Kanye West is back with his third album in four years, and he wastes no time announcing, “This is my dissertation / Homie this shit is basic / Welcome to graduation.” And so we descend into one of the most forward-thinking, challenging hip-hop albums in recent memory. Just when everyone thought the college metaphor had been exhausted, West proves himself yet again, graduating from the nostalgia and relentless self-analysis that marked his two previous albums, growing into a more complex and completely different musical artist. For those who are used to the hand-clapping, quick-witted and soulful Mr. West, prepare to feel abandoned for a rapper with a futuristic sound and less-lyrical approach. On the superb “The Good Life,” West acknowledges his new direction: “50 told me go ‘head switch the style up/ And if they hate, then let ’em hate/ And watch the money pile up.” As can be seen by the success of the Daft Punk/hip hop mash-up “Stronger,” Kanye West has officially taken over, watching both money and critical acclaim pile up, whether his old fans are with him or not.
Initially, those accustomed to the old Kanye may feel confused and even cheated by this album. West’s customary religious metaphors and clever nostalgic anecdotes are almost nonexistent, and there are very few lyrical innovations. West shamelessly copies his own rhymes, most notably from Late Registration, and interrupts himself when he begins to talk about religion with a “That’s enough, Mr. West, no more today.” On his two previous albums, West focused on his past, but on Graduation, he uses current and past influences to make music about his present domination of hip-hop, all while wearing the latest from Louis Vuitton.
Unfortunately, all we are left to reckon with lyrically is the ever-inflating balloon that is West’s ego. At this point, the balloon has acquired breathtaking and mythical proportions. On “Barry Bonds,” one of the more obnoxious tracks, he insists: “I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go… / but my head’s so big you can’t sit behind me.” Though Kanye’s ego is apparent throughout, his relentlessly annoying self-mythologizing (“I guess after I live I want to be compared to Big,” he raps over a wistful piano accompaniment on “Everything I Am”) is almost beginning to make sense. After all, as West says himself, who wouldn’t take pride in helping light up the Chicago skyline?
However, as evidenced by the mind-boggling production on many of the tracks, focusing on lyrics here is beside the point. West combines both hip hop and contagious pop, creating a new genre that pushes at the seams of contemporary music to an almost uncomfortable effect. In my opinion, this new synth-heavy pop sound is not always easy to listen to, but is definitely admirable. Synths are used to update classic soul samples, as on “Flashing Lights,” where the bouncing rhythm adds a joyful punch to the 70s soap-opera string intro; they are also used to create an echoing, surrealist, nauseating effect (“Drunk and Hot Girls”). Synth is also used to convey sweeping, epic heartbreak (on “Big Brother,” Kanye’s hurt feelings about his rivalry with his mentor, Jay-Z, are wrung out for maximum effect over a lush synth background: “If you admire somebody you should go ahead and tell um / People never get the flowers while they could still smell um”). Many of the tracks seem jarring and slightly out of place, differing from the flow of West’s previous albums. A lyrical piano riff accompanied by some funky scratching (“Everything I Am”) goes head-to-head with grating electronic beats (“Stronger”). Ultimately, though, West’s production is so inventive that the lack of fluidity of the tracks is irrelevant. Putting aside the album’s lack of cohesion, it is clear that, track-for-track, West really is a master of modern music. It’s just too bad that he won’t shut up about it.
Regardless, this album puts hip hop at the forefront of contemporary creative music. West reminds us that “While y’all was in limbo I raised the bar up,” and he couldn’t be more correct. While no one was looking, Kanye West broke all the windows in the house of hip hop, and now everyone has got to take notice, whether West’s diehard fans like it or not.