(Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam; 2007)
By Chet Betz | 8 November 2007
So Kanye West’s quest to take over the world cruises forward on its rainbow-casting steamroll. Let’s tear a page from Kanye-related current events: will Graduation out-sell Curtis on their mutual release day? Or, in relation to when this review will be published, did it? It’s nothing new for maniacs to profit on/off Patriot Day (new question: how’d we let 9/11 get such a jingo title?) even if it is ironic to see Kanye and his label employing GW tactics. Time reveals how inconsequential these questions really are; how they might as well end with periods since the finality of the answer leaves only factual closure and dour aftertaste, any actual benefit to our quality of life hinging gullibly on 50 Cent quitting rap if his record loses. If I had to pick, I’d say Kanye’s got this one, but who knows. It doesn’t matter, no one’s retiring, and I don’t think Kanye cares about the opening day numbers half as much as Fiddy does. Fiddy wants to be Donald Trump. Kanye wants to be Jesus. They’re in two different fields.
At this point I’m convinced that Kanye’s trying to put his arms around each and every last one of us, a spiritual bear-hug wherein he squeezes the shit out of humanity and builds his castle out of the steaming pile of our collective life-force. “Bow in the presence of greatness / ‘cause right now God has forsaken us,” he lisps on “Stronger.” The cover picture, designed by Superflat aesthete Takashi Murakami (just one of this album’s countless Louis Vuitton references), reminds me of imagery from Nintendo’s upcoming Super Mario Galaxy; here, the Italian plumber is replaced by Ye’s mascot bear launching towards whatever bizarre planetoid lies beyond Graduation. Super Mario Galaxy‘s sure to be the Wii’s most widely appealing title yet; bowling stick figures created a fat crossover gaming market that’ll still recognize the Mario name brand and know that they should love it while the hardcore gamers will, in fact, love it. Replace those proper nouns with ‘Ye-related ones, like a Mad Lib, and ‘Yessiah’s game plan becomes clearer: A) Everything to everyone, Kanye puts out two videos for his first single “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”; the redux casts Zach Galifianakis and Will Oldham as lip-synching alpha male sociopaths who rule a backwoods nowhere — a sure-fire bet to tickle any hipster who’ll deign to laugh or cultural academic who’ll enjoy the cross-textual connotations — while the original video is a sure-fire bet to tickle whoever likes cherry-picker shots of rappers wandering around in the desert. B) Lil’ Wayne and Kanye do a song together on “Barry Bonds”; a justifiably expected clash of titanic egos is not apparent, maybe because they recognize that they’re each playing very different ball games. On this track, though, they’re playing together on a song for everyone who likes Barry Bonds and everyone who hates him — it’s just not for the rap listeners who lie outside of both the Weezy and Yeezy spheres of sway (a rather small gaggle as I imagine it). C) Daft Punk and Chris Martin will take care of the rest.
Kanye’s traversing the cosmic span of the music canon here, gene-splicing indigenous species from planets George Lucas’ brain never touched; he’s Dr. Who-cum-Dr. Moreau on your oh so eclectic record collection. The results can be fucking freakish: ‘Ye and Jon Brion invite Mos Def to sing on a song that lifts from Can’s “Sing Swan Song.” Kanye steals Damo Suzuki’s gypsy melody and twists his powerful nonsense so that we’re tricked into thinking that Suzuki, all along, was on about “drunk and hot girls.” The song’s obscenely reductive of its source material, yes, but it also piles on the gonzo embellishments until all the groping and stumbling could be viewed as intoxicated brilliance, like Hunter S. Thompson for the clubs. It’s also kind of awful, a woozy experiment in 3/4 time that doesn’t quite have the balls to fully embrace its own daring (despite the odd signature, the drum programming stays locked down in a dutiful groove).
But, I mean, also: Kanye West samples Can. What?
Later on Kanye’s kind enough to suggest his own answer to our bewilderment, defining himself in opposition with “Everything I Am” by stating on the hook that “everything thing I’m not made me everything I am.” There’s a double meaning in that line, though, because that’s Elton John’s music on Graduation‘s opening track, implying (along with the Can fiasco) that Kanye’s inclusiveness goes beyond his own background and perspective. And as “Everything I Am” itself can attest, vibrant Prince Phillip Mitchell piano loops undercut on the hook by DJ Premier scratching Public Enemy, “everything I’m not” covers an awful lot of ground. Kanye separates himself from his peers: “I never rock a mean coat in the wintertime like Killa Cam / or rock some mean boots in the summertime like Will.I.Am.” And then, “Just last year Chicago had over six hundred caskets / Man, killin’ some wack shit / Oh, I forgot, except for when niggas is rappin’ / Do you know what it feel like when people is passin’?” Hi, Curtis. Also, shit, leave it to Kanye to make something incisive and brightly self-aware out of a groaner concept. He follows this gleaming introspection up with a giddy blast: “The Glory” sports a classic Kanye RPM-bender of Laura Nyro and ‘Ye dropping some of his best rapping ever (this is the first Kanye flow I could describe as “fire,” plus there’s some priceless lines). It’s a great one-two buried deep in the album’s second half.
There are eleven other tracks, though. You can bitch about the stilted mixing and the high-to-low composition; the bass and drums — perhaps recognized by Kanye himself as rudimentary or more likely viewed as a necessary evil on his hip-hop trajectory towards the center of the universe — get flattened then buried eight feet under by big DJ Toomp synths which play second fiddle only to the instantly recognizable samples. Cuts like “Flashing Lights” and “Stronger” work off the impact of their production, an impact that could have been so much greater, the glissando chop ‘n key melds dazzling but suffering from a distinct lack of knock; even an SOS’d Timbaland can’t resuscitate the soggy low-end of the latter. You can bitch about some truly terrible cadence schemes, like the way Kanye staggers his flow to parrot the melodies of “I Wonder” or “Drunk and Hot Girls.” You can bitch about T-Pain; you can bitch about Kanye’s new fetish for calling women dykes on tape at the same time that he’s spending his publicity interviews outlining his new pet cause to rid hip hop culture of homophobia, approximately 85% of those interviews spent explaining how great he is for being so enlightened. And I’ll be bitching right along with you, whatever Kanye’s claim that it’s all deconstruction, “this shit is basic” popping up as his thesis on the album intro. And from a critical standpoint, yeah, it’s of interest how he’s digging at the roots of his own music, stripping it and going crudely counter-intuitive with the presentation of purely intuitive music, probably thinking that that’s the back door into absolute pop. But that doesn’t make the drums hit any harder.
Thing is, though, that for every failure Graduation puts me through it has many a saving merit that only the nigh witless audacity of Kanye West could afford: forcing Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” to pound its head against a record-skip of a measure on “The Champion”; the absurd bragging that exists somewhere out past the boundaries of reason (“Life is a ‘uh’ depending on how you dress her / so if the Devil wear Prada / Adam, Eve wear nada / I’m in between, but way more fresher”); the nervous narcissism that pervades the album and turns it into a poetic dissertation on self — like Kanye’s finally graduating from the School of Kanye.
Thus, Kanye can close with an ode to Hov and sound like he’s spilling his deepest guts, brandish a hook of mostly personal relevance and make it sound “stadium status” (over Toomp re-imagining the “Dead Presidents” beat, no less). On “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” he plain says it: “I’m on the TV / talkin’ like it’s just you and me.” Studied in religious figure fame and “The Glory,” Kanye’s deliberate about creating parasocial relationships through mass communication; he invests so much of himself into his music, he makes us want to invest in it, makes even this record’s numerous missteps damnably interesting. I’ve listened to “Drunk and Hot Girls” a dozen times: damn Kanye for that. He’s as much a devil as he is Jesus, offering temptation as much as he does truth, self-serving coercion and boasting entwined with self-effacing confession and doubt; though we’re on the receiving end of this message, most of us aren’t much different. Check any song here and you see how Kanye realizes this. As bad as Graduation can often get, it’s constantly compelling in how it splays the conflicted makings of its maker.