Ten years after its release, we look back on how Yeezy’s third album ushered in a new era of hip hop and turned the rapper-producer into a Dionysian superstar
Kanye West’s third studio album Graduation opens with a revelation that sums up the self-assured hubris only he could possess. “Good Morning”, the album’s opening track, pivots on the assertion that “This is my dissertation / Homie this shit is basic / Welcome to Graduation.” In calling his dissertation “basic”, Kanye rejects college, the institution that had provided him with a theme to traverse hip hop and take it into a new dimension with his debut album, 2004’s The College Dropout, and its 2005 follow-up Late Registration. In this departure from the high education trilogy, the nonchalant Kanye ripped up his thesis and threw it up in the air like confetti while everyone else threw their graduation cap. In a remarkable act of self-aggrandisement, Kanye distanced himself from his creation as if it were effortless. On the song’s third verse he went even further by taunting “the valedictorian, scared of the future” while he hopped in the DeLorean. It wasn’t so much as Kanye saying “Good Morning”; it was him saying goodbye.
Released ten years ago today, when Graduation hit store shelves on September 11, 2007, listeners found Kanye in a celebratory mood. In the months leading up to the album’s release, he dropped the mixtape Can’t Tell Me Nothing for free online. The mixtape featured the title track as well as “Stronger”, with both serving as the lead and second singles of the album. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” detailed an individual triumph in answering the critics he faced in the first three years of stardom, while explicating on the pressures of fame. At this point, the song was one of the most revealing and personal he had put down, and despite the lyrics suggesting Kanye was still learning to cope with celebrity, it presaged the swaggering nature of what was to come with his music. “Stronger”, however, was unlike anything Kanye had done before. The futuristic fusion of Kanye’s mythological story of survival and the sample of Daft Punk’s 2001 single “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” made “Stronger” an international hit, taking the top spot on the Billboard charts in the US and bagging him his first UK #1 while acting as a key foundation in the development of what would become EDM in subsequent years.
The stage was set then for Kanye to deliver on the superstar status he ascribed to himself. Not content with being judged as a rapper/producer, he saw his future – and that of hip hop at large – lying beyond American culture and in a broader, international market. By sampling Daft Punk, the music of Graduation assimilated dance aesthetics into Kanye’s armoury and situated him into a larger European sphere. After the creative breakthrough with “Stronger”, Kanye told Concrete Loop that he “went back to songs like ‘Champion’ and ‘Good Life’ and put these type of chords on them that sounded similar to the type of sense that I put on ‘Stronger’,” going on to explain, “that’s why ‘Flashing Lights’, ‘Champion’ all of them have that certain synthesiser, a real 80s synthesiser type of sound.”
Here, Kanye alluded to the arena sound popularised by artists of the 1980s, and the artists Kanye supported on tour in the years between Late Registration and Graduation. Both The Rolling Stones and U2 invited him to support them on selected dates of their respective worldwide A Bigger Bang and Vertigo tours. A conversation with Bono proved to be part of the impetus for Kanye to beef up his sound enough to fill the corners of arenas and get people moving to his music. “I wanted my drums to bang harder in stadiums,” he told Concrete Loop. “Bono told me that ‘No one from your community has ever figured this out.’ And if you think about it, nobody of the black community can really see out stadiums, like 30,000 seaters, there’s not one artist you can think of. I can think of four, you know, white artists.” Witnessing Daft Punk headline Lollapalooza in the summer of 2007, Kanye also saw how the French duo took their European synthesiser sound to new heights for dance music, compounding Kanye’s belief in advancing his music in the present.
At the same time, a so-called chart battle between Kanye West and his labelmate 50 Cent, whose third studio album Curtis was also scheduled for a September 11 release date, was being waged in the media. On both sides of the Atlantic, Kanye emerged victorious, with Graduation becoming both a critical and commercial success, shifting one million copies in its first week in America. The biggest battle in hip hop history became a de facto fight between hip hop’s past and its future, putting the genre under scrutiny and solidifying the growing consensus that gangsta rap as the genre’s normative model was reaching its endpoint, waning in both influence and popularity. Kanye’s arrival in 2001 as the wunderkind producer on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint ushered in a new sound through his sampling of soul and funk records that were pitched up, chopped and screwed into what became known as ‘chipmunk soul’. The beats and samples Kanye was responsible for on The Blueprint (“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”) revitalised Jay-Z’s career, so it was prudent of Kanye to apply the same accents in his solo work. They found their way onto Graduation (“I Wonder” and “The Glory”) too, but their presence was merely a holdover as not to alienate Kanye’s core audience, who may not have been ready for his experimental new sound.
At that moment, Kanye’s attention towards artists like Thom Yorke, Feist, Keane, The Killers, and Modest Mouse was absorbed into Graduation’s template. His sonic palette encompassed these indie and arena rock bands, but they also found themselves next to some choice crate-digging. Sampling krautrock legends Can (“Drunk and Hot Girls”), Elton John (“Good Morning”), and the aforementioned Daft Punk were all signifiers of Kanye’s deliberate attempt to render himself as a cosmopolitan artist stretching his hands across waters (Led Zeppelin was credited as a direct influence on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, with Kanye stating the chords were “like a Led Zeppelin, rock melody”).
These multiple sources of European influence, not to mention the futuristic sleeve art designed by Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, mapped out the idea of Kanye as an urban creative magpie. His lyrics offer more evidence of his tastes: On “Barry Bonds”, Kanye raps about being fresh off the plane and saying hello in Japanese, while “Flashing Lights”, “Good Life” and Chris Martin collaboration “Homecoming” make explicit references to air travel too. Reviewing Kanye’s fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 for The Los Angeles Times, critic Ann Powers noted that the theme of “Lost In The World” represented “the crisis of the jet-lagged cosmopolitan”. The same can be applied to Graduation, an album that feels in many ways like a prototype for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, though the dichotomy between the two is that here, Kanye welcomes the excess as it’s all part of a force fueled by spontaneity and total immersion.
Not only did Kanye borrow sounds from European artists, but he also absorbed German philosophy as a way of communicating his existence as a transcendental force. The opening refrain of “Stronger” (“N-now th-that that don’t kill me / Can only make me stronger”) takes on German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous dictum, “That which does not kill you, makes you stronger.” This aphorism relates to Kanye surviving a near-fatal car crash in 2002, when he fell asleep at the wheel following a studio session in the early hours of the morning. That he outlived and overcame a potential tragedy was a miracle; in doing so, he went on to achieve the highest possible position for himself through his art.
Nietzsche most certainly would have identified Kanye West as the Dionysian. Nietzsche’s first work, The Birth of Tragedy, argued that all art is born from tragedy and explores the human condition through the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy; based on his readings of Greek culture, the Apollonian is rational, orderly, and driven by intellect, whereas the Dionysian is irrational, chaotic, and driven by emotion. Kanye personifies the Apollonian and the Dionysian, but the latter comes to the fore most in him with his art and most poignantly with Graduation. The Dionysian man is hedonistic and affirms the totality of life, as we hear on “Good Life” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”. Across the album, Kanye basked in the glory of transcending conventional values and institutions and in turn, surpassed the barriers set before him.