Ten years on, "Graduation" stands as Kanye's first major stylistic shift, as well as his most ill-advised.
Kanye West's career has been defined by major, unpredictable shifts between albums. Every Ye fan remembers where they were when "Love Lockdown" first took them aback as a new single, or when Yeezus fell out of the sky and upended expectations. The first one of these momentum-changing stylistic flips came between 2005's Late Registration and 2007's Graduation, the latter of which turns ten today.
Yes, there were also changes between Ye's first two albums. Whereas The College Dropout was almost entirely self-produced, and largely built on the same "chipmunk soul" sound West had popularized before his solo career, Late Registration brought on composer Jon Brion as a co-producer on all but five of its tracks (not counting skits). This resulted in more lush live instrumentation, and some critics have even gone so far as to call the album "baroque" as a result, but the sample credits (including Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, Gil Scott-Heron) reveal that the song's skeletons aren't that different from West's first batch of solo tracks. Thematically, Ye's even more on the same page, touching on many of the same issues-- drug dealing, religion, debt, family ties, and of course, education-- as he did on his debut album. Especially considering the few instances of glo-uppery on "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" and "Touch The Sky," Late Registration just sounds like College Dropout with more clout and a larger budget.
Ye spent five years working on his debut before it came out, and already had a good deal of Late Registration in the works by the time he hit the studio for its recording-- many of its songs were originally intended for other artists who passed on them, and West simply updated and Brion-ed them. That's a big reason why those albums were able to be released just 16 months apart. In contrast, Graduation would drop just over two years after Late Registration, and it was Ye's first to consist entirely of material he had planned as solo work. Ever the restless creative, Ye was able to plan a full overhaul of his sound for the first time in his career. He started the whole chipmunk soul trend and rode it to paydirt, but it was played out by 2007. West had to seek inspiration elsewhere.
Rather than digging in crates for obscure R&B and soul records or seeking out artists in the indie-sphere (as he did with Portishead and Fiona Apple for LR), Ye turned his sights on his immediate surroundings, which in the mid-2000s were the huge rock bands with whom he increasingly shared the stage. West opened six dates on U2's "Vertigo" tour and three on the Rolling Stones' "Bigger Bang" tour in 2005 and 2006, and those experiences shaped not just the sound of his next album, but also his whole approach to crossover appeal. Sure, the synths he went on to choose were directly inspired by U2's "City of Blinding Lights" and perfectly match the "stadium status" descriptor he uses on "Big Brother," but the more telling shifts came in his delivery and his quest for singalong anthems. "I'd be saying my super raps," West said at the Graduation listening party, referencing his shows with the Stones, "And this 50-year-old white lady would be looking like, 'I can't wait till the Rolling Stones come on.'" In that instance, he was explaining his choppier, slower flow on "I Wonder," but that desire to shed more technical verses for sloganeering that tens of thousands of fans could chant in unison can be heard on "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Stronger," "Good Life," and "Homecoming" as well.
In an interview from around the time of the album's release, West said, "Bono told me that, 'No one from your community has ever figured this out,'" "this" being translating fame and record sales into selling out "30,000 seaters." Being the first person to do something, or claiming the title of "best" has always been Kanye's driving motive, fueling his switch from beatmaking to rapping, from rapping to singing, from music to fashion, and although Bono was probably just trying to butter him up with a patently untrue statement, you know that West couldn't un-hear that. He focused his attention almost entirely on mainstream rock groups (although A-Trak also turned him onto Daft Punk), claiming in the same interview that the only rapper he was listening to during the making of Graduation was Lil Wayne. Keane, The Killers, Radiohead, and Coldplay-- all bands who were very synth-heavy at that point in their careers-- factored in far more than the Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, and Chaka Khan inspirations from his first album.
Graduation's production and songwriting reflected this. The first three songs sample Elton John, Steely Dan, and Daft Punk, all white mainstream artists. Mike Dean, whose previous production experience involved laying down Southern-fried guitar licks on albums by pretty much every legendary Houston rapper, leapt from mixing West's first two albums to doing production work on five Graduation cuts, and the layered, maxed-out synths and guitars that he chose bore little resemblance to any of his past work. Befitting West's listening habits, Lil Wayne had the only guest verse, and aside from Dwele and Mos Def, the only major guest singers were mega-stars T-Pain and Coldplay's Chris Martin. West only brought one other major player from hip hop, DJ Toomp, onto the album, and fresh off of T.I.'s "What You Know," he was about the most stadium-ready producer in the game at the time. For some reason, West felt like he had to go big or go home.
"I feel this album is a comeback for me," he said at the listening party, which is pretty ridiculous considering that his first two albums yielded six Grammys and six platinum plaques. But listening to Graduation's lyrics, it's clear that Ye felt he had something to prove to someone. Gone are the themes of black middle class struggle and in their place is Kanye's personal struggle. He alternates between boasting and looking inward, still including some of his signature self-deprecation, but most of this still in service of his fast-ballooning ego. Fame usually comes with a cost, and in West's case we can now see that things happened too fast. He rose up to astronomical heights in three years after grinding for a decade, began struggling with self-doubt and Hennessy, and soon after lost his fiancé and his mother. Graduation is where the cracks begins to show, Kanye's Icarus moment.
Don't get me wrong, Graduation is an enjoyable album. I don't think any of Kanye's aren't. But it stretched him too thin without a guiding mission statement. He at once attempted to be a rockstar ("The Glory"), a street anthem architect ("Can't Tell Me Nothing"), a globetrotting Euro clubber ("Flashing Lights," "I Wonder"), a boom-bapper ("Everything I Am"), and a mom-friendly pop star ("Homecoming"). He had already achieved a level of success that very few rappers have ever reached, and he wanted more. College Dropout and Late Registration were made by an artist who knew exactly who he was and what he wanted to say, and most of Kanye's later albums can say the same, but Graduation was a loosely-defined cultural hodgepodge that now reflects poorly on the "everything all the time" mentality of mid-2000s mashup culture.
Although Graduation itself has aged poorly relative to Kanye's other albums, its fading fortunes pale in comparison to everything it inspired. Look at Kanye's first two albums and you'll find the blueprints for the careers of Lupe Fiasco, J.Cole, and other bookish types who are still well-respected in most circles. Directly or indirectly, Graduation brought us B.o.B, Chiddy Bang, Mickey Factz, Charles Hamilton, shutter shades, every putrid late-2000s mashup of rap and indie songs-- its omnivorous ways convinced scores of blog-dwellers that they were capable of doing what Kanye was doing at the most adventurous, ill-advised moment of his career. Thankfully, 808s & Heartbreak would offer much more beneficial inspiration to hip hop at large.
Kanye's first major stylistic shift may have produced his most aggressively mediocre solo album, but it was a necessary step in his trajectory. Without the subprime loans Graduation took out on stadium rock, 808s' financial crisis wouldn't have been as drastic, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's morally bankrupt bailout wouldn't have been necessary, and Yeezus would have never occupied Ye street. No one's ever able to predict where Kanye's headed next, but one thing we know for sure is that he'll never attempt a power-grab as bold as Graduation ever again.