Is Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ Album a Masterpiece? We Debate

By | Posted September 10, 2017
Is 'Graduation' overrated or another Kanye classic? An album that spoke to your soul or 'Ye's emptiest effort?
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Photo Credit: John Wallace

The great Abraham Lincoln once said, "A house divided cannot stand," and that's true. Lincoln was a very wise man. But on the other hand, Big Sean once said, "I guess drama makes for the best content." Oh shit, sorry Lincoln, but Big Sean wins. Maybe Lincoln should have talked more about making great content. 

When Kanye West's Graduation—which turns 10 today—happened to come up in a recent staff conversation, I knew we had the makings of a piece. Is Graduation overrated or another Kanye classic? An album that spoke to your soul or 'Ye's emptiest effort? It had all the makings of a great hip-hop debate, so I instigated, set up the fight post and had them go at it.

It's on like Donkey Kong, let's do this...

Lucas: "Graduation doesn't inspire me."

Kanye is the best artist of our generation. Maybe even one of the best artists ever. My top five changes more than Rick Ross changes bibs at a crab feed, but Kanye is always number one. Always. I've literally had dreams about meeting him. Some of my best writing has come when I've been inspired by Yeezy. Hell, I wouldn't even be rap bloggin' for a living if it weren't for Kanye; he's the one who got me into hip-hop. He's loud, brash, egotistical, and borderline insane, but I will defend him to the death because his music is simply undeniable. I love Kanye West.

But with great love comes great responsibility. I hold Kanye to the highest standard. He's proven time and time again to be the gold standard of hip-hop, so anything less than groundbreaking simply isn't up to par. 

I remember where I was the first time I heard College Dropout and, though it was literally a decade ago, I still get the same feeling when I listen to it today. What amazed me most was not the way it sounded but the way it felt. There was something intangible yet undeniable and it shook my core. It's a feeling that comes from an artist pouring all of themselves into each and every single aspect of the album. It's a feeling he's replicated time and time again. Late Registration is perfect. People hate 808's & Heartbreak but I will defend that album to the death; if you've ever been through a breakup you have to appreciate it. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a masterpiece. The way the music reflects Kanye's turmoil and reckless opulence is astounding and the result is an energy that transcends time. I've spent 40-minute car trips listening to "Power" alone and still get goosebumps. I didn't like Yeezus, but I had to respect his willingness to take a real risk, something he's done with each and every album. Most artists find a sound, stay with it, and ride it out to the end. Kanye refuses to be static. He's always changing and progressing and it comes from a place of artist curiosity. I think what makes his music timeless is how he is able to put himself into the music. When you compare the heart and earnest ambition on College Dropout to MBDTF fantasy you can see how far he's come and it's remarkable. You can trace his life and his career through his music. As rich as they are deep, each album is an experience that means something bigger.

Except for Graduation.

Now, Graduation is by no means a bad album, quite the opposite. Most artists would kill to have an album as good as Graduation, but as I said, I hold Kanye to a higher standard. He's capable of greatness, but he didn't deliver it on Graduation. With the exception of "Drunk & Hot Girls"—far and away the worst song of his career—Graduation is a fun, easy listen. "Stronger" is a blast, as is "Good Life," and a number of times I illegally drank to those songs before I turned 21 is remarkable. "Flashing Lights" is a chewy banger. The video for "Good Morning" is my favorite Kanye video ever. It's glossy and colorful. The whole album is as refreshing as a summer breeze, but I don't listen to Kanye for a summer breeze. I listen to Kanye for gale force winds. I need that sonic tornado that pulls the foundation of my musical preferences and hurls it into oblivion.

Each of his albums (even Yeezus) have an edge, they have something jaw-droppingly undeniable in them, but Graduation doesn't. What's he trying to say? What's his message? Where was he musically and emotionally? All of those questions can be answered by his albums except for Graduation. I hear a collection of songs that sound good but don't really have a deeper driving force. There's no story, no themes, it's a smattering of easily digestible songs and the result is an album that ultimately doesn't stand the test of time. It doesn't inspire me. It doesn't challenge me. It doesn't make me want to write the greatest think piece ever as every other album does.

I love Kanye more than I love any other artist and as result, I listen to him more. Though it's been over a decade and thousands of listens, I still find something new on College Dropout. I'm just recently coming to fully appreciate how remarkably dense and elaborate Dark Twisted Fantasy is. As my life and tastes change so to do my experiences and understanding of Kanye's canon, but I've never once felt a need to go back and really unpack Graduation because there isn't much to unpack; it's a surface level album.

Trying to cram as much Kanye onto my phone as possible while still leaving room for other artists sends me spiraling into an existential crisis. Each song is so coveted; how can I possibly choose between "Gone" and "Touch The Sky"? "Last Call" may be 12 minutes long, but that second verse is so good it's worth the extra MBs. Through all the shuffling and rotating, I've never once even thought about putting any song from Graduation on my phone because it would just be filler. I have to listen to "Power" weekly—I've spent thirty minutes in a parking lot looking for my scratched, burned copy of MBDTF because I need to hear it—but in ten years, I've never had the urge to go back to Graduation. I stumble across the songs like bumping into a high school acquaintance, it's always nice to see someone you have fond memories of but haven't thought of in a while, but I never miss them like a best friend.

Kanye is a motivating, powerful force in my life, but it has nothing to do with Graduation.

Shit, I spent this article about Graduation talking more about his other albums. Maybe it's bad "journalism" or maybe it's proof that Graduation just doesn't hit. It's Kanye's least exciting, challenging, and thoughtful album and you "Can't Tell Me" otherwise.

P.S. - Unlike some other people I could name, I also like Illmatic. Just saying...

Yoh: "Graduation is an incredible work of art."

Graduation is the Kanye album that removed listeners from the familiar. There’s no Deray Davis doing his best Bernie Mac impression greeting you on the introduction, there aren't any skits scattered for humor, the features and soulful samples are minimum, an album created far from his comfort zone. It’s a detail that makes every Kanye album unique, his ability to creatively explore without leaning on a successful crutch. He finds solace in the unknown, a song like “Stronger” embodies his fearless imagination. It was the first time I heard the robotic duo, 'Ye brought Daft Punk into hip-hop, it sounded futuristic, music for flying cars and jet packs. I would feel like Elroy Jetson every time the song would thump out of stereos.

Graduation was made during a time Kanye was seeking to create music that would roar in stadiums, anthems that would transcend time. He captured that, especially on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing and “Good Life.” You can drop the beginning anywhere in the world, once the “La, La, La” is heard, and voices will erupt. “Wait till I get my money right!” The way he interlooped Jeezy’s ad-libs was better than any feature verse from The Snowman. This is Yeezus preaching, a boastful, defiant sermon that was relayed worldwide. It’s hard not to feel waves of positivity once the “Good Life” beat drops. It’s simple, an anthem for dreamers finally reaching success. It’s not a perfect song, T-Pain has left me annoyed on occasion, but I can’t deny the feeling of warm triumphant in the verses.

The production change is what I’ve heard the most grief about, the direction was less soulful, his source material came from multiple genres, he was inspired by more rock and house music. I have no plight with the shift, I was drawn more to the lyricism. Kanye entered a state of introspection, after releasing two critically acclaimed albums he finally had a moment to reflect. Graduation is Kanye’s Jefferson moment, capturing the feeling of moving on up, and the changes that came with his newfound fame.

“Champion” does a great job at juxtaposing his life, in the same verse he talks about shopping so much he should be Italian to a childhood related to Will Smith’s Pursuit of Happiness. It’s one of the rare times he mentions his father. It’s a song that’s rarely mentioned when discussing Ye favorites, but it feels like that scene in Rocky, climbing the stairs, finally sitting at the top and throwing a few jabs at the air. “I Wonder” is one of those records you just have to love. The lush chords, the honest perspective, the energetic breakdown at the end, and that hook. How can you find it in your soul to hate?

I assume anyone that doesn’t like “Drunk and Hot Girls” has never dealt with drunk and hot girls. It’s a true representation of the frustration that one must overcome when entangled in the web of the opposite, intoxicated sex. My first time at a hookah bar, within the first ten minutes a drink spilled into my lap. She immediately grabbed napkins, I immediately noticed she didn’t need that drink, her alcohol level was at least D.U.I. As she patted away at my lap, my anger started to subside. She was cute, too cute to cause a scene. Every lyric started to play through my mind. Moments like this is why he made that song. He was no longer the Gap employee, a rap superstar spending late nights in clubs and studios, constantly amongst the hot and inebriated. The song is oddly placed, actually, the entire album has no cohesiveness, there’s no flow, it’s just a whirlwind of emotions and moments.

But in a way that lack of cohesion works. It’s similar to graduating, reminiscing back on all the years that you spent in the classroom, in the dorms, in the scene, Ye was trying to capture memories that were long forgotten. He doesn’t list names, faces, or dates, but he seizes the emotions they invoked. “Barry Bonds” is unnecessary, it lacks purpose, thrown in there to appease rap fans, I assume, but it doesn’t take away that Ye completely let his arrogance and confidence drag across the beat like Cam’s pink chinchilla.

The second half of the album has a consistent sincerity. Starting with “Flashing Lights,” a tender, love letter in the midst of a shaky relationship. “Everything I Am” is almost a character analysis. He compares himself to the others in the industry and instead of coming to an inadequate conclusion, Kanye accepts the fact that what he lacks is what makes him who he is; a lesson that needs to be taught in the school systems. “The Glory” takes you to church, this is the feeling of crossing the stage, getting the diploma, absolute achievement. “Homecoming” is a lovely homage to his hometown. He’s a superstar now but not so far removed that he forgot about the place that raised him. “Big Brother” picks up where the line, “If I can get just one beat on Hov” ends. Kanye reflects on his relationship with Jay, the man that changed his life, it wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine, but his admiration shines the brightest. Even the bonus records (“Bittersweet Poetry” and “Good Night”) continue with the transparency.

I admire Lucas as a writer and respect him as a comrade in this crazy world of rap writing, but he is wrong. Graduation isn’t Kanye’s best, it’s very few people’s favorite, but it’s an incredible body of art. He’s literally transitioning into stardom before our very eyes and attempting to embody that moment in time. Kanye’s victory over 50 was the bookmark for when rap changed. It was no longer ran by the gangsters, the doors opened for Drake, Kid Cudi and J. Cole.

Graduation is a monument, a hip-hop treasure, a Kanye classic.

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