Graduation (album)

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Graduation
Studio album by Kanye West
Released September 11, 2007 (2007-09-11)
Recorded 2005–07
Chung King Studios, Sony Music Studios
(New York, New York)
Chalice Studios, The Record Plant
(Los Angeles, California)
Genre Hip hop
Length 51:12
Label Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Producer Jon Brion, Warryn Campbell, Mike Dean, DJ Toomp, Eric Hudson, Brian Miller, Nottz, Patrick Reynolds, Gee Robertson, Kanye West (also exec.), Kyambo "Hip Hop" Joshua (also exec.)
Kanye West chronology
Late Orchestration
(2006)
Graduation
(2007)
808s & Heartbreak
(2008)
Singles from Graduation
  1. "Can't Tell Me Nothing"
    Released: May 15, 2007
  2. "Stronger"
    Released: July 31, 2007
  3. "Good Life"
    Released: October 2, 2007
  4. "Flashing Lights"
    Released: November 12, 2007
  5. "Homecoming"
    Released: February 18, 2008

Graduation is the third studio album by American hip hop artist Kanye West, released September 11, 2007 on Roc-A-Fella Records. Recording sessions for the album took place during 2005 to 2007 at Chung King Studios and Sony Music Studios in New York City and at Chalice Studios and The Record Plant in Los Angeles. It was primarily produced by West and DJ Toomp, and features guest contributions from artists including Mos Def, Dwele, T-Pain, Lil Wayne, and Chris Martin of Coldplay. The album's cover artwork was designed by Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami.

Inspired by Irish rock band U2 and other musical groups to make more inspirational, anthemic hip-hop music, West incorporated synthesizer sounds into his production and dabbled with electronic music, while sampling a wider spectrum of musical genres. Lyrically, Graduation is more introspective in comparison to its predecessors, as West dedicated much of the album towards analyzing himself and conveying his ambivalent outlook on his newfound fame. It continues the education theme of West's previous two studio albums, The College Dropout (2004) and Late Registration (2005).

The album debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 957,000 copies in its first week. It produced five singles, including international hits "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Stronger" and "Good Life." The coinciding release dates of Graduation and rapper 50 Cent's Curtis generated much publicity over the idea of a sales competition, resulting in record-breaking sales performances by both albums. Graduation received mostly positive reviews from most music critics and earned West several accolades, including a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album. The album has sold 2,700,000 copies in the US and has been certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Background[edit]

Graduation is the third installment of Kanye West's planned tetralogy of education-themed studio albums, which West subsequently deviated from due to the events surrounding the conception of his fourth studio album, 808s & Heartbreak.[1] The album demonstrates yet another distinctive evolution in West's musical style and approach to production. After spending the previous year touring the world with Irish rock band U2 on their Vertigo Tour, West felt inspired by watching Bono open stadium tours every night to incredible ovations and sought out to compose anthemic rap songs that could operate more efficiently in large arenas.[2] In his attempt to accomplish this "stadium-status" endeavor, West incorporated electronic synthesizers into his hip-hop production, which also finds him experimenting with electronic music and being influenced by music of the 1980s.[3][4] West was particularly influenced by house music, a subgenre of electronic dance music that first originated in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois in the early 1980s.[5] In the past, West has stated that while growing up, he would listen to hip-hop music at home or in his car, but when he felt like dancing, he would attend a house club.[6]

West further broadened his musical palette by not limiting himself to his customary soul samples, and instead sampled from a more eclectic variety of musical genres, including euro-disco, hard rock, electronica, lounge, progressive rock, synth-pop, electro, reggae, and dub.[7][8][9] For much of the album, West adopted a dilatory, exuberant rapping delivery in emulation of Bono's operatic vocal stylings.[2] In addition to U2, West drew inspiration from arena rock bands such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin for melody and chord progression.[3][10] In terms of lyricism, West sought out to simplify some of his rhymes after touring with The Rolling Stones on their A Bigger Bang concert tour and discovering that he could not electrify the audience as well with his most complex lyrical themes.[2][11]

Recording[edit]

West's experiences on arena rock tours such as U2's Vertigo Tour (pictured) inspired his direction for the album.

Kanye West began working on Graduation immediately after releasing his second studio album Late Registration.[12] By late September of 2005, West had already completed three songs for the album, which he intended to contain a total of twelve tracks.[12] Around the time of the recording of the third studio album, West listened to songs written by folk and country singer-songwriters Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash in hopes of developing methods to augment his wordplay and story-telling ability. The former musician had been recommended to West by multiple of his friends, including English disc jockey Samantha Ronson, all of whom claimed his music and the way he dealt with the press reminded them of Dylan. West also listened to his most favorite alternative rock bands, including The Killers, Radiohead, Modest Mouse, and Keane, in order to gain ideas on how to make his hip-hop production more stadium-friendly.[13]

In comparison to previous albums, Graduation features fewer guest appearances from other recording artists. West elaborated that it was a fully conscious decision to keep his guest vocalists to a minimum, saying that, "When I hear the records of my favorite bands — The Killers or Coldplay — you only hear one voice from start to finish."[14] R&B singers T-Pain and Dwele, New York rappers Mos Def and ALBe. Back, and famed hip-hop record producer DJ Premier are featured within individual tracks primarily to deliver hooks and choruses.[15] However, though he originally intended for Graduation to be completely devoid of guest rap verses, West later decided to invite New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne on the track "Barry Bonds."[16] At the time, the two MCs had been working together, with West contributing to the production of Lil Wayne's sixth studio album Tha Carter III.[17]

Many songs on Graduation contain background vocals provided by Connie Mitchell of the Australian dance music group Sneaky Sound System.[18] The collaboration came about when West met her bandmates Angus McDonald and Daimon Downey at a diner in Sydney while touring the country with U2 around November of 2006.[19][20] Seeking musical inspiration, West asked McDonald for ideas, who suggested that he be introduced to Mitchell.[20] Upon meeting Mitchell after she arrived at Studios 301 where he was recording music during the tour, West had her sing over a vocal track and quickly took a liking to her voice.[19][20] U2 singer Bono and guitarist The Edge also complimented Mitchell's singing while stopping by the studio.[20] Some time later, Mitchell received a call from West, who asked her to travel to The Record Plant in Los Angeles to begin recording tracks for his third studio album.[20] Mitchell later admitted that while she previously didn't know who Kanye West was and never really cared for hip-hop music, the collaboration has changed her views.[19]

Connie Mitchell contributed vocals to several songs on the studio album.[18]

During an interview with Billboard, West revealed that he had worked with Chris Martin, lead singer of the British alternative rock band Coldplay, on a song entitled "Homecoming," and that it might possibly be released as the lead single for Graduation.[21] The collaboration occurred the year before when Kanye West and Chris Martin met one another during an impromptu jam session at Abbey Road Studios in London, England.[22] West had just finished performing at a show that had been held at Abbey Road and the band just so happened to be recording their music in the recording studio at exactly the same time.[5] The song itself is a re-vamping for "Home," a track that was made available four years earlier on West's 2003 mixtape Get Well Soon... and also later on the advance copy of The College Dropout, which due to a leak was never released.[7][23][24] The original version possessed Kanye West's once trademark sped-up soulful vocal sample production style, with singer John Legend on the song's main chorus.[23]

Widely considered to be the most radio-friendly track on Graduation, West defines the album's third single "Good Life" as the song with the most "blatant hit-recordness."[25] During his brief stay in Sweden, he sent through sixteen different mixes of the track over to their studio for the audio mastering process.[26] West admitted that he actually did not really care for the single, but he was pressured into releasing it by his record label Def Jam Recordings. However, West has clarified that he doesn't retain any lingering animosity towards his record label on this.[27]

More than any other song on the entire studio album, the stadium-rap power ballad "I Wonder" was the most influenced by U2.[2] Kanye went as far to cite it as one of this three most favorite songs from Graduation.[3] West imparted that he had sought out to make the hip-hop equivalent to the rock band's "City of Blinding Lights."[2] He claimed that he heard the snare drum that was used on the track while shopping for furniture at a Moss and spent many weeks working on it.[28][29] West has also said that he wrote the song while thinking of performing it onstage in front of an audience of over 50,000 people. With this in mind, he concentrated on speaking volumes with fewer wording and initially delivered all of his rapping in an intense staccato vocal style; enunciating and stressing each syllable in every word before transitioning to a faster, more fluid flow during the song's second verse.[2][30] West even considered releasing "I Wonder" as the album's fourth single but in the end, he instead chose "Flashing Lights," which he referred to as the "coolest" song on the album.[3][31]

Graduation started taking definite form around the time of the filming of the music video for its second single "Stronger," whereas prior West had been "aimlessly making songs."[32] The sci-fi imagery of the Hype Williams-directed video inspired West to take his music in a more futuristic direction.[32] After the filming of the music video, which began before West had even written the song's second verse, he returned to the studio to redo parts of "Stronger" and various other tracks he recorded for the album, watching films like Total Recall for more ideas.[32] West mixed the song seventy-five times, as he could not seem to get the bass drum to sound precisely the way that he wanted it to.[26] He worked on "Stronger" with eight different audio engineers around the world and recorded over fifty versions of the track.[29] Still feeling dissatisfied after hearing the song in a club alongside Timbaland's 2007 single "The Way I Are," West enlisted the hip-hop record producer to assist him in redoing its drum programming.[27][33] Graduation also sees the return of composer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion—who had played a key role as the co-execute producer on Late Registration—for "Drunk and Hot Girls."[21]

The track "Everything I Am" features scratching by DJ Premier.

The beat for "The Glory" was originally conceived for West's GOOD Music associate, close friend, and fellow Chicago hip-hop artist Common, whose seventh studio album Finding Forever was being produced and recorded by West simultaneously with Graduation.[34][35] As was the case with their previous albums, certain tracks that West originally crafted for Finding Forever that Common declined eventually ended up on his own studio album.[36] "Everything I Am" was yet another song which was forged for Common that was passed on, a fact which West addresses within its opening lines.[37] The record features scratching contributed by famed hip-hop record producer DJ Premier.[30] After West had played the demo for "Everything I Am" over the phone for Premier and asked him what he thought of it, Premier replied that he enjoyed the lyrics and the innovative beat and offered to scratch over it.[38] When working on the song, and while following numerous instructions that were supplied to him by West, DJ Premier took seven different styles of scratches, including drum breaks, cut them up into different rhythms, and scattered them all throughout the track, thus providing West with several different ideas for him to choose from.[38]

While written by West, who envisioned its concept and hook while riding an elevator, the Jay-Z dedication "Big Brother" stands as the only song on Graduation that he did not produce.[18][39] The production of the track was instead handled solely by Atlanta record producer DJ Toomp.[18] According to West's cousin, soul singer Tony Williams, Jay-Z became quite emotional after West played a part of "Big Brother" for him in the studio for the very first time.[40] In an interview with Rolling Stone, West himself recalled that it was "a very serious moment."[13] When asked for his opinion, Jay-Z replied that he considered "Big Brother" a fair portrayal from a little brother's perspective. He also said that he thought the song was "brilliantly written" and Kanye's best song since "Jesus Walks" as far as structure and emotion.[26][41][42]

Although "Bittersweet Poetry" appears as an Japanese bonus track on Graduation, it was actually one of the very first songs crafted for Late Registration.[43] After seeing the 2004 biographical film Ray together, Kanye West and blues-rock musician John Mayer decided to collaborate on a record and immediately went back to the recording studio to compose the song "Bittersweet."[44] This wasn't the first time West and Mayer collaborated with one another. The two previously worked together to make "Go!," the third single from Common's sixth studio album Be, which came about when Mayer went to visit West at The Record Plant in Los Angeles.[45] In the end, because West felt that their song did not coincide well into the overall soundscape of his sophomore album, it was subsequently not included.[23]

Composition[edit]

Music and style[edit]

With Graduation, West departed from the warm soul samples of The College Dropout and the lush baroque-pop orchestration of Late Registration and moved towards a more atmospheric, rock-tinged, electronic-influenced soundscape.[7] The musical evolution arose from him listening to music genres encompassing European Britpop and Euro-disco, American alternative and indie-rock, and his native Chicago house.[5][46] Towards this end, West retracted much of the live instrumentation that characterized his previous album and had it replaced with heavy, gothic synths.[47] West injected distorted synth-chords, rave stabs, house beats, electro-disco rhythms, and a wide array of modulated electronic noises and digital sound-effects into his articulate hip-hop production.[46][48]

Despite the dominant synthetic attributes, the emphasis on organic string arrangements that had accentuated Late Registration remained a significant factor on Graduation.[10][13] Also, similar to its predecessor, the album didn't relegate itself to the conventional looping techniques typical of contemporary hip-hop and instead continued to implement sudden musical shifts within its multi-layered song structures and express intricately composed introductions, bridges, and codas.[49] Under the belief that his previous album had been too indulgent and poorly arranged, West fashioned Graduation to contain less ornate production, made the album completely devoid of skits, and sequenced it in such a way that it produced a tighter, more cohesive package.[13][50]

Production[edit]

"Flashing Lights" contains robotic vocals over a synth-heavy beat.

"Stronger" is built around a Daft Punk sample and features West's forceful rapping style exhibited on the album.

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Graduation opens on a sparse note with "Good Morning," beginning with an echoed, metronomic cowbell beat and a thumping bassline melded with a simple, arpeggiating synthesizer drone.[51][52] The drone is drowned by the music that arrives at the chorus, which is a conflation of ambient synths and an astral backing choir crafted from a non-verbal vocal sample of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" by Elton John.[29] "Good Morning" concludes with the voice of Jay-Z reiterating lyrics from "The Ruler's Back," the rapper's own opening track of his sixth studio album The Blueprint.[50] The production for "Champion" features intermittent drops and 808-handclaps and expresses a slight jazz-rock influence, eschewing guitars and trumpets in favor of breezy synths.[52][53] During the verses, West raps over a constant loop of the words "their eyes" while the chopped-up hook is formed from the question, "Did you realize, that you were a champion?"[2] Both phrases are recontextualized from a line lifted from "Kid Charlemagne" by Steely Dan.[54] The song also sports a reggae-inspired bridge delivered by Connie Mitchell in a distinct toasting vocal style.[55] More than any other song on the entire album, "I Wonder" was the most influenced by U2, as West imparted that he sought to make the hip-hop equivalent to the band's "City of Blinding Lights."[2] Described by music critics as "stadium-rap," the soul-fired track starts off with its piano-based refrain, which contains samples of "My Song" by British poet Labi Siffre.[51] It then proceeds to morph into a myriad of interlaced synths that are impacted by distorted snare drum strokes and ethereal electronic keyboards.[46] During the bridge, the chord progression changes and the song adopts a heavy string section that emulates the melody of its synths. The composition then enters an instrumental passage and finishes off with a sweeping string arrangement.[46]

"Good Life" utilizes multi-tracked, interlocking vocals that harmonize with guest singer T-Pain's Auto-Tuned voice. The song's melody is based on sampled keyboards from P.Y.T. by Michael Jackson, with the tempo slightly decreased and the pitch raised to the point its sound resembles squealing shrieks.[7] "Barry Bonds" is built on a moaning bass line and Gothic organ, while punctuated by wailing sampled from "Long Red" by Mountain.[50][56] "Drunk and Hot Girls" exhibits a sluggish waltz pitched with the rhythm of an Eastern European drinking song.[22] It contains a mix of dark orchestration and detuned electronics with elements of "Sing Swan Song" by German progressive rock band Can.[46] West claimed that while listening to their song, he heard the words "drunk and hot girls" rather than the actual "drunky hot bowls" lyrics.[57] Rather than rap, West and guest artist Mos Def sing along to the song's melody.[56] Opening with a gradual, rising crescendo of symphonic strings, "Flashing Lights" emits synth twinklings before transforming into a moderately-paced, synth-driven beat. After the introduction, in which Mitchell's processed vocals repeat the titular hook four times, West raps the two verses, each one followed by the chorus sung by Dwele coupled with the hook. Following a break, the song enters a passage where its heavily manipulated hook echoes in and out before the coda draws the composition to a close.[18] "Stronger" is built around a sample of "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" by Daft Punk.[18]

By being composed using nothing more than a Rhodes piano, a vocal sample, and some scratching, "Everything I Am" stands as the third studio album's most minimalistic production.[58] West marries a down-tempo beat to gentle piano chords that are accentuated by soulful cooing sampled from "If We Can't Be Lovers" by Prince Phillip Mitchell.[18] The song features a scratched hook by DJ Premier formed with the vocal sample, which contains the line, "Here we go again," which is lifted from "Bring the Noise" by Public Enemy.[51] With its high-speed bass drum pattern, "The Glory" is an up-tempo number which revisits the "chipmunk-soul" that defined West's early production style.[10] It displays a sped-up, high-pitch vocal sample of "Save The Country" by Laura Nyro accompanied by uplifting string and a gospel choir symphony.[59] Coldplay lead vocalist Chris Martin sings the chorus and supplies a gospel-flavored piano motif while West raps over heavy yet buoyant drums on "Homecoming."[23][57] The chatter of a noisy, cheering crowd can inexplicably be heard in the background throughout the song.[60] The Jay-Z ode "Big Brother" begins with West uttering the words, "Stadium status ...," backed by a string section, pounding drums, a distorted guitar riff and plinking piano keys.[18] Around mid-verse, the track adopts synths that replicate the melody of the live strings. Before its second verse, the song is adorned with more musical devices, including a bass-line, metallic percussion, and 808-handclaps. The final track "Good Night" exhibits the production characteristics of West's next musical evolution. West juxtaposes the glitchy, mechanical sound of an 8-Bit beat with the elegant, traditional sound of the classical piano.[22]

Lyrical content[edit]

West wrote lyrics expressing an ambivalence towards his newfound wealth and fame.

In comparison to previous albums, which were largely driven by observational commentary on matters pertaining to social welfare, Graduation is more introspective in nature and addresses personal themes.[61][62] West stated that he wanted to make inspirational music and placed more focus on individual perspective and experience that listeners could connect with in an attempt to create "people's theme songs."[2] Dismayed that the messages behind his complex lyricism were frequently lost on listeners and didn't carry well during live performances, West made an attempt to simplify his lyrics and use more skeletal rhyme schemes for more straightforward verses while concentrating on speaking volumes with sparser wording on Graduation.[2] Having committed a significant amount of time towards elevating his story-telling ability by listening to folk musicians, West manages to form a lyrical narrative within nearly every song on the album.[13] West dedicated a majority of the album towards conducting an analysis himself and conveying his ambivalent outlook on his newfound wealth and fame. As such, West's subversive songwriting fluctuates between playful self-aggrandizement and critical self-doubt.[8] While confident, extroverted and celebratory at face value, many songs contained on Graduation were thematically distanced and retained melancholic subtext.[59] Some music critics remarked that compounded with West's urgent, emotive rapping style, the record sounded as if he were experiencing an existential crisis.[63]

The free-associative "Champion" is primarily composed of motivational lyrics, but West also briefly touches on the strained relationship he had with his father–who divorced from his mother when he was just three-years-old–eventually reaching the conclusion that even with their ups and downs, in the end, his father was a champion in his eyes.[64] West described "Stronger" as an "emancipation", as he uses the song to vent his frustration over mistakes he has made in the past.[32] "I Wonder" carries an introspective tone, retaining a chorus about finding one's dreams, while West uses the verses to describe the struggle a person experiences in determining the meaning behind their life and achieving those dreams.[56] Inspired by watching Bono open stadium tours, West concentrated on speaking volumes without using too many words on the song and delivers his raps in an exuberant, staccato manner.[2] Using the same vocal stylings, "Flashing Lights" tells the operatic narrative of man contemplating the complexities of a tragic relationship. "Can't Tell Me Nothing" serves as West's reflection on his fame and is characterized by bitter remorse and defiant self-awareness. West begins the song by expounding his conflicted feelings regarding wealth and desire, describing a compulsion to spend that overwhelms any and all other objectives in life.[56] He ties this into his perceived overall inability to keep himself together even as he grows into an increasingly prominent figure in the public eye.[51]

West regains his lyrical dexterity on "Barry Bonds", a competitive, though friendly battle with Lil Wayne in which the two MCs exchange braggadocios rhymes.[16] The song uses Major League Baseball player Barry Bonds as a metaphor for West's ability to create music hits.[65] "Drunk and Hot Girls" is a first-person narrative that illustrates a man courting an intoxicated woman in a club but gets more than what he bargained for.[2] "Everything I Am" is a song of self-examination, in which West attempts to confront his fallacies by surveying the consequences of his outspokeness ruminating over various ways people expect him to conduct himself. In the track, West addresses his indifference towards constructing a gangster persona, his refusal to dress and act like every other rapper, his inclination towards social commentary, and his lack of self-restraint.[7] West comes to the conclusion that while he will never be able to live up to people's expectations and will always be disadvantageously flawed; it's all these imperfections and more that serve to make up who he is.[56] When writing the song, West thought of a young girl in high school dealing with people coming down on her.[13]

"Homecoming" serves as a heartfelt tribute to West's hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Using an extended metaphor that personifies the city as a childhood sweetheart named Wendy, West rhymes about his love for Chicago and his guilt over leaving "her" to pursue stardom.[7] The song's opening lines lyrically paraphrase "I Used to Love H.E.R.," a similarly metaphoric hip-hop song made by West's close friend and labelmate Common, who later appeared in the single's music video.[22] West dedicated "Big Brother" to Jay-Z, whom he feels so close to that he sees him as a brother. Within the song, West dually details his love and admiration as well as his envy and antagonism towards Jay-Z, metaphorically equating their relationship to that of a sibling rivalry.[13] West also uses the song's chorus as a subsidiary dedication to his mentor No I.D., who first taught him how to produce music.[66] Similar to its musicality, the songwriting characteristics of the album-closing track, "Good Night" alludes to West's next musical evolution. The majority of song is composed of repetitive recitations of its choruses and bridges by Mos Def and Al Be Back. West melodically raps only one single verse in which he nostalgically reminisces over taking trips to the museum with his grandparents. As his verse draws to a close, West chastises that a person can't dwell on the past, and charges himself with living his life like he has no tomorrow. In retrospect, with the death of his mother Donda West less than two months after the album was released in addition to the dissolution of his engagement with fiancée Alexis Phifer, the trace amounts of melancholy found scattered throughout Graduation would all but envelop West's next studio album, 808s & Heartbreak.[67][68][69]

Artwork[edit]

Dropout Bear being pursued by a monstrous cloud within the interior artwork of Graduation.

West collaborated with Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami to oversee the art direction of Graduation as well as design the cover art for the album's accompanying singles.[70] Often called "the Warhol of Japan," Murakami's surrealistic visual art is characterized by cartoonish creatures that appear friendly and cheerful at first glance, but possess dark, twisted undertones.[71][72] The collaboration between the two came about when West visited Murakami's Kaikai Kiki studio in Roppongi Hills during a brief trip to Tokyo, Japan in the midst of touring the year before.[73] The album's artwork expresses colorful, pastel imagery influenced by Murakami's affiliation with superflat, a post-modern art movement influenced by manga and anime.[74] Its production process took place over the course of several weeks, with West constantly visualizing new images and emailing the ideas to Murakami and his team.[75] Bringing the educational theme expressed by West's previous albums to a close, the visual plotline of the images contained within the liner notes lead up to a graduation ceremony that takes places within a fictional college institution situated within a futuristic metropolis called Universe City.[34] Murakami explained the metaphor behind the artwork saying:

The cover is based on Kanye's theme of student life. School. It's a place of dreams, of righteousness, a place to have fun. It's also occasionally a place where you experience the rigid dogma of the human race. Kanye's music scrapes sentimentality and aggressiveness together like sandpaper, and he uses his grooves to unleash this tornado that spins with the zeitgeist of the times. I too wanted to be swept up and spun around in that tornado.[76]

—Takashi Murakami

The artwork's storyline centers around "Dropout Bear," West's anthropomorphic teddy bear mascot.[77] The illustrations chronicle Dropout Bear overcoming various obstacles in an effort to reach his college campus in time for his graduation ceremony.[78] The story begins on a rainy day with Dropout being awoken by his alarm clock and running out of his apartment to his car, modeled after a DeLorean. When the car's engine dies, he is forced to find an alternative means of transportation.[71] Dropout attempts to hail a cab but it speeds right past him, soaking him with puddle water. He then tries to get onto a metro rail but just misses it as it pulls away. Left with no other options, Dropout is reduced to pursuing his goal on foot. As he races down sidewalks, populated by multi-eyed, living mushrooms, Dropout is pursued by a monstrous rain cloud that attempts to swallow him whole.[79] Eventually, Dropout Bear arrives at the university and makes it to his ceremony just in time to stand before his colleagues, a wide variety of anthropomorphic creatures like himself. The visual story concludes with Dropout Bear being catapulted from the university into the sky on the back cover.[18] The cover art for Graduation was cited as the fifth best album cover of the year by Rolling Stone.[80] The designs of the album artwork were later brought to life by Murakami through the use of cel-shaded animation within a three-minute animated music video for "Good Morning."[79]

Release[edit]

Publicity over the album's release date pitted West in a sales competition against rapper 50 Cent (pictured).

While hosting a listening session for his second studio album Late Registration on August 3, 2005 at Sony Music Studios, West revealed that he wished to schedule the release of his third album Graduation sometime around October 2006.[81] Several months later, on March 28, 2007, West appeared on the Los Angeles radio station Power 106. He said that he was working on his third album as well as Common's seventh album Finding Forever and rapped a few lyrics from one of his songs in a cappella.[82] On May 11, it was announced that the release date for Graduation was September 18, 2007.[34] West debuted the album's lead single "Can't Tell Me Nothing" on the New York radio station Hot 97 on May 15.[83] He then released a free mixtape under the same name onto the Internet on May 27.[84] The mixtape featured preview clips of songs that would later appear on Graduation and showcased various artists signed onto West's GOOD Music record label as well as collaborations with other unaffiliated musicians.[85] It also contained "Us Placers", the debut song of Child Rebel Soldier, a supergroup West had formed with Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell Williams.[84]

At the end of May, Island Def Jam pushed forward the release date for Graduation up from September to an unspecified late August date, a decision that West first announced on the introductory track of his Can't Tell Me Nothing mixtape.[86] On July 19, the album's release date was changed once more and moved to September 11, 2007, the same US release date as rapper 50 Cent's third studio album Curtis.[87] When first presented with the proposal of his label moving the release date of his album yet again as well as the idea of a sales race between him and 50 Cent, West initially expressed his indifference towards the thought, saying, "When I heard that thing about the debate, I thought that was the stupidest thing. When my album drops and 50's album drops, everybody wins because you're gonna get a lot of good music at the same time."[88] However, then Def Jam president and CEO Jay-Z welcomed competition, feeling that it would be prosperous for hip-hop and the date became permanent.[89]

The album's release generated much publicity over a sales competition with 50 Cent's Curtis.[90][91] Three months that were prior to the September 11 release date, West extended his gratitude towards 50 Cent for the enthusiasm and excitement the friendly competition had produced. Though confident that he would emerge victorious, West said that he would be perfectly fine with losing to 50 Cent, saying that he'd rather, "be #2 on that day rather than come out and be #1 on a day nobody cares about."[92] In an interview for USA Today, 50 Cent expressed his view on the idea of a sales competition, stating "It's great marketing — for Kanye West. But I sell way more records than Kanye West, and I generate way more interest than Kanye West. They think they can match us up, but they'll find out when that week goes by and the sales come back. This is no rivalry."[93] On August 10, 50 Cent stated during an interview with SOHH that he would end his career as a solo artist if Graduation sold more copies than Curtis in the United States.[94] However, he retracted his statement within an MTV interview due to contract agreements with Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records.[95]

Promotion[edit]

West performing before a crowd at V Festival on August 18, 2007 in Chelmsford, England.

West spent a significant amount of time promoting Graduation during his trip to the United Kingdom.[96] On August 17, West guest starred on the British comedy-variety show The Friday Night Project.[96] He played preview versions of the songs "Big Brother" and "Champion" from his forthcoming third album while making an appearance on DJ Tim Westwood's radio show on August 18.[97] Later that day, West performed at V Festival in Chelmsford, England before an audience of over 50,000 people and again played new material from Graduation as well as a tribute cover of Amy Winehouse's hit single "Rehab."[98][99] He then held a secret concert with Barbadian singer Rihanna for an audience of over five hundred fans and invited guests at Westminster Central Hall in London, England on August 20.[96][100] The guests were greeted by staff members wearing graduation robes and mortarboard caps in reference to the title of West's third studio album Graduation. At the end of the show, silver confetti and ticker tape reading Touch the Sky fell from the ceiling onto the audience while the actual "Touch the Sky," which was the fourth single from Late Registration, was played on the speakers.[100]

After he returned to the United States, West joined 50 Cent onstage for a surprise performance before an audience of over 20,000 people at a show held on August 22 in Madison Square Garden during Ciara and T.I.'s Screamfest '07 tour.[101] West performed for a benefit concert sponsored by his charity foundation on August 24 at Chicago's House of Blues.[102] At the concert, he provided live renditions of songs from Graduation and gave the audience a sneak peek of the early production of his Glow in the Dark Tour.[102] On August 28, West hosted an album listening session for Graduation at New World Stages in New York City.[2] It was there that he explained his influences and aspirations for the album and played songs over video clips taken from a variety of futuristic sci-fi films, including Tron, Akira, 2046 and 2001: A Space Odyssey.[2] Two days later, on the morning of August 30, a clean version of the album leaked onto the Internet.[103] In a survey conducted by Billboard, results displayed that an estimated 44% of readers predicted that Graduation would sell more units over 50 Cent and Kenny Chesney.[104] Projections for first week scans based on early store sales reports indicated towards the 575,000–700,000 range for Graduation, while Curtis was projected in the 500,000–600,000 range.[105]

Commercial performance[edit]

It's a great promotional tool. To me, it's the greatest thing ever. I think people should do it more often. I'm a fan of both albums. Hip-hop needs this right now.

Timbaland, on the coinciding release of West's Graduation and 50 Cent's Curtis.[90]

On the first day of its release, Graduation sold over 437,000 copies.[106] The album debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart, grossing a total of over 957,000 copies in its first week in the United States alone.[106][107] Graduation became West's second consecutive studio album to top the Billboard 200 and also debuted at number-one on the album charts in the United Kingdom and Canada.[108][109] It was within the very same week that "Stronger" topped the Billboard Hot 100, selling over 205,000 digital downloads and giving West his third number-one single.[110] Upon its release, Graduation achieved the highest first week sales week for any album in 2007, topping Linkin Park's Minutes to Midnight, which sold 625,000 copies. The album was also West's highest first sales week to date, surpassing the 860,000 opening week of his previous album Late Registration. It registered the best first-week sales totals of any record released within the last two years, with the last being West's own Late Registration.[111]

Additionally, Graduation became ranked as the 15th highest sales week for an album since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking data in 1991, as well as the highest sales week at the time of its release for an album since 50 Cent's The Massacre (2005).[112] It also set the record for the largest week of an album digitally downloaded, registering over 133,000 paid downloads, beating Maroon 5's previous set record of 102,000 for It Won't Be Soon Before Long.[113] Graduation's first week sales of 957,000 and Curtis's first week sales of 691,000 marked only the second time ever since the inception of Nielsen SoundScan that two albums debuted within the same week with totals surpassing 600,000 copies in the United States. The first occurrence of such an event was in September 1991, when Guns N' Roses conjunctively released Use Your Illusion I, which sold 685,000 copies, and Use Your Illusion II, which sold 770,000 copies. The first week sales totals of Graduation and Curtis have outsold the first week sales totals of Guns N' Roses' two albums.[112] 50 Cent showed graciousness in regards to his defeat.[114] In a statement released to the Associated Press, he said, "I am very excited to have participated in one of the biggest album release weeks in the last two years. Collectively, we have sold hundreds of thousands of units in our debut week. This marks a great moment for hip-hop music, one that will go down in history."[114] After years of slumping sales, the album competition between the two releases and the resulting record breaking performances both albums demonstrated was considered to be a "fantastic day for hip-hop."[91]

In its second week on the Billboard 200, Graduation slid to number two with the release of Reba McEntire's Reba: Duets, selling 226,000 copies while maintaining its dominance over Curtis, which sold 143,000.[115] The next week, with the releases of over 40 new albums, Graduation dropped three spaces to number five and registered 133,300, reaching a cumulative total of 1.3 million copies by October 3.[116] Selling 92,400 copies, the album descended two spots the following week to reach number seven.[117] During its fourth week on the chart, Graduation experienced a slight rebound and rose from number seven to six on October 17, selling 71,000 copies.[118] The following week, the album began to descend once more, selling an estimated 54,000 copies and dropping three places to reach the ninth position on October 24.[119] By year's end, Graduation was the third most-downloaded and best-selling album of 2007 on iTunes Store.[120] Graduation became West's third consecutive studio album to sell over two million copies in the United States, and it was certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on October 18, 2007.[121] As of June 14, 2013, Nielsen Soundscan reported that Graduation has since grossed over 2,700,000 copies in the United States.[122]

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 4/5 stars[59]
The A.V. Club B+[15]
Robert Christgau A−[123]
The Guardian 4/5 stars[47]
Los Angeles Times 3.5/4 stars[30]
NME 6/10[22]
Pitchfork Media 8.7/10[46]
Rolling Stone 4.5/5 stars[50]
Slant Magazine 3/5 stars[62]
Spin 8/10[124]

Graduation received generally positive reviews from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 79, based on 32 reviews.[125] Allmusic's Andy Kellman credited West for "being his shrewd, occasionally foolish, and adventurous self", and stated, "Those who have admired Kanye as a sharp producer while detesting him as an inept MC might find the gleaming synth sprites ... to be one of the most glaring deal-breakers in hip-hop history."[59] Pitchfork Media's Mark Pytlik complimented the accessibility of West's sonic experimentation, noting his visionary proficiency with interweaving seeminly disparate elements and bridging musical gaps.[46] Greg Tate, writing in The Village Voice, dubbed him "the most genuinely confessional MC in hip-hop today" and said, "bouts of narcissism aside, Graduation contains killer pieces of production."[126] Spin called the album "mesmerizing and alienating, like all the purest forms of pop culture."[124] Stylus Magazine's Jayson Greene said that it "serves as a document of West's maturation" and, "musically, at least, it's the most accomplished thing he's ever done."[7]

In his review for Rolling Stone, Nathan Brackett complimented the continuously evolving and increasingly experimental, genre-bending sonancy of West's production and said that, although he lacks Jay-Z's "formal mastery," West has "grown as a writer ... and given the lousy year hip-hop has had, the music needs his spazzed-out, neurotic creativity more than ever."[50] Josh Tyrangiel of Time wrote, "Thin as Graduation is on material, it delivers knockout hooks at a Louis Vuitton price point... West plunders the best and meticulously layers every track with enough surprises that there are thrills and discoveries a dozen listens in."[127] Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian felt that, despite occasionally disappointing lyrics, West generally "undercuts rap cliches with wit and ambivalence."[47] MSN Music's Robert Christgau commented that "every single track offers up its momentary pleasures—choruses that make you say yeah on songs you've already found wanting, confessional details and emotional aperçus on an album that still reduces to quality product when they're over."[123] Ann Powers, writing in the Los Angeles Times, interpreted the album's subtly dark tone to be the byproduct of the inevitable toil on West after revitalizing hip-hop as a genre:

Graduation's intricate musical environments take a while to comprehend, and at times they seem at odds with West's confrontational lyrics. But this contradictory music makes sense when heard as an attempt to express an internal struggle – between the Kanye West hip-hop made and the West who can't be contained by it or any other genre. It's hard to stop running with the crowd, even for a trendsetter. But West is on the verge, and moving forward ... a joker who couldn't be more serious, displaced and mobile because of race instead of class and an innovator in a genre that he must at least partially destroy to renew.[30]

In a mixed review, Slant Magazine's Eric Henderson found West's lyrics "only transparently expressive" and said that the songs' hooks "grab your ear on the first listen (notably bypassing your brain), your balls on the second, and your soul from there on out."[62] Dave Heaton of PopMatters felt that the album is ordinary and lacks the epochal feel of Late Registration, with songs that "aren't as richly dressed, and he doesn't seem to be trying as hard."[56] Entertainment Weekly's Neil Drumming found the album's music "uninspiring" and commented that "West's vocal mediocrity wouldn't be so glaring if the production were more of a diversion."[61] Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times, observed "some clever rhymes" in West's fame-obsessed lyrics and stated, "where he used to identify with everyday dreamers and strivers, now he seems happy to stay in his V.I.P. zone: all dressed up and behind that velvet rope."[128]

Accolades[edit]

Rolling Stone placed the album at number five on its list of their Top 50 Albums of 2007."[129] Graduation was listed at number nine on the Billboard Critics' Poll.[130] Time listed Graduation as the tenth best album of the year.[127] A year-end poll conducted by Entertainment Weekly cited Graduation as the best album of 2007.[131] It was also hailed as the best album of the year by USA Today, which wrote, "The Louis Vuitton Don may major in rap, but he liberally borrows from other music schools to create a much broader soundscape."[132] The album was listed as the fourth and eighteenth best record of the year by Spin magazine and Pitchfork Media respectively.[133][134] PopMatters also listed Graduation as the fourth best album of the year."[135] Graduation was listed at number thirty-five by The Observer on its best fifty albums of the year.[136] The Daily Telegraph ranked it number fifteen on its list of "Pop CDs of the Year," writing, "Kanye West finally grew up on this album, delivering more inventive, precision-tooled hip-hop but wearing a much more furrowed brow as he explored his existential anxieties. Dark and addictive."[63] Pitchfork Media placed Graduation at number 87 on their list of top 200 albums of the 2000s.[137] Graduation was cited as the second best album of the entire decade by Complex magazine.[138]

At the 50th Grammy Awards, West led the field with a total of eight nominations, including Album of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for "Good Life", and Best Rap Song for "Can't Tell Me Nothing".[139] He won the Grammy awards for Best Rap Solo Performance for "Stronger", Best Rap Song for "Good Life", and finally Graduation received the award for Best Rap Album.[140] At the 34th annual American Music Awards, West received the awards for Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Male Artist as well as Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album for Graduation.[141] However, West offered the former to Lil Wayne, who he felt was more deserving of the award due to his musical efforts in 2008.[142] Praising the artistry expressed by Graduation, the success of the album's singles, and the imagination of its accompanying international Glow in the Dark Tour, MTV crowned West as the year's #1 Hottest MC in the Game on May 16, 2008.[143]

Legacy and influence[edit]

West performing at the United Center in Chicago on the supporting tour for Graduation.

Irish rock band U2 has asserted that touring with West on their Vertigo Tour had a significant effect on their own music as well in regards to their twelfth studio album No Line on the Horizon.[144] Bono elaborated that West's rapping inspired him to utilize more percussive consonants for his songwriting and vocal performance.[144] West's third studio album Graduation, particularly with its two hit singles "Stronger" and "Flashing Lights", has been accredited to not only encouraging other hip-hop artists to incorporate house and electronica elements into their music, but also for playing a part in the revival of disco and electro-infused music in the late 2000s.[145] In addition, tracks such as "Everything I Am" have been cited as "the best example of the soulful and introspective atmosphere that came to dominate the rap world, from Drake to The Weeknd."[146] West has also received praise for his managing to appeal to diverse music audiences such as indie-rock listeners and rave enthusiasts all without alienating his core hip-hop audiences.[147]

Ben Detrick of XXL cited the outcome of the sales competition between 50 Cent's Curtis and West's Graduation as being responsible for altering the direction of hip-hop and paving the way for new rappers who didn't follow the hardcore-gangster mold, writing, "If there was ever a watershed moment to indicate hip-hop's changing direction, it may have come when 50 Cent competed with Kanye in 2007 to see whose album would claim superior sales. 50 lost handily, and it was made clear that excellent songcrafting trumped a lack of street-life experience. Kanye led a wave of new artists—Kid Cudi, Wale, Lupe Fiasco, Kidz in the Hall, Drake—who lacked the interest or ability to create narratives about any past gunplay or drug-dealing.[148] Similarly, in a retrospective article, Rosie Swash of The Guardian viewed the competition between 50 Cent and Kanye West as a historical moment in hip-hop, writing that it "highlighted the diverging facets of hip-hop in the last decade; the former was gangsta rap for the noughties, while West was the thinking man's alternative.[149]

Track listing[edit]

No. Title Producer(s) Length
1. "Good Morning"   Kanye West 3:15
2. "Champion"   Kanye West, Brian Miller 2:47
3. "Stronger"   Kanye West, Mike Dean* 5:11
4. "I Wonder"   Kanye West 4:03
5. "Good Life" (featuring T-Pain) Kanye West, DJ Toomp, Mike Dean** 3:27
6. "Can't Tell Me Nothing"   Kanye West, DJ Toomp 4:30
7. "Barry Bonds" (featuring Lil Wayne) Nottz, Kanye West* 3:24
8. "Drunk and Hot Girls" (featuring Mos Def) Kanye West, Jon Brion** 5:13
9. "Flashing Lights" (featuring Dwele) Kanye West, Eric Hudson 3:57
10. "Everything I Am" (featuring DJ Premier) Kanye West 3:47
11. "The Glory"   Kanye West, Gee Robertson*, Plain Pat* 3:32
12. "Homecoming"   Kanye West, Warryn Campbell 3:23
13. "Big Brother"   DJ Toomp 4:47

 • (*) designates co-producer
 • (**) designates additional production

Notes:[18]

Personnel[edit]

Credits adapted from liner notes.[18]

Charts[edit]

Preceded by
Once Upon a Time in the West by Hard-Fi
UK Albums Chart number-one album
September 16, 2007 – September 22, 2007
Succeeded by
All The Lost Souls by James Blunt
Preceded by
High School Musical 2 Soundtrack
Canadian Albums Chart number-one album
September 29, 2007 – October 5, 2007
Succeeded by
All The Lost Souls by James Blunt
Preceded by
High School Musical 2 Soundtrack
US Billboard 200 number-one album
September 29, 2007 – October 5, 2007
Succeeded by
Reba: Duets by Reba McEntire
Preceded by
Hustlenomics by Yung Joc
US Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums number-one album
September 29, 2007 – October 12, 2007
Succeeded by
Just Like You by Keyshia Cole
Preceded by
Hustlenomics by Yung Joc
US Billboard Top Rap Albums number-one album
September 29, 2007 – October 19, 2007
Succeeded by
souljaboytellem.com by Soulja Boy Tell'em

Certifications[edit]

Country Provider Certification
Australia ARIA Gold[160]
Canada CRIA 2x Platinum[161]
Ireland IRMA Platinum[162]
Japan RIAJ Gold[163]
New Zealand RIANZ Gold[164]
Russia NFPP Gold[165]
Switzerland IFPI Gold[166]
United Kingdom BPI Platinum[167]
United States RIAA 2x Platinum[121]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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