Flashback Friday: Kanye West Reaches the Stars on “Graduation”

September this year marks ten since the release of Graduation by Kanye West, which should make most of us feel positively geriatric. 2007 really doesn’t seem that long ago, but think back and remember how different a time that was.

Perhaps few people will appreciate how much things can change in ten years than Kanye West, who at the time Graduation was released had just transcended from a swaggering upstart making a mark on The College Dropout and Late Registration to putting the thrusters on his hi-tops into overdrive and shooting off into the upper atmosphere as an artist.

Image: Wikipedia

He may have touched the sky on previous album Late Registration, but Graduation saw the then 30-year-old Kanye break through the stratosphere. Look no further than the album cover, depicting the Dropout Bear being blasted into the heavens, his gaze skyward with no thought for looking back. Graduation captures this exact moment in Kanye’s career, his ascension from star to superstar, documenting a level of brazen confidence and damn near invincibility he’d struggle to maintain as the general public’s obsession with the man himself steadily overtook his actual musical output.

Back when this album first dropped in 2007 I didn’t care much for Kanye. His music had no guitar solos or screeching vocals which was just unthinkable to a cretinous teenage metalhead, and to me he was just that guy with the annoying shutter shades and the stupid looking almost mullet. It wasn’t until several years later when I gained a newfound appreciation for hip-hop that I found Graduation.

‘Found’ is greatly understating it though, that first listen through I may as well have snorted a line off the disc before I hit play on it. Honestly, try to listen to Graduation without feeling a rush of irrational confidence like you’ve just bumped musical cocaine. It was intoxicating, thrilling, and rippling with swagger. The sound of a man completely impervious to any kind of negativity.

The sleepy, Someone Saved My Life Tonight-sampling Good Morning opens the record with a sound belying the swagger that would follow. It’s a reserved Yeezy in delivery here but he still drops one of the single most clever lines in rap history:

“I’m the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary”

If songwriting were a dunk contest, that one ridiculously multilayered line was Kanye channelling Jordan and tomahawking it home from the free throw line, or Vince Carter with the 360 windmill and the immortal celebration:

He may still have been Yeezy and not quite the self-appointed demigod Yeezus at this point, but it was over for the rest of the game as far as Kanye was concerned delivering lines like this.

There certainly is a degree of vulnerability on the record. He mourns a lost love who enjoyed the finer things in his link-up with Dwele on the sublimely hypnotic Flashing Lights. Curtain closer Big Brother is a touching tribute to mentor and friend Jay-Z. Everything I Am was laced with DJ Premier scratches and Ye responding to growing criticism admitting he’ll “never be picture perfect Beyonceand hammering the point home with the hook “everything I’m not made me everything I am”, . Where his rollicking Chris Martin collaboration on Homecoming personifies his same hometown Chicago as an ex-girlfriend in a heartfelt ode, Kanye enjoys a somewhat rare moment of extrosepction on Everything I Am, lamenting the plight of violence in his beloved city: “Just last year Chicago had over 600 caskets, man killing’s some wack shit, oh I forgot, ‘cept when niggas is rappin’” showing that his glasses may have had shutters but they weren’t rose tinted.

For the most part though, Kanye’s exterior is fucking impenetrable. The bravado on the gospel-infused The Glory, a song that opens with Ye boldly declaring “can I talk my shit again, even if I don’t hit again? Dawg are you fuckin’ kidding?” and name-dropping every high-end brand imaginable as mere playthings, comparing his rise to the top as being like going from Dwayne Wayne (the nerd from 90s sitcom A Different World) to NBA champion Dwyane Wade just spectacular. “But with my ego, I can stand there in a Speedo and be looked at like a fucking hero,” he spits, and few would doubt him.

Yeezy positively steamrolls over the better part of the record. He documents his rise from the struggles of his lower-middle class family to his status as a global superstar (one who designer shops so much he can speak Italian) on Champion. “For me givin’ up’s way harder than tryin’” he kicks off the second verse, rapping about cleaning up his act “like Prince’d do” and visiting the same schools he’d flunked out of as a kid (“they got the Dropout keepin’ kids in school”, “they used to feel invisible, now they know they invincible” both goosebump-inducing declarations of empowerment).

Good Life, aside from being the single greatest thing guest vocalist T-Pain ever did in his career might also be the happiest Kanye has ever sounded on record. Sun-filtered synths and a beat you physically can’t not nod your head to underlay a stellar performance from Yeezy as he lists his favourite cities and the excesses his career has allowed him, his good life. “Have you ever popped champagne on a plane, while getting’ some brain?” he asks, knowing damn well 95% of us listening absolutely have not and will not, ever. It’s Kanye flying at 30 000 feet casually flipping everyone down below a triumphant bird.

Where Good Life was a raucous celebration of that excess, basking in the glory of it, Can’t Tell Me Nothing is a low snarl. A simultaneous ode to that same excess but also a sneering ‘fuck yourself’ from Ye to critics daring to throw shade at his lifestyle. “I guess the money shoulda changed him, I guess I shoulda forgot where I came from” he quips with a liberal dose of sarcasm. “Old folks talkin’ ‘bout back in my day, but homie this is my day, class started two hours ago, oh, am I late?” he spits with a molten molasses flow. This is a man who has earned everything he has now, damned if he’s going to let anyone hating on him for it bring him down.

The crown jewel of Graduation by far though is the Daft Punk-twisting Stronger. Peak Kanye with a diamond hard exterior, looking down over all of us from the stars. “Bow in the presence of greatness, cause right now thou hast forsaken us. You should be honoured by my lateness, that I would even show up to this fake shit” an example of how very few fucks 2007 Kanye had to give. “There’s a thousand you’s, there’s only one of me,” he continues, being incredibly generous to the rest of the world in that estimation and all over the top of an intoxicatingly reworked version of one of the party anthems of the early 00s in Daft Punk’s Harder Better Faster Stronger.

Stronger was Ye emerging from the fire of the struggles of his early career, unscathed and unbeatable. Never has he sounded this bulletproof, before or after.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy might be considered the pinnacle of Kanye’s creative output, it’s lyrically more impressive (an impressive feat given the quality of bars Kanye was laying down on this record), and from a pure production standpoint nothing in his catalogue comes close to Yeezus and last year’s The Life Of Pablo is right up there as well, but as far as the organic feel of those records (and especially 808s And Heartbreak that immediately followed) though, they became increasingly more explorative of Kanye’s vulnerability while trying to maintain his status as the most influential artist on the planet.

It’s Graduation that stands alone as Kanye at his most invincible, having just planted his flag at the top and surveying a musical landscape he positively owned before all the drama that followed to drag him down.

It’s a record that strikes such a chord with me, especially when listened in juxtaposition with those later albums. Back when I first heard it, I was living what was hands down the best year of my life and, as much as a kid in his early 20s possibly can, I felt every bit as untouchable as 2007 Kanye was. Shit fell apart in the years from there, as it also has to an extent for Kanye, who spent the last few months of 2016 reportedly battling some heavy mental health issues. I’d like to think Kanye can fight back and get back to who he was and how he felt on Graduation, just like I’d hope to think I can do the same on my own smaller scale.

Whenever I need to remind myself that how I feel today isn’t reflective of who I’m capable of being, I’ll sometimes bump Graduation, usually in my car with the windows down and Good Life wafting out of them. Remembering that brief period of time not that long ago when I felt like 2007 Kanye, without all the money and the fame but with that same unbreakable feeling that I was on top instead of struggling to claw my way back there out of rougher times.

10 years since its release, Graduation doesn’t just stand the test of time, it laughs in the concept of time’s face.

Image: Vulture