It is customary to divide Kanye West's career into two main parts. The first one, the trilogy formed by "The College Dropout", "Late Registration" and "Graduation", where his rap with soul samples was an extension of his work for Roc-A-Fella. And the second one, the much more ambitious trilogy of "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy", "Yeezus" and "The Life of Pablo", where any excess was acceptable, where any experimentation was good to try. And between these two periods, in 2008, the album of the transition: the astonishing, influential and moving "808s & Heartbreak", which wasn't even a rap album.
Contrary to the latter, "Graduation" was a continuation of the first two albums. With its title, the lyrics of the introduction "Good Morning" and the illustrations by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, it took up the university theme. It was even the commercial apotheosis of the old Kanye West. The album went on to sell millions of copies and go multi-platinum, generating a number of international hits including "Stronger", the number one hit in the U.S. and many other countries. Critics showered him with praise, he received several Grammy Awards, and his victory in the competition with 50 Cent's "Curtis" was considered a turning point in mainstream rap, because it showed that gangsta rap was no longer the most popular subgenre of hip-hop.
But "Graduation", in truth, was as much a beginning as an end. The transition from one Kanye West to the other was already in the offing on this album which, in many ways, was a blueprint for the next. T-Pain and his Auto-Tune were already there, on the very radio-friendly "Good Life". Even if the usual rap codes had more than ever their place, like with "Barry Bonds", a collaboration with Lil Wayne, even if the hedonism and the new rich triumphalism were expressed on "Good Life", or with the mention of luxury brands on "Stronger" and "The Glory", the introspective turn of "808s & Heartbreak" already started here. Rather than continuing the social commentary of the previous album, the rapper indulged in his celebrity's torments on "Can't Tell Me Nothing", he addressed his imperfections on "Everything I Am", he talked about his relationships to his hometown, Chicago, on "Homecoming", and to his mentor and friend Jay-Z.
Finally, Kanye West was obviously starting to feel a little cramped in the rap world. DJ Premier may have represented historical hip-hop with the scratches on "Everything I Am", the rapper was now inspired by pop rock. Having just come off tour with U2, he wanted to write stadium anthems of their stature. His songwriting departed from the verbose lyrics of rap, bands like Steely Dan were sampled, guitar riffs abounded on "Big Brother", and he invited Chris Martin (Coldplay) to sing on "Homecoming". Remembering that he was from Chicago, the city of House, Kanye West was also inspired by electronic music. The most obvious manifestation of this interest was of course his appropriation of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" on the hit single "Stronger". But we also can see it in the important place given to synthesizers in his compositions, as in "Flashing Lights", while the samples were placed in the background.
Perhaps more than an accomplishment, "Graduation" was a transitional record. In truth, Kanye West did better before, and he will do better after. But this album was the commercial apotheosis of the old Kanye, the one where, to use his school metaphor, he finished his rapping studies with a nice diploma. But it was above all the record of rupture, the one that widened his audience without yet misleading those who, one year later, would totally dislike the revolutionary "808s & Heartbreak". The album where, in accordance with the ambitions born of his proximity with U2, he cut his music to the dimension of stadiums, the one where he transformed himself into a real rock star.
Best tracks: "Good Morning", "Everything I Am (feat. DJ Premier)", "Flashing Lights (feat. Dwele)", "Stronger", "Homecoming (feat. Chris Martin)", "Can't Tell Me Nothing", "I Wonder", "Champion".
Worst track: "Drunk And Hot Girls (feat. Mos Def)"