For all of his apparent ego-tripping, awkwardness is the key quality of Kanye West’s persona, whether he’s aware of it or not.
Like its two predecessors, Kanye West’s third album Graduation has little to do with the education system, despite its title. Then again, education was suggested already by the musical progression between the first album The College Dropout and the second, Late Registration. Though West did gain confidence on the mic, and seemingly spent more time crafting the lyrics, the progression was mainly a musical one: while The College Dropout rolled with the striking tweaked-soul style that West had already used to drive Jay-Z to hits, Late Registration evolved it into grand, layered pop music, with strings and horns and other shiny accoutrements. It was the overblown pomp of The College Dropout’s “Two Words” blown up even bigger, but also refined into something almost sophisticated.
That style is the starting place for Graduation. The album doesn’t represent another major leap forward musically, though West has streamlined the sound in some ways, scaling back on the excess, and diversified it in others. The music is mostly just as layered as last time, and that’s a pleasure. Evident throughout are subtle details that you won’t notice during the first few listens: the lurking crowd noise in “Homecoming”, the odd ping-pong-like sound in “Good Life”. And he demonstrates the same knack for pop-music gold. The whole of Graduation might not sound big and brassy like the last album, but tracks like “The Good Life”, “The Glory” and “Champion” do. And there’s a timeless hip-hop feeling to a couple of the songs, in more of a spare, down-to-basics way than anything on the last album. The letter to Jay-Z (both a celebration and a bitterness-fueled kiss-off) “Big Brother” has a classic hip-hop storytelling framework, with West rhyming in a more raw style than usual. And “Everything I Am” is a humble masterpiece, with a nice piano-and-beats set-up, plus mesmerizing scratching from the immortal DJ Premier. Consider these tracks in light of West’s lyrical references to “golden era” hip-hop anthems and MCs, and you get the sense that he’s pushing for a legacy as a pop-star and as a true-school MC. When he calls himself a “top 5 MC", he’s not just bragging: he’s hoping that’s how he’ll be remembered.
Graduation will certainly yield its fair share of hits, and deserves to. But it is also a simpler affair than the previous two albums, less attention-grabbing. The songs aren’t as richly dressed, and he doesn’t seem to be trying as hard. He sounds less like he’s pushing to create something epic, and at that he succeeds -- as good as Graduation is, it doesn’t have the larger-than-life presence of Late Registration. It’s more manageable, more everyday. The main difference is in tone. Late Registration musically and lyrically conveys a sense of striving for greatness. On Graduation West comes off as content with his stature. The implication of many of the tracks is that he no longer needs to strive for success; he’s made it.
Fame and wealth are the major theme of Graduation, but the only song that deals with reservations about them in any substantial way is “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’”, the first single. Here he expresses conflicting feelings about the money he’s earned, describing a compulsion to spend that overtakes all other motivations: “I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / when I awoke I spent that on a necklace.” It’s a powerful single, yet its role as the face of the album seems like a case of reinforcing the notion that he’s “complicated,” despite him spending most of Graduation basking in fame. “The Good Life”, with its luxury-soul sound, musically exemplifies this settling-in to a life of wealth and leisure. He may say “let’s go on a living spree” at the song’s start, but he soon acknowledges that large amounts of money is what will let him do the type of living he really wants to. It’s the next step after “We Major” -- ‘we’ve made it, we’re important, and now we get to spend tons of money’.
He spends most of “Flashing Lights” -- another splendidly glitzy-sounding song, with a disco beat and funky futuristic synth part -- complaining about the paparazzi, who he apparently hates “more than a Nazi.” “The Glory” has some of the spiritual edge of a “Jesus Walks”, but the type of glory he’s describing is mostly material, and he’s found it already. "I Wonder” has a chorus about finding your dreams, with verses where West describes others struggling to figure out their lives, all the while acknowledging that he’s already achieved his own dreams. The message of Graduation is that’s he’s famous enough now to do what he wants, and not care how other people react. As he asks rhetorically on “The Glory”, “Can I talk my shit again / even if I don’t hit again?”
The communal feeling of Last Registration -- with guests on almost every track, some of them upstaging West – is gone. So is the family sentiment of “Hey Mama” and “Rose”. So, mostly, is the social conscience that caused him to blurt out “George Bush doesn’t like black people” on national television. There’s moments where he expresses his love for Chicago, decries the city’s rising murder rate, and criticizes fellow rappers for chalking up their own fictional murder rates within their CDs. But that’s all in one or two songs: Graduation is on the whole individual-focused, the individual being Kanye himself, of course. On the first track, “Good Morning (Intro)”, he refers to people’s perceptions of him as “Mister ‘By Himself He’s So Impressed’”. He’s joking about that notion, but lives up to it, too; the album has enough references to his own genius that New York Times critic Jon Pareles dubbed it “The Ego Sessions”.
That criticism is fair only if you ignore West’s sense of humor; even many of the lyrics Pareles quoted in his article have obvious jokes in them. It also requires paying more attention to the lyrics than anything else. The way the album reaches outward, beyond Kanye West the man, is through the music. And the music heads in more directions than West has before, while pulling them into his trademark style of hip-hop. The soul, blues and gospel samples West used on the previous albums aren’t gone -- “The Good Life” works with Michael Jackson’s “PYT”. Neither is the pop side of Late Registration; this year’s Adam Levine is Chris Martin of Coldplay, for example. And neither, completely, are the ‘chipmunk’ vocals – vocal samples pitched high– though there are some tracks (“Champion”, “I Wonder”) where he disarmingly uses the vocal samples completely straight. (There’s also one track, “The Good Life”, where in the background he pitches a vocal sample so high that it seems an obvious dig at those who criticize the ‘chipmunk’ style.)
But this time West has broadened his musical reference points. “Stronger” is essentially a revision of Daft Punk’s “Harder Faster Stronger” (which itself sampled Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby”). The dense “Barry Bonds”, featuring Lil Wayne, samples Mountain a little. “Champion” samples Steely Dan. “I Wonder” samples a track of the same name by Jack Jersey, an Indonesian musician popular in Holland in the ‘70s. On the ridiculous “Drunk and Hot Girls”, West and Mos Def don’t just sing over a sample of “Sing Swan Song” by Can, the German experimental-rock group, they sing along to the song’s original melody. In some ways these touchpoints feed into the futuristic theme of the anime-style album art. It’s difficult to tell what “the future” means to West, however. For listeners, the space reference might recall the slave ship-to-spaceship Afro-futurist metaphor in College Dropout’s “Spaceship”. But there’s nothing that substantive to West’s use of it here. To him “the future” mostly translates into having synthesizers on nearly every track, as if the future for him is 1983. Witness the Delorean reference in “Good Morning”, and imagine that what he really spends his time doing is dreaming of flux capacitors (or watching re-runs of Back to the Future on the USA network -- it’s a toss-up).
The future, then, isn’t about moving forward at all; it’s another character, another style, another fashion. And West wears it as awkwardly as everything else he puts on; notice the goofy plastic ‘space’ sunglasses he’s sporting in the “Stronger” video. For all of his apparent ego-tripping, awkwardness is the key quality of Kanye West’s persona, whether he’s aware of it or not. I’m tempted to say that all huge pop stars have awkwardness in their persona; I can think of few who don’t. But West elevates awkwardness to an art form; this is what critics who complain about his ego are missing in his music. They’re missing the way he resembles a stand-up comic…and not a Richard Pryor-type, working in cutting social criticism, but one who wears an ill-fitting jacket and tells stale jokes but somehow makes you laugh anyway. There’s no lyric, or idea, that he can’t turn into a cheesy joke. At the start of Graduation, he can’t resist this tasteless but clever play-on-words: “I’m like the fly Malcolm X / buy any jeans necessary.” Bad puns have been the foundation of West’s lyrical approach since the beginning, and it works. His repeated “Hey!” exclamation in “Champion” is also reminiscent of a lounge singer or old-school Vegas comedian, punctuating each joke with the verbal equivalent of the cymbal crash.
This goes hand-in-hand with the way he uses self-deprecation, the way he jokes about his ego. His “complicated Kanye” persona is usually less about confessing to unexpected sins than about saying something unexpected, about getting you to laugh or say “What’d he say?” Another tactic he uses, more with each album, is sexual innuendo: no matter the moment, or how lame the metaphors. Exhibit A: the line in “The Good Life” about “snakes on a plane.” Exhibit B: How the serious, introspective tone of “I Wonder” turns into a lusty come-on, with his call-out “How many ladies in the house? How many ladies in the house with no spouse?” And he of course ends up rhyming that last word with “blouse”. He can’t help it. Is Kanye the hip-hop version of Michael Scott, then, with his own version of the unstoppable “that’s what she said”? The unlikeliness of West’s persona on wax is ultimately what’s so endearing about him. Who’s more interesting: a straight-up hustler, or someone who’s acting like a hustler but then can’t help but break down and tell a knock-knock joke?
Throughout Graduation, this awkwardness is just as apparent in the music, and just as charming. West updates Daft Punk with style, but the song is so wedded to the groove of the original, and his rhymes so meaningless, that he comes off like a smiling fanboy, with the thought “isn’t it cool that I’m rhyming over Daft Punk?” nearly printed on his forehead. And what to make of West and Mos Def singing about “drunk and hot girls” to a Can melody? The less seriously you take it, the more rewarding it is. Mos Def laughing in the background while West makes a joke should give you a sense of how seriously they took it themselves. Another interesting choice is West’s decision to have Chris Martin from Coldplay sing the chorus to “Homecoming”, and sing it as if he were a reggae singer, with a Bob Marley-style “e-yo-oh-oh”. It’s either stupid or brilliant – or no, scratch that, it’s brilliant for how stupid it is. The fake-ness of it is irresistible, not to mention fitting perfectly with Graduation’s main theme of irresistible, inescapable capitalism. West might not rhyme about what you want him to when you want him to, or pick the singer or sample that makes the most sense on paper, but those unlikely choices are what his success has been built on. Look at the videos for "Can't Tell Me Nothin'" -- what other current chart-topper would make one video where he's looking serious as cancer, and then another where he gives creative freedom over to a comedian, who makes a farmland spoof that pokes fun at that same serious persona? Kanye West is following his own awkward path to super-stardom; his "ego" may get the attention, but he's laughing all the way to the bank.