CD review: Kanye West, "Graduation"
Published: Thursday, September 20, 2007 - 12:51am
“DO ANYBODY MAKE real sh** anymore?” Kanye West ponders on the Daft Punk-sampling follow-up single “Stronger.” Wake up, Mr. West — somebody does still make real s***, and it’s you. Not that he doesn’t already know that.
But for all his purported arrogance (I won’t speak much on it, I find such introductions to his character trite and musically irrelevant), West’s material since breaking into his own as a full-fledged artist has carried a wittily self-deprecating and introspective tone.
However, as the title indicates, there’s something more distinctly celebratory about “Graduation” — the most remarkable aspect of this being that the world of pop music (and, perhaps, Kanye himself) is starting to believe that he may actually deserve the legendary status he has been half-jokingly bestowing upon himself for the last four years.
Just for the record, I found “The College Dropout” to be an extremely strong, lyrically complex and didactically contradictory album with a few key missteps and, yes, too many skits — plus that insufferably long outro at the end of “Last Call.”
“Late Registration,” to me, was the sound of West really coming into his own as a complete artist, with the same witty wordplay and lyrical depth, marginally improved mic skills, lush and inventive soundscapes, and a conscious effort to cut down the length of those damn skits. That was really an “A” album to me.
Even if certain tracks and skits bog down the overall quality of a collection of songs, never let it be said that Kanye West doesn’t know how to make a real album — in fact, he’s one of the only hip-hop artists left who still does. His own buddy Common seems to have forgotten, and it seems to me that many newer hip-hop fans have a very vague conception of the virtues of the art of making a record you can listen to back-to-back.
Not every album has to be “Illmatic” or “Enter the Wu-Tang.” A weaker track here and there for the sake of ego or creative control is not an album killer — musical inconsistency and lack of sonic cohesion between tracks is. And that’s what Kanye learned between “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration” — and he has expanded on that notion for “Graduation.” Like the hip-hop masterpieces from the days before bloated 16-track opuses were the bare minimum, this latest from pop music’s most prolific rapper-producer is short and not always sweet, but consistently inventive, dense and cohesive.
Bear in mind, this record is a colossal grower — even if it all fits together perfectly, not every song is as immediately arresting as the illustrious singles (the boisterous Daft Punk fanboy piece “Stronger,” the existentialist “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”) or the introspective, brilliantly produced “Everything I Am” and “Homecoming,” which feature the talents of DJ Premier and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, respectively.
West’s production, while not minimalist by any stretch of the imagination, is considerably less ornate than the orchestral masterpieces of “Late Registration,” while still retaining the depth and density expected of him. From the subtle, soulful intro (no babbling Cedric the Entertainer this time) “Good Morning” to closing track “Big Brother,” his charming, endearingly honest ode to friend and mentor Jay-Z, Kanye has painstakingly crafted a rollicking, intricate sonic journey that takes us from European dance clubs to his own backyard to the vast ether of spiritual existence. Plus, there are no skits.
But don’t worry, haters, Kanye isn’t perfect yet. There are, inevitably (despite the tastefully modest song count) weaker tracks, and Kanye still doesn’t have the captivating, versatile flow of a Jay-Z or a Mos Def, the latter of whom guest stars on the album’s most unnecessary inclusion, the musically interesting but lyrically mediocre “Drunk & Hot Girls.” Two other tracks, the beautifully produced “I Wonder” and “Flashing Lights,” while not poor by any means, are hard to get into on first listen and still work far more effectively in the context of the album than on their own.
While West’s flow has generally left a lot to be desired when not embraced by a luscious beat, the complexity and depth of his lyricism was stellar on “The College Dropout” and only improved on “Late Registration.” Logically, West should be continuing to improve — but the celebratory tone of the album stifles much of the self-deprecating wit that fueled classic tracks like “All Falls Down,” “Get Em High,” “Addiction,” and “Gone.” As such, the rhymes on “Graduation” don’t hold up to its predecessors, and the conspicuous absence of guest rappers (save for a verse from the effervescent Lil’ Wayne on “Barry Bonds”) puts more pressure on West’s mic skills.
There are problems with this album — of this there is no doubt. But who else can do what Kanye has done over the last four years? Releasing three excellent hip-hop albums back-to-back is an unprecedented feat by a solo artist — yet Kanye has felt neither the sophomore slump nor the junior jinx. Now that he’s graduated and ready to go out into the world, there is no telling the heights he’ll scale or the records he’ll sample. Congratulations, Mr. West, you’re almost as brilliant as you think you are.