ARTIST: Kanye West
WEB DEBUT: Aug. 30, 2007
RELEASE DATE: Sept. 11, 2007
ONE-LISTEN VERDICT: If the sluggish/cheesy singles and the ubquity of their equally cheesy viral videos made you worry for that the full-length would be similarly disappointing, Graduation (once again) reveals that Kanye West loves to try and bury near-stunning albums with weak lead-off tracks and exhausting pre-release hype. But while his extra-musical excesses (much-discussed temper tantrums, pandering to rock hipsters in the online press, ridiculous beef with lesser talents) can be deeply embarrassing–and not even enjoyably over-the-top–they don’t end up detracting from his talent at all. The albums end up doing huge numbers (either because of or in spite of these excesses), and the man does make great albums, rather than 18 tracks to be whittled into 10 or less on your iPod.
Graduation lacks the deep-burnt, Brion-assisted harmonic richness of Late Registration‘s more acoustic arrangements–notable exception: the “1940s Hollywood studio orchestra strings/rave Morse Code synth riff” beat of “Flashing Lights”–but makes up for that by covering more sonic ground than West ever has before. It’s like he’s trying to distance himself from those now totally irrelevant claims of being a ’90s rap throwback by radically tweaking his presets each time out. The electronic tinge of “Stronger” is indeed present throughout–though more adroitly than on that Daft clunker–but there’s also classic Kanye soul samples (“The Glory”), a stately piano-plunking Premier throwback with the man himself on the cut (“Everything I Am”), lifts from Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” (“Champion”), and a completely improbable and intoxicated-sounding interpolation of Can’s “Sing Swan Song” (with the original running eerily underneath) that gets turned into a tongue-in-cheek tale of the perils of a night out–with a Mos Def coda. Even the much-dreaded Chris Martin collaboration is barely more than a hook that just happpens to be live rather than a sample, one where a subdued Martin (sounding vaguely like Police-era Sting) a lot less intrusive than on his similar turn with Jay-Z. Provided the lyrics (which I’m still digesting without the aid of that lyric booklet handed out at the listening party on Tuesday night in New York) don’t reveal themselves on repeated listens to be the “woe is me, for I am famous and worse, a genius” claptrap that I’ve read disconcerting things about (on blogs which did get a lyric sheet on Tuesday night) or more howlers like the chorus to “Stronger,” Graduation will be every bit the equal of West’s first two records.
THE BEST TRACK: Amazingly, given my usual feelings about Kanye’s choice of guest star here, I have to go with “Good Life,” such a perfectly assembled (if you don’t dig the way Kanye twists a potentially really obvious Michael Jackson sample into a squeaky hook [shades of "Right Here (Human Nature)" in its flippage] you will be summarily banned), looking good, feeling good, butt-loving, glossy, flossy pop song that feels totally of the moment without feeling like it’s pandering to the charts. Even with my nemesis T-Pain on the chorus. If it’s not the next choice for a single–according to Blender, where you can also hear the track, Kanye thought it was “too easy,” which just proves egotistical, autodidact genuises aren’t always the best judge of what the public really needs/wants–the label should sue Kanye for gross managerial incompetence. Oh, and it also has, in a deliciously dumb twist, a 50 Cent line as one of its hooks. Maybe it’ll drop to radio the week after Kanye hopefully–and rightfully, on the early evidence of Graduation–serves Fiddy his walking papers.