, via the medium of some of the best slow rapping I've ever heard:

I'm more of the
Trips to Florida
Order the
Views of the Water
Straight from the page of your favorite author
And the weather so breezy,
Man - why can't life always be this easy...?

Oh god I might DIE this is so good. Here's some more:

I know it's been a while,
We hard-
-ly talk
I was doing my thing...
I know I was foul
You been all on my brain...
And if somebody would've told
Me a month ago,
Fronting though,
Yo I wouldn't wanna know.
If somebody would've told me
A year ago
It'd go
Get this difficult?

Arrrgh Kanye I hear you. He sounds so miserable and angry when he's singing that (perhaps a precursor to all the 808 emo?) that you start wondering who exactly has fucked up this relationship the most? Kanye's clearly found it hard-going having a relationship with the 'fascist' press following him around all the time, but the high-maintenance girl in question has just upped and done a runner, and Kanye clearly misses her like crazy, but can't see for the life of him how this can ever end well...

...Kanye's attempt at closure in the last verse is just boggling: "Hey Mona Lisa - come home, you know you can't Rome without Caesar..." I mean WTF??? That is both the amazingest and wrongest use of the English language I have ever heard.

To finish off there's a trio of reflective tracks (with another cheery sunshine ode to capitalism 'The Glory' plonked in the middle of them) where Kanye ruminates on gangster lifestyles ('Everything I Am'), his hometown of Chicago ('Homecoming') and his rivalry/affection for mentor Jay-Z ('Big Brother'). These three seem less lyrically clever - 'killing is some whack shit' is the worst clunker on the entire album - and lack the emotion of 'Flashing Lights' and the irrepressible feelgood tonic of 'Champion' and 'Good Life'. They feel like a good conclusion for Graduation though, Kanye's words seeming to fall from his mouth effortlessly, his stories conjuring up a greyscale ciné film of his early career while the samples and scratches worm their way into your head.

Graduation's musical variety and depth is probably what has kept me listening for the last few years. Combined with Kanye's elastic, cheesy-grin enunciation, it feels like a snapshot of Kanye that we might not see again - we all know how his ego bubble burst with 808s and Heartbreak, and there is the odd hint here of his insecurities (and the direction in which they might expand). For now though, Kanye thinks he is invincible, and this album is an accurate reflection of his flawed genius. I just wish 'Stronger' was better (and faster, and harder).


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