September 13, 2007

Record Review: Kanye West

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Between collaborating with Swedish indie-rockers Peter, Bjorn and John, flying Vincent Chase’s entourage to the Cannes film festival and “singlehandedly” combating climate change at Live Earth, one would think that Kanye West might be feeling rather complacent (not the case). With irrepressible swagger, the indefatigable Louis Vuitton Don has managed to channel all of his excess exuberance, witty one-liners and staggering samples into his latest ambitious effort, Graduation.
Graduation begins slowly with “Good Morning” with Kanye sleepily stating, “Well I guess this is my dissertation/ Welcome to Graduation!” on top of sparse drumbeats. Abandoning Bernie Mac’s klaxon wakeup-call in Late Registration, Mr. West goes for a more minimalist approach on Graduation, foregoing skits and having fewer guest appearances. As such, “Good Morning” sequences into the synthesizer intro of “Champion” flawlessly, allowing Kanye to congratulate himself on being a powerful role model for today’s youth making “Kids who used to feel invisible/ Know they’re invincible.” In addition to being a champion for children, West utilizes a stellar yet repetitive sample of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” to tell you that he “doesn’t see why [he] needs a stylist/ When [he] shops so much he can speak Italian.” Kanye crams so much into three short minutes of music it is rather startling, but there is little reason to expect any less from him given his history.
The ever-fashionable Kanye continues with the theme of repetition for the next couple of songs, including the smashing single “Stronger.” French electro-house pioneers Daft Punk contribute a specially made accelerated version of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” for Kanye, and the song includes the infamous “Heard they’d do anything for a Klondike” verse. The odd collaboration plays to West’s strengths — the five-minute blockbuster solidifies the album’s strong introduction.
Graduation does lose some pace around the midway point however, specifically on “Barry Bonds” and “Drunken Hot Girls.” The songs offer some solid hooks, clever lines and amusing storytelling, but they overall feel a bit uninspired — especially when given the strong MC pairings of Lil’ Wayne and Mos Def, respectively. Fortunately, the spell does not last for too long, as Kanye redeems himself on the lush strings and synthesizers of “Flashing Lights” and soulful piano playing of “Everything I Am.” As Kanye meanders through cascading rhyme schemes on the latter track, he charges forward into some uncharted territory: humility. While Kanye always seems to be torn between underdog mentalities and maintaining his alter-ego, Jesus Christ in balance, he reveals some of his insecurities, realizing ,“Everybody’s been saying what’s not for him/ But everything I am not made me everything I am.”
Kanye closes on a strong note with the triumvirate of “The Glory,” “Home­coming” and “Big Brother.” While “The Glory” features West’s trademark pitched-up soul samples and Kanye “Raising the bar/ while the rest of y’all were in limbo,” “Homecoming” features an extended metaphor of Kanye’s love for Chicago, on top of sparkling piano work from Coldplay’s Chris Martin. “Big Brother” is the final full stop on this dissertation. It is sweeping in scope, straight narrative in style and extols nothing but praise for Kanye’s mentor Jay-Z as West analyzes his rise from beat-maker to hit creator.
Overall, Graduation does not pack the immediacy and punch that College Dropout or Late Registration did, but instead is fashioned into a smooth flowing sequence of solid songs. His samples and beats are vibrant, the kind that can bring nearby inanimate objects to life. Kanye’s lyrics are not to be overlooked either, creating a very enjoyable listening experience. Perhaps as Takashi Murakami’s cover artwork suggests, there is nothing preventing Kanye West’s ascension to the high-ranking pantheon of music stars with Graduation.