We’ve reached the medal round. The Top 3, where I’ll crown the bronze, silver, and coveted gold albums of my hip hop life. One would think choosing between the top three would be extremely difficult, but it was actually the easiest rankings on my list. I knew my top 2, then I just had to pick which would be third.
Speaking of third place, let’s get into it. Out of all the artists on my list, this guy is by far the most polarizing. People love him, people hate him, and people simply think he’s an asshole. Some see his outlandish antics as a complete turn off. They can’t see past his exterior and take a deep look deep into his music. Others are such fanboys that they call every musical note he touches, “genius.” Some, like myself, just love his music. I can’t really stand his out-of-album persona, but I don’t let that get in the way of what’s really important: the music. As much as some people hate to hear it, he’s truly a one of a kind ARTIST. He pushes the boundaries of what’s popular and has helped shape pop culture far more than most musicians in the 21st century.
He’s got a big ego. He’s a household name. And he likes fish sticks…
…you think I’d go an entire top 10 hip hop list and not include Yeezy?!?!
Number 3: Kanye West – Graduation (2007)
Yes. Graduation. Kanye West has four A-level albums, IMO. I was only gonna include one of them on my list, so I had to make some decisions. I eliminated Late Registration right off the bat. Great album, but not classic status. Then it got real hard. We have his debut album, College Dropout, which came out when I was in middle school and really helped me get into hip hop ALBUMS as a whole. Although it’s very nostalgic for me, I didn’t feel it had the musical longevity to be number 3 on my all time list. Plus, I think there are a few too many skits for my liking. So it really came down to Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I wrestled back and forth with my decision for weeks, knowing that only one would land in the top 10. After much deliberation, the choice became clear to me. When I’m looking for a full ALBUM to put on and enjoy from front to back, Graduation ever so slightly edges out MBDTF. And I do mean slightly. Here’s why…
While MBDTF is certainly an incredible accomplishment for Kanye West himself, I don’t think it had the impact on the rest of the hip hop (and music) world that Graduation did. It’s almost like comparing Lebron James to Michael Jordan. Lebron James might look bigger, stronger, faster, and have better stats. But Michael Jordan changed the game of basketball forever and paved the way for guys like Lebron and Kobe to become the worldwide mega stars they are. MBDTF is four years fresher in our brains. It’s the sexier album. It’s got an insanely epic and cinematic feel to it. It might go down as Kanye’s best album ever. But let us not forget the album that changed the game for all of hip hop. Graduation was the first album from a big hip hop artist to really break away from boom bap-centric drums and experiment with pop synths and dance music. It paved the way for artists like Drake, Wiz Khalifa, A$AP Rocky, and Kid Cudi to explore unique sounds that most hip hop artists were previously too gun shy to try because it sounded too “soft.” Although we didn’t realize it at the time, Graduation symbolized an end to the gangster rap era that started way back at the end of the 80s and lasted almost two whole decades. Popular hip hop was now open to a much lighter and pop-friendly sound, all because of this one album in 2007.
Intro tracks. Intro tracks. Intro tracks. Sick of hearing me talk about how much I love them yet? Well, Graduation has one of my favorite intro tracks of all time in “Good Morning.” It’s a minimal, dreamy track with a hypnotizing beat and a killer vocal melody. It closes out with a one of my favorite samples ever when Kanye uses his mentor Jay-Z’s line from his own intro track on The Blueprint), “Hustlers that’s if ya still livin’ / get on down / Get-Get on down.” The great opener is followed by what I consider to be the most underrated track on the album, “Champion.” I never hear anyone talk about this being one of the best cuts on Graduation, but it’s one of my personal favorites. Kanye’s flow over the sped up Steely Dan sample is top notch and the female vocals on the bridge add just the perfect amount of culture. Tons of energy on this one.
Speaking of energetic tracks, perhaps the biggest single on the album is next. “Stronger” was Kanye’s first real jump from hip hop to dance pop. He slowed down the Daft Punk sample and laid a driving kick under it. Add in some of the album’s signature synths and a pinch of Yeezy swagger and you have a recipe for one of the biggest hits of Kanye’s career. While I point to the whole album as being a turning point for hip hop music, “Stronger” is really the track that sparked it all. It left real hip hop heads, indie hipsters, and house music ravers in agreement – this was a hot track. But not to be outdone by “Stronger,” Kanye followed it up with the upbeat, feel good track appropriately titled, “Good Life.” While the instrumental, with those big layered synths and high-pitched “P.Y.T.” sample was great, this track was a hit because of the chorus. I can’t tell you how many parties I went to (humblebrag), where smiling people would be singing along with their hands in the air saying, “Now throw your hands up in the skyyyyy.” It’s one of those generational anthems that everyone can get down to and is universally liked, something that Kanye has made a habit of throughout his career. If you weren’t hooked by the end of “Good Life,” Kanye hits you with the lead single, “Can’t Tell Me Nothin.” I remember my friend playing this song for me for the first time and both of us just sitting there like, “Damn. Kanye done did it on this one.” Like much of the album, when you sit back and really listen to it, it’s a very dreamy beat that is super easy on the ears. One of my favorite Kanye lines comes from this track…”So if the devil wear prada / Adam Eve wear nada / I’m in between but way more fresher.” Flamesssssss. It’s just another example of Kanye maturing as not only a producer, but a lyricist on this album.
Ok, so I’d be lying if I said the album didn’t slow down slightly in the second half. Most of the big bangers are layered on the top half, but it’s not like the second half is a slouch. “Barry Bonds” was hailed as an underwhelming collab with Lil Wayne (who was at peak stardom when this album dropped). For some weird reason, I really like the lo-fi feel of it. It sounds like an unmastered demo but I think it works. “Flashing Lights” was a giant single and one of the most brilliant fusions of orchestral strings and modern synths. The juxtaposition between the two in the chorus over a simple vocal sample made for one of Kanye’s most timeless hits. My man DJ Premier makes an appearance on “Everything I Am,” which is a much more soulful and slowed down version of his usual production. It doesn’t hit you in the face and scream “PREMO,” but once I found out it was produced by him, I could hear the sample chopping. We also get the Chris Martin feature on “Homecoming.” This song doesn’t get enough credit for its bravery. I mean, can you imagine 5 years prior, in 2002, one of the top 5 biggest rappers doing a song with Coldplay?! It’s the ultimate soft move, but somehow Kanye and Chris Martin make it fit perfectly into the album and it ended up being one of the more memorable moments in Kanye’s career. His analogies about Chicago, which are very prevalent in his entire discography, are at their best in this track. Truly a classic and a genre bender.
This is my third favorite hip hop album of all time, but did I think there were any weak moments? Sure. “Drunk and Hot Girls” was disappointing. When I saw there was a Mos Def feature I expected better. “The Glory” and “I Wonder” are good tracks but don’t stand out. “Big Brother” is a great tribute to Jay-Z and how he’s helped Kanye, but I think his previous two albums had better closers. But the rest of the track listing stands out so much that it makes up for a few duds.
As I always do with these reviews, I want to talk about the legacy of Graduation. It might actually be the most influential album on the list (sans Illmatic). I feel like I’m the perfect age to talk about this album’s influence. I was 18 when it came out. I was in my prime years of consuming the newest mainstream artists. And honestly, at the time, I didn’t realize how big Graduation was. I listened to it, liked it, and figured it was just another good Kanye album. It was only his third solo album and I didn’t know he’d go on to become the icon that he is. I liked it, but didn’t LOVE it. Now, 10 years later, I can tell you that I do in fact LOVE it, and it’s one of the easiest listens on my office Sonos. The songs have aged very well, and when you take a glance at the current sound of the hip hop landscape, you realize that Kanye’s Graduation was a landmark moment in the history of hip hop. It gave rappers the freedom to make music that wasn’t so street-oriented, and allowed hip hop artists to take more pop-friendly risks. It’s less about the lyrics, and more about the beats. It’s a production juggernaut.
Whether you like him or not, Kanye West will be a very important part of pop culture history. He’s been actively challenging popular music for almost 20 years. When he does something, people listen up. I think he may have climaxed on MBDTF, but I’ll listen to every Kanye album for as long as he makes them. Graduation is a pinnacle moment in Kanye’s career, hip hop history, and my personal life. I love it, and that is all.