Graduation Turns 10
When looking back on a classic album, it’s always crazy to consider all the ways the world has changed in the years since its release. In the case of Kanye West’s Graduation, which turns 10 years old today, there’s plenty of transformation to marvel at, be it in his own life and career or the music industry or the world at large. But perhaps nothing makes September 11, 2007 feel longer ago than the fact that 50 Cent was considered not just Kanye’s worthy rival, but a Goliath to be slain. In a piece called “The Day Kanye West Killed Gangsta Rap,” Complex’s Noah Callahan-Bever provides some context:
In 2007 50 Cent felt more invincible than ever. He’d had back-to-back record-setting albums. He’d destroyed the careers of Ja Rule and Irv Gotti, and put serious dings in Jadakiss, Fat Joe, and Game. His clothing line was doing $80mm. Even his weed carriers were going double platinum! And if that wasn’t enough, on May 26 of that year Vitamin Water, a Queens-based beverage company of which he owned a minority stake, sold to Coca-Cola for $4.2 billion. In a cash deal.
In contrast, Kanye — who rapped “I done played the underdog my whole career” on Graduation’s “Barry Bonds” — was still an underdog of sorts when he decided to bump back the album’s street date a few weeks to coincide with the release of 50’s Curtis, setting up a sales battle that would double as a referendum on who was running rap. Kanye had become a household name mostly thanks to his #1 single “Gold Digger” and his infamous comments about George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina. But 50 had spent the past half-decade at the the genre’s pinnacle, cranking out hits that merged pop savvy with the gangster-rap street cred of a guy who’d survived nine gunshots. Although Kanye had made quite a few hits and built quite a reputation with The College Dropout and Late Registration, his mainstream-underground culture-mash approach was still somewhat of a novelty, and Kanye himself was perceived as an artful interloper challenging hip-hop’s status quo. And then, with the release of his blockbuster third LP, he became the status quo. As Callahan-Bever phrased it, “Graduation was the moment that Kanye transitioned from ‘successful other’ to legit king status.”
The sales showdown with 50 Cent fueled and formalized that coronation. It was a media frenzy, with the two rappers appearing together on talk shows and magazine covers like boxers promoting a fight. 50 even promised to retire from music if he lost the battle of numbers, a guarantee that proved more depressingly prophetic than he probably intended. It should be noted, though, that the rivalry was a stunt and not the function of some deep animosity. Their joint Rolling Stone cover story began with the two rappers openly admitting they played their albums for each other months ahead of release to strategize and spur on friendly competition. Both artists were part of the Universal Music Group, so they were even label-mates of a sort. And on “Good Life” — a single off the very LP being touted as Curtis’ adversary — Kanye even quipped about palling around and getting career advice from his supposed rival: “50 told me, ‘Go ahead, switch the style up/ And if they hate then let ‘em hate and watch the money pile up.'”
Kanye did switch the style up. Graduation’s title marks it as the conclusion of a trilogy, and it definitely feels more of a piece with his first two college-themed albums than with anything he’s released since, yet its sound and substance was undoubtedly a departure. The warm, organic soul samples that formed the bedrock of his early production work were still a big part of this album, both in joyous flashes like “Champion” and “The Glory” and more reflective moments like “Good Morning,” “I Wonder,” and “Everything I Am.” But they began to share space with sleek electronic sounds on tracks like “Flashing Lights” and “Good Life” and especially “Stronger,” which not coincidentally were the album’s three biggest hits. Graduation also saw Kanye foregrounding the anger and aggression that was largely relegated to the deep cuts on his first two LPs, particularly by choosing the defiant “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” as his lead single (per 50’s advice); perhaps this more pronounced edge had something to do with his ability to nudge the gangster rappers out of the way.
Not that Kanye’s first two albums lacked for accessibility, but on Graduation he was making a play for the broadest possible audience: Sampling rap royalty from both New York (Jay-Z) and Atlanta (Young Jeezy); featuring Lil Wayne and T-Pain at a time when those guys were ubiquitous forces even beyond the boundaries of hip-hop; hiring Chris Martin to sing a hook at a time when Coldplay were the biggest band in the world; retooling his lyrics to be simpler, more direct, more autobiographical; appealing to record nerds and music critics by sampling Can and Steely Dan; spotlighting DJ Premier to keep the boom-bap classicists happy; throwing a bone to the scene that birthed him with guest spots for Dwele and Mos Def; building the album’s signature anthem around a Daft Punk track years before the EDM explosion kicked off in earnest. It was a bid to build hip-hop’s biggest coalition, and it worked wonders. Graduation sold 957,000 copies in its first week — astronomical numbers then and almost unthinkable now. The money piled up.
Kanye was well on his way to that level of superstardom before the public ever heard a note of music from Graduation, and his lyrics throughout the album largely engage with his newfound celebrity. He muses on finding success by staying true to his own unique disposition: “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.” He samples Labi Siffre singing, “I wonder if you know what it means to find your dreams.” He exults in his own triumphs on “Champion” and “The Glory.” The opening five-song stretch is particularly bright and celebratory, climaxing with the relentlessly positive “Good Life,” a blast of synthetic buoyancy all but guaranteed to lift your spirits. At the same time, Graduation details the conflicts that always seem to accompany fame, with dark shadows increasingly shading the album’s big picture as we proceed into its second and third acts. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Flashing Lights” are rejoinders to haters and paparazzi respectively. The deeply personal “Homecoming” and “Big Brother” close out the album by chronicling his turbulent relationships with the city that made him, Chicago, and his frenemy and benefactor Jay-Z. Taken together, they play like a bittersweet sequel to “Last Call,” the lengthy expression of gratitude that ends The College Dropout. They sound like dark clouds gathering at the horizon.
Ten years later, Graduation sounds like a relic of a bygone era. Kanye’s own creative upheaval would only get more radical in the ensuing decade, and his personal life became increasingly public and tumultuous. This was before his mother died unexpectedly, before his engagement to Alexis Phifer fell apart, before he became a national pariah for stage-crashing Taylor Swift, before he embarked on his tumultuous romance with Amber Rose, before his passion for fashion spilled over into an embattled design career, and well before he settled down and started a family with the world’s most famous reality TV star. Kanye is a different man now, and he’s gone on to make very different music, miles away from the hits that put him not just on the map but on top of the world. Those who “miss the old Kanye” are often referring to the period that concluded here.
But if Graduation was the end of an era in Kanye’s own discography, it was also a roadmap to the future for hip-hop at large. Thanks to the regime change confirmed by this album’s commercial dominance, hardheads like 50 Cent are now relegated to rap’s periphery, the best of them comprising a fertile niche that nonetheless has limited pull within the genre’s mainstream. Instead we’ve spent the past decade with a rap mainstream largely shaped in Kanye’s image, albeit one altered intermittently by his diaspora of disciples and his own frequent paradigm shifts. It’s hard to imagine guys like J. Cole and Big Sean becoming hip-hop’s middle of the road without Graduation and its predecessors first paving that road, and it’s hard to imagine Kanye’s later innovations exerting such profound influence without the hip-hop sovereignty he established here. These days you probably hear more of the Auto-Tuned warbling of 808s & Heartbreak, the IMAX-screen grandiosity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and the noise-bombed aggression of Yeezus in rap radio’s DNA, and you’re more likely to hear people directly ripping off Kanye descendants like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Future, and Chance The Rapper than Kanye himself. Both he and the entire phylum of rappers he spawned have transformed beyond recognition. Still, at its moment of release Graduation was the center of the musical universe, and a decade in the rearview it feels like some kind of big bang.