– You probably know that thuggish impresario 50 Cent released his album Curtis the same day Kanye dropped Graduation. Despite the presence of Timbaland and Timberlake on “Ayo Technology,” it is my understanding that Curtis kind of sucks. In first-week sales, Kanye kicked 50’s ass. This pleases me.
– There’s only one really bad song on Graduation. It’s called “Drunk and Hot Girls,” and even though it’s a condemnation of the sexism in rap and youth culture in general, it’s slow and boring and obvious and not very pleasant to listen to. It’s kind of a train wreck.
– Thankfully, the rest of the album is the exact opposite. Of the thirteen tracks, six are fairly remarkable, and six more are really damn good. Kanye’s rapping has never bothered me that much, his lyrics are still riddled with sly jokes and tough self-examination, and his production takes a real leap overall, combining the trademark soul-samples and lush orchestration with the thick synth sounds that define hip-hop in the late Oughts.
– Who but Kanye would write a song about his ambition, success, and ego, and call it “Barry Bonds?” Is there another black man who has accomplished as much in his field yet been so thoroughly rejected? I was half expecitng an ode to the slugger or something even worse, but West uses fairly oblique references to Barry as a metaphor for his own genius. You want to laugh at Kanye comparing himself to Bonds, and the point is that he’s semi-serious, I guess.
– “Stronger” has the most immediate impact here. The Daft Punk sample is all you’re legally required to know about this song. It’s really fucking catchy. I love that Kanye just lets the hook play for a minute or so at the end of the song, where other rappers might fill the need to rap, or shout out, or just gratuitously swear.
– “Good Life” is going to be on everyone’s iPod in a month. Small pleasure: the sample here comes from Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” a gem from Thriller that I always felt went unappreciated (even though it was one of that album’s seven Top Ten singles). Also, Akon<T-Pain<Nate Dogg.
– In an era of shuffle, great album sequencing is slowly becoming a lost art. Kanye brilliantly follows “Good Life” with the wrenching confessional “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” in which West grapples with his culture’s materialism and the subsequent guilt with himself and God. It’s like a thought-out extension of his epochal Katrina rant. Clever touch: the shouts and “HA HA” in the background come courtesy of Young Jeezy, the coke-dealing Atlanta native whose image is entirely dependent on his obsession with status. And I know it’s supposed to be ironic nerd humor, but I honestly think the Galifianakis video serves the song better than the more self-righteous official version.
– “Flashing Lights” is a perfect hip-hop/soul song. Just go listen to it.
– “Big Brother” is one of the songs on the album produced by DJ Toomp, the man who helped engineer the best rap song of the decade. Kanye pours out his heart to Shawn Carter, a.k.a the Bill Gates of hip-hop, a.k.a Jay-Z. Kanye got his big break producing for Jay-Z, but Jigga’s initial reluctance to support an MC career for West led to tension between the two, and here West puts everything on the table. The emotional honesty is a little jarring; it’s not something usually associated with hip-hop, and West makes it moving and enthralling. So, in case you’re keeping score at home, here is how you are supposed to think: blog-like tendencies in rap = groundbreaking, innovative, awesome; blog-like tendencies in rock = BAD STUPID EMO.
– The two opening tracks “Good Morning” and “Champion” are fairly routine Kanye songs, with the expectedly unconventional samples (Elton John and Steely Dan, respectively). Their main job is to snare in listener and set the tone for the album, which they do, but I guess what I’m trying to say is this is nothing new for Kanye. Equally impressive but routine are “I Wonder” and “Everything I Am,” nice change-of-pace tracks with ballad-y piano; and “The Glory” with the requisite sped-up vocal sample.
– “Homecoming” features a piano groove and vocal hook by Chris Martin of Coldplay. It just doesn’t work, unlike the last album’s cameo by Adam Levine of Maroon 5. Yes, that Maroon 5. This saddens me.
– You might be saying, “But Keesup, Kanye is a dick who complains when we doesn’t win meaningless awards like MTV Video Music Awards or People’s Choice Awards or Grammys.” Shut up. This is noise that has little to do with how good his music is.
– So, this album is pretty great, and you should listen to it even if you don’t like hip-hop that much. Hopefully this album will be the prescription for all the reasons you think you don’t like hip-hop. (Looking at you, Scribblerist. I promise I’ll listen to Animal Years on the way to work now.)
Pop never dies,