Quick, name Kanye West’s least popular album.
You probably thought of 808s & Heartbreak, West’s damaged, alienating, electropop record that’s become the Different album of the last ten years. The divisive record itself, the completely different sound, plus that infamous media gaffe during the album cycle all made 808s an ugly period for West. It took a follow-up masterpiece for him to work his way out of the smoking crater that his reputation became after 808s. Conventional wisdom says its an album to be discarded and swallowed up by the rest of a stellar discography.
But I think conventional wisdom’s changing.
808s was and remains a graceless record, but it’s become an influential one, to boot. Obviously, Drake owes it his fucking career, and it launched Kid Cudi, but it isn’t too much effort see the album’s minimalism, deep bass, and manipulated beats in recent upstarts from FKA twigs to Lorde. Not only is it influential, it’s influencing big names. What’s more, strands 808s’ DNA still show up in West’s own work; even he hasn’t fully left the album behind. Lots of albums are called “the next Pinkerton“, but I think that claim actually holds true for 808s.
No, the Kanye album I think that’s been left behind is 808s‘ predecessor, Graduation. Graduation suffers from a lack of a longstanding identity within Kanye’s canon: it’s the third and least surprising entry of the College trilogy, and it has neither the all-or-nothing oomph of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, nor Yeeus’ “what the fuck?” quotient. It’s also lost the features that defined it upon release; MBDTF laps Graduation as Kanye’s “Big Sound” record, and the person Kanye was during its album cycle was almost completely erased in light of, you guessed it, 808s.
More than any of his other albums, Graduation is a record of its time, and 2007 was a damn good time to be Kanye West. His mother Donda’s still alive and well, he’s engaged to Alexis Phifer, and he’s in the controversy-free safe zone pretty far from “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, but before “Yo, Taylor”. Fledgling label GOOD Music is just getting off the ground, and The College Dropout and Late Registration are acknowledged masterpieces with capital H Hit singles. People weren’t talking about West as a producer-turned-MC anymore, they were talking about him as a rap mainstay. He’d made it, and he knew it.
Graduation is Kanye’s party album. Inspired by arena rock (West had previously played a string of dates opening for U2), Kanye aimed large and wide for his third album, incorporating a wider range of sounds and more prominent synths, and streamlining the album by jettisoning skits and interludes. Kanye also pushed his raps to have wider appeal and be more fun, nothing quite hits the gravitas of “Never Let Me Down” or “Heard’em Say” here. Instead, Graduation opts to be simpler and more universal, although since it’s Kanye, we still get lines like “If the devil wear Prada/Adam & Eve wear nada/I’m in-between but way more fresher” and “I’m just sayin, hey Mona Lisa/Come home, you know you can’t Rome without Caesar”.
I call it Kanye’s party album because as a far-reaching pop rap album that focuses on the celebration, it’s pretty high quality. The Technicolor sonic pallet from stadium sized glitz jams like “Good Life” and “Stronger” to utterly gorgeous beats on “I Wonder” and “Flashing Lights” is always lively, even the less inspired cuts (see: “The Glory”) are saved by good beats. The synths and lighter emphasis on soul samples, eyebrow raisers when the album was released, are hardly noticable because it’s easy to get wrapped up in how good the album sounds. Kanye’s previous records weren’t exactly stripped down, but Graduation is his first album that deliberately goes big, and sounds like a million bucks while it does so.
The album’s rock steady consistency is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, 2 or 3 brilliant tracks with 7 good-to-great ones and 3 or so filler is a pretty high batting average. On the other, there’s a workman-like quality to some of those great tracks that feels a little uninspired, and Graduation‘s brilliance-to-goodness radio is nearly inverse of most of Kanye’s other albums. But it’s hard to complain with songs like Daft Punk-on-steroids “Stronger”, the sampled up “I Wonder” and “Everything I Am”, and one of my top 5 Kanye songs of all time, “Flashing Lights”. On “Flashing Lights”, the strings from Late Registration make a comeback, blending seamlessly with sky-high synths and pitch shifted vocals, and Kanye’s beat has an almost melodic flow, while Dwele’s hook keeps the whole thing grounded (it’s also part one of what I call Kanye’s “Lights Trilogy“, made of three career standouts).
When Graduation was released, it was in direct competition of then dominant rapper 50 Cent’s Curtis. What began as a lighthearted challenge ended with 50 Cent vowing to stop releasing solo material if he came in second, a promise he quietly reneged on after Graduation sold 957,000 copies in its first week to Curtis‘ 691,000 (a year later, Billboard tracked the sales to 2,116,000 for Kanye and 1,336,000 for 50). History will spin this as a David-vs-Goliath victory ala Dangerous vs Nevermind, but that’s not quite true. The 50 Cent bubble burst in 2005–compare his appearances here vs here and here–losing to Graduation itself wasn’t the beginning of the end for 50, but was the first tangible sign it had started.
I think the reason Graduation‘s left behind is that, really, it’s a subtle transition record. It makes the jump from Late Registration to 808s believable, even if you only notice that it has both of those albums’ prominent features in relief. It’s an album that tinkers with ideas instead of going full tilt with one concept (see: any Kanye album after this). While it’s mostly successful with its experiments, the end result is a rather good pop rap record instead of a fully realized or cracked masterpiece (it is exactly the kind of album that, say, Wiz Khalifa would die to make). As it is, Graduation doesn’t do quite enough to fight its way into the upper ranks of Kanye’s discography, but it isn’t quite “Cs get degrees” in action, either. It’s a hell of a good time getting a B.