Photo: Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Kanye West's 'Graduation' At 10 Years Old
On Kanye West's seventh studio album, 2016's The Life Of Pablo, he ruminates over the bygone era of his entry-level persona on the track "I Love Kanye": I miss the old Kanye/Straight from the go Kanye/Chop up the soul Kanye/Set on his goals Kanye.
It's a cheeky adieu to our first iteration of West: producer turned rapper turned demigod, whose ambitions and passions were bookmarked in the story of a man who just wanted to be heard. Ten years ago, we would bid farewell to that West on his third studio album Graduation. It scored big at the 50th GRAMMY Awards, with a nomination for Album Of The Year and winning Best Rap Album, taking home two other awards for "Stronger" and "Good Life."
West bumped his album up a week to release on Sept. 11, 2007, directly competing with 50 Cent's Curtis and later beating him by a gross margin — thereby declaring the death of gangster rap. Many considered it the last pure moment of Kanye West before the effects of fame would seemingly muddy his spirit. Perhaps that's why Graduation is regarded by most as the greatest West album to date. While the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts, each song is a Polaroid in the life of the "old Kanye": budding megastar, future tortured genius.
1. "Good Morning"
"On this day we becoming legendary," West declares on the Graduation opener. The coos from the Elton John sample ("Someone Saved My Life Tonight") accent this both light and dark cut of Kanye graduating to the next phase of his career. "'Good Morning' was a song that just made me feel good and I could still turn it on today," said rapper Aminé. "It was one of the first times where I started to hear bright, positive, hip-hop."
"Graduation was one of the few hip-hop albums where I saw my skate/indie friends talk about it with me. It was so different for everyone." — Aminé, recording artist
While Kanye sampled yacht rock pioneers and GRAMMY winners Steely Dan ("Kid Charlemagne") on "Champion," so much of his lyrics were rooted in the bravado of gangster rap, though sonically packaged for the mainstream. "'Champion' was the one thing that epitomizes the crystallization of the theory that Graduation was the album that took out gangster rap," writer/author Kris Ex explains. "It has the swagger, it's got the grime, it's got the hustle. It's got all of the elements that the street records have."
3. "Stronger" feat. Daft Punk
Staring into the Takashi Murakami-designed album cover while listening to "Stronger" is the heart of the synesthestic experience on Graduation. The bright colors of the art coupled with the heavy synths of Daft Punk marked the hard left Kanye was taking in hip-hop. "I liked the way that [West] brought a group outside of hip-hop and made [Daft Punk] hip-hop," says Sickamore, senior vice president of A&R and creative director, Interscope Records. "That's a hard pocket to hit. Kanye has also done a great job of making anthems for people to live their lives to."
4. "I Wonder"
"One thing I understood about Ye at the time: he was very musical," rapper CyHi The Prynce says. "I Wonder" boasts the keys of Jon Brion, with a whole string section in tow. Kanye still chops up the samples with precision, as he attaches himself to his ego once and for all, tackling fame head-on. "You say I think I'm never wrong," Kanye raps. "You know what? Maybe you're right."
5. "Good Life" feat. T-Pain
The year 2007 marked the rise of T-Pain and noticeable Auto-Tune. Kanye's producer hat on "Good Life" allowed T-Pain to sharpen his brand, while making it work with Ye's own style as the two celebrate success. "'Good Life' changed the scope of music," rapper Freeway says. "It was a good vibe." On top of changing his sonic style, West's confidence was also evolving. "I noticed that [Kanye] elevated with the music," Freeway adds, "which is important when you're an artist."
6. "Can't Tell Me Nothing"
"I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven, when I awoke I spent that on a necklace," Kanye barks on "Can't Tell Me Nothing." Enlisting DJ Toomp on co-production with Jeezy samples for ad-libs, the song is both a nod to his current wealth while acknowledging there's room for more. It's also another point where West was able to diverge from street rap while still providing the fundamentals of it. KP, head of mixtape site DatPiff explains: "Records like 'Stronger,' 'Can't Tell Me Nothing' and 'Flashing Lights' were obviously the major commercial successes, but those three instrumentals became three of the top ever to be used by artists to 'remix' or 'freestyle' on the mixtape circuit."
7. "Barry Bonds" feat. Lil Wayne
If there was any doubt that Kanye West was a true rapper, "Barry Bonds" diminished it. While boasting about trips to Japan, models on his arm and high-end fashion, Kanye brags, "I'm doing pretty good as far as geniuses go." To drive the point home, he recruits GRAMMY winner Lil Wayne, as Mixtape Weezy and Mixtape Yeezy unite on a song that would seal his rightful place in real hip-hop. "Songs like 'Barry Bonds' and the success of his instrumentals are what made him a legend within the mixtape circuit and mixtape world," adds KP of DatPiff.
8. "Drunk & Hot Girls" feat. Mos Def
When reflecting upon Graduation, "Drunk & Hot Girls" is often the referenced blip, though an overt attempt on Kanye's part to cater to a demographic he was still learning about. "A lot of times he made music for others and not for himself," CyHi The Prynce says. "Now, the music is more for himself." Ironically, while "Drunk & Hot Girls" is rarely a fan favorite, 10 years later it sounds the closest to hip-hop's current landscape.
9. "Flashing Lights" feat. Dwele
"I just love the chords and the sweep of the strings," GRAMMY winner John Legend says of "Flashing Lights" and its production. "Graduation was his foray into electronic music but fusing that with pop and hip-hop sensibilities." However, it's the music video that presents the greater message, as Kanye is murdered by a beautiful model. His fascination with the female aesthetic was even manifested through Murakami, as Kanye recruited the artist for his cover based upon a sculpture of a woman with elaborate physical features. Still, this song is the heart of the sexy and sartorial elements of what Kanye would become — as a musician, a husband to Kim Kardashian and a fashion designer.
10. "Everything I Am" feat. DJ Premier
Producer DJ Premier details the story of "Everything I Am," which both embodies Kanye's insecurities and unbridled confidence. "[Kanye] called me four in the morning — he knows I'm a late person — and was like, 'Hey man, I need you to do these scratches for me on a song that I did. Common had it, but didn't use it. So I'm gonna use it,'" Premier says. "He even says it on the beginning of the song: 'Common passed on this beat, I made it to a jam.'" Mission accomplished, Ye.
11. "The Glory"
While Kanye abandoned sped-up samples by Graduation, "The Glory" carries the final fragments of that style. "I think that's an underrated record on [Graduation]," rapper Vic Mensa says. The elements of the sound, the lyrics about tour life and women — it's the intersection of the Old Kanye and the soon-to-be New Kanye. "His flow, the sample chop," Mensa says, "it was pique Ye."
12. "Homecoming" feat. Chris Martin
"Homecoming" would become a controversial topic just one track later on "Big Brother." Kanye collaborated with Coldplay's Chris Martin on the track, yet Jay Z would release Kingdom Come a year prior, collaborating with Martin on "Beach Chair," to which Kanye felt less innovative despite seemingly having the idea sooner. Still, that doesn't take from Kanye metaphorically putting on for his city on "Homecoming" before becoming a citizen of the world. "I love how [Kanye] reconnected with Common's 'I Used To Love H.E.R.' but told it from this story of Chicago," rapper Rapsody explains. "In a sense, anybody can relate to that; you share that same sentiment of where you're from."
13. "Big Brother"
We've watched the decline of West's and Jay Z's relationship over time, but perhaps "Big Brother" was our first glimpse into that tension without even knowing it. Kanye laments about feeling like second best, punctuating his feelings with actual events (the aforementioned Martin collaboration, the "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" remix, etc.). A chip was always affixed to Kanye's shoulder. "You think, 'When did the relationship between Jay and Kanye sour?'" asks Vanessa Satten, editor-in-chief of XXL Magazine, "because that was such a power duo at some point. But there was a lot going on in the relationship for a long time that we really didn't know about. Maybe now we're just starting to see it."
(Kathy Iandoli has penned pieces for Pitchfork, VICE, Maxim, O, Cosmopolitan, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and more. She co-authored the book Commissary Kitchen with Mobb Deep's late Albert "Prodigy" Johnson, and is a professor of music business at select universities throughout New York and New Jersey.)