Kanye West's 'Graduation' Gave Birth to Rap’s First Real Rock Star
The rap icon's third album laid the groundwork for the genre's current place in pop culture.
Kanye West tocando en los Grammys del 2008. Foto: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
By 2007, Kanye West gave hope to conscious rap's ethos having a life well into the new millennium with a sense of humor and near-flawless selection of soul samples. But there was a shift happening in hip-hop culture around this time in which artists became slightly fixated with appearing as their rockstar counterparts. Lil Wayne and Jim Jones made punk adjacent brands like Ed Hardy, Affliction, and True Religion—with wallet chains to accessorize—hot in the hood. Pharrell and N.E.R.D. were continuing their legacy of blending rap with alt rock and and pop. The same year, Atlanta's Shop Boyz produced their only hit with "Party Like a Rockstar," which peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the year's highest selling ringtone. Just before this, Kanye was serving as an opening act for U2's international Vertigo Tour and The Rolling Stones' A Big Bang Tour, watching Bono and Mick Jagger move stadiums in a way that he believed rap couldn't with the production value it had at that point.
"I'd be saying my super raps, and this 50-year-old white lady would be looking like, 'I can't wait till the Rolling Stones come on,'" he said to MTV in 2007. These were the major factors considered when Ye was putting together his third album, Graduation. While the majority of his peers within hip-hop were scratching the surface with aesthetics and a few guitar riffs worked into their production, Kanye fully embodied rock-and-roll's made-for-arenas functionality, trying his hand at making the genre a larger than life experience and effectively positioning himself as rap's first true rockstar, sending the genre into a direction it's just now starting to settle in.
The first two installments of West's trilogy— College Dropout and Late Registration—framed him as a boastful, socially aware figure willing to go the distance to voice his opinions on racial inequality and homophobia. But running parallel to him being hoisted up as a sorely needed spokesperson for those who weren't brave enough to do the talking was West's ascension into the global stratosphere that he'd been envisioning and bellowing into existence before making his first beat for JAY-Z in his early 20s. It's a conundrum that few have faced to even decide which way they'd go: to remain the complex, chosen one for a community yearning for a musical leader after Pac, or to pursue being a globally-recognized, generation-defining titan.
On Graduation, the embryonic stages of Ye's pop icon status began, as he chose to do away with expectations of him being the reincarnation of anything for anyone. "Can't Tell Me Nothing" explicitly spelled this shift out. The song ostensibly embodied graduating, or going onto new heights more than any other on the album. On it, West gave into the temptation of acting an ass now that he really had the chance to do it his way (buying even more Louis Vuitton and ice), in spite of growing criticism from the public and his own mother trying to be the voice of reason. There were similar dilemmas of subduing himself on Late Registration. "Addiction" questioned why sober life isn't as enjoyable when you have abundant access to fame and substances. On the other hand, songs like "Bring Me Down" were confidence-boosters in which West gave himself kudos for never giving up, despite the disapproval from others. Graduation was different in the fact that it built more onto Ye's will to transcend because getting comfortable—either musically or socially—wouldn't have been very Kanye of him. Simply look at how he illustrates this urgency on the Daft Punk-assisted "Stronger:" "N-now th-that that don't kill me / Can only make me stronger / I need you to hurry up now/ 'Cause I can't wait much longer."
This is the reason for Graduation's grandiose sound, lyrical minimalism, and sing-along hooks. Kanye studied and leaned on the prowess of largely European rock greats throughout the entirety of the album. The warm harmonizing on the hook of opener "Good Morning" flipped the "ooooh'"s from Elton John's 1975 song "Someone Saved My Life Tonight;" a line from Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" became the hook on "Champion," which opened with blaring synths tailor-made for concurrent light displays and smoke shooting into the air on stadium stages. It was a small tweak to a song like Late Registration's "We Major," which employed horns for its sonic boom. "Sing Swan Song" from experimental German band Can birthed the flow used on slurred Mos Def-featuring "Drunk and Hot Girls." The most left-field of the collection was the aforementioned "Stronger," which adapted parts of French house duo Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." The song not only used synthesizers as its main instrument but its run as Kanye's most internationally successful song at that time is, at the least, partially responsible for EDM's explosion in America in subsequent years. The approach has become a uniform element of Kanye's production style since. His fourth album 808s & Heartbreak sampled bands like English electronic outfit Depeche Mode. English prod-rock legends King Crimson were sampled for MBDTF's "Power." Much of Yeezus adopted industrial, goth rap. The Life of Pablo's "FML" altered vocals from post-punk British band Section 25.
Graduation also deviated from West's previous work in the fact that its lyrical content wasn't as much of an aerial look on the complexities of the black-American experience as it was an invitation into what made him tick personally. That pivot helped him transition from being the witty commentator he was on his first two albums to someone with whom listeners could feel an intimate connection. "Homecoming" is a familiar quandary for any creative raised outside of America's major cities; it's a complicated ode to Chicago that finds him feeling guilt for having to leave in order to realize his dreams, though he finds comfort in the fact that he'll always be tied to the city. "Champion" went over the complex relationship with his father who'd split with his mom, but still made sure to be a provider. The JAY-Z-dedicated "Big Brother," though not the first bromance rap song, is likely the most thorough man-to-man appreciation the genre's seen so far. Kanye revisits times that Jay inspired him to times he felt unfairly overlooked. In ways, it opened the door for their relationship to be broadcasted to the public, for better and for worse—most recently in Jay's ego-killing "Kill JAY Z"
Music wasn't the only factor in Kanye's 2007 ascension, though. An orchestrated standoff between he and 50 Cent was the driving force in both of their third albums' promotion. Up to that point, 50 was still coasting off of the gangstafied, thug supervillain stronghold he'd had since breaking out with 2003's instant classic, Get Rich or Die Tryin'. But repeated shots at label heads and executives led some to believe that the industry's easiest way to frame 50 as irrelevant was to pit him against the socially progressive West, who'd come from a middle-class background, denounced homophobic views, and wore relatively snug clothing, in the 2007 sense of snug.
The attitude behind 50's brand of gangsta rap on steroids, while enticing to fans whose lives were a million miles apart from that reality, was not supposed to be directed to people with more power than him, but he proved to be too much of the outlaw he was marketed as. Kanye won that battle, outselling 50 by nearly 300,000 in the first week. But he made sure to give a nod to 50's meteoric rise in 2003 as a blueprint for success when he quoted his "In Da Club" hit on "Good Life": "50 told me go 'head and switch the style up/ And if they hate then let 'em hate and watch the money pile up." Gangsta rap, street music, and the like have yet to recover from that showdown, as only two albums of the sort have gone platinum this decade (Kevin Gates' Islah and Meek Mill's Dreams Worth More Than Money.) If anything, street music has also made a shift since Kanye began to peal back more layers of himself on Graduation; 50's whole get up was about being an indestructible, emotionless robot. Now, what connects fans to artists like Gates and Meek is that they aren't afraid to rhythmically cry about lost loves ones and the price of fame.
Though the two could have likely coexisted, Kanye's success has proved to be a saving grace in and outside of the music industry for centering black identities that veered from dope boy turned rap star or straight up backpack types. Around the same time, artists like Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco were contributing to providing that type of visibility as well but what they and their music lacked was the fire and nerve that made a 50 Cent or, before him, 2Pac so magnetic. Kanye West was the link between those worlds; he admired Japanese artists and had an appreciation for furniture design but would still put himself in the line of fire for what he stood for while reminding you that he was amongst the best and brightest to ever walk the planet. "Everything I'm not made me everything I am," the hook of Graduation's self-loving "Everything I Am," became an almost ubiquitous Myspace screen name for teens and college-age kids. Those kids are now the biggest stars in rap and they haven't lost sight of the lessons Kanye taught on his genre-blending third album.
Not being a rapper has been the favorite, go-to self-identifier for young rappers of this decade whose music or fashion choices fall slightly outside of the margins of what the public deems as acceptable for hip-hop. In some cases, artists seem to pull this card to, if nothing else, piss more conservative fans off while others do it as a way to align themselves with rock and roll's acceptance of less macho appearance and sonic ways of expressing emotion. But for ones flying this flag the most, the push to be separated from rap music has rarely resulted in much more than "Lollipop"-era Wayne-inspired looks and Auto-Tune crooning. Wayne and Kanye joined forces for Graduation's most conventional rap track in "Barry Bonds," because a quick survey of today's eccentric wannabe rockstar rappers will lead you back to the two.
Looking back, Graduation is the marker in the Kanye saga in which our most decorated icon started to unravel in ways that still don't seem to be mended. The album's artwork depicted West as his then-famous teddy bear character being catapulted into a stratosphere of his own. What he was shooting out of was the metaphorical ceiling for the American rap star and he ended up in a lonely, unchartered territory—losing his mother shortly after and morphing into the chaotic and divisive figure we know today.
I remember a car ride during my senior year of high school with a close homeboy to meet other friends at the movies that had been soundtracked by the album. At the time, I'd barely listened to anything other than street rap. So when "Can't Tell Me Nothing" came on, he turned the speakers up to the point of nearly breaking them only to pause it in the middle of the hook. "As soon as I walk across the stage, that's exactly what I'ma tell my mother," he said to me, before continuing: "I got money and you can't tell me shit. Fuck out my face!"
At that moment, I realized that Graduation's contagious optimism and chest-pounding exhilaration was something that I should revel in and that, in many ways, Kanye was speaking to the more adventurous, open-minded person I'd grow into after high school. Looking at today's landscape of rappers, artists, and thinkers, it's clear that Kanye wasn't just speaking to me—he was speaking to me, my friend, and the entire next generation.
Lawrence Burney is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.