BY M. EMANUEL The Breakdown hates to say it told you so, but in the spirit of the oft-outspoken Mr. Kanye West, we’re going to boast a bit. Go ahead and raise your champagne flutes, because we called it. West’s third release, Graduation, in stores today, is all that we said it would be — a Breakdown-certified instant classic that will hopefully infuse some much-needed jolt of reality and innovation into the stale monotony of the current rap game. Gone are the skits and many of the blatant attempts at humor that messed with the flow of West’s previous releases, The College Dropout and Late Registration. While certainly not a darker album by any means, this time around substance triumphs over the form. West brings his brat-rap wordplay, and coupled with an ever-improving flow, the album is cohesive and focused, backed by minimalist production that is less ostentatious than some of West’s previous work. As would be expected from a graduate at commencement, West has evolved. Dare I say it, he’s even grown up a bit.
Graduation starts where Late Registration left off. “Good Morning,” the opening track, sounds like an extension of “Late,” the “hidden” bonus track that wrapped up Late Registration. With a simple hook (the repeated refrain “Good Morning”) and melodic backdrop, the track incorporates the bass-heavy, but thinned-down production that appears on many of the album’s tracks. Declaring himself “the fly Malcolm X/ buy any jeans necessary” West is willing to reflect on his own celebrity and love of materialism in a way that that sounds fresh, by merging the past with the present. West also pays homage to his “big brother” Jay-Z by ending the track with a fitting sample from “The Ruler’s Back,” off Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, the album where West’s production work was first noted by the mainstream.
On “Champion,” with its sick Steely Dan sample, West rides one of his characteristic soul-flavored loops to reminisce on his youth: “every time I wanted layaway or a deposit/ my dad would say when you see clothes, close your eyelids,” then brings it full circle by noting the irony of his current status among youth and how when he visits schools, the very institutions he lamented on his prior works, he’s now the “dropout who is keeping kids in the school.” Other standouts include “Good Life,” backed by a MIchael Jackson sample, from “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” sample and the synthesized stylings of T-Pain, who in the hook quotes — who else? — West. This track’s name is well-suited. It’s a true feel-good musical moment, a head-nodder for sure. The two singles, “Stronger” and “Can’t Tell me Nothing” both perfectly fit the album’s two reoccurring themes — self-reflection and a willingness to push the boundaries of production so that the music sounds futuristic and retro at the same time. The self-reflection theme is readily apparent on “Everything I Am,” where West not only delves into the complexities of his relationship with the fickle rap public, but also takes aim at the rampant hardcore posing and killing on wax, essentially theorizing that while no one would deny that killing is wack, the public eats up murder in rap songs.
KANYE WEST: Can’t Tell Me Nothing
Overall, the cd is nearly perfect, and the few minor miss-steps get better upon repeated listens, like the Mos Def-assisted “Drunk and Hot Girls.” There are several standout cuts, including the church choir-inspired “Glory” and the tribute “Big Brother,” where West reveals the ins and outs of his relationship and rivalry with mentor Jay-Z. The tributes continue in the catchy ode to his hometown of Chicago, on the Chris Martin (yeah, that Chris Martin) assisted “Homecoming.” West even finds time to go toe-to-toe with the MTV-anointed hottest rapper in the game, Lil’ Wayne, on “Barry Bonds.” West not only holds his own, but arguably outperforms Weezy on the track.
The album displays a level of complexity and honesty missing from much of what’s hot in the streets now. It goes without saying that West’s spot at the top is well deserved. Graduation presents West as a hip-hop valedictorian having finally grown accustomed to playing the role of the underdog, only to find himself on top of the dogpile. He better get used to it.
KANYE WEST Feat. DAFT PUNK: Stronger
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The easiest word to describe M. Emanuel is “complex.” At least as it relates to tastes and interest, he offers a varied palate for that which inspires thought or emotion. Typically framed against the backdrop of hip-hop culture, but with a sharp awareness of what preceded the culture and what is now influenced by it, he’s intrigued by the intersection of commerce and art. It’s a rather natural position and balance of contrast that one would expect from a former college radio DJ turned corporate attorney who collects sneakers on the side and still writes rhymes from time to time. While we can’t expect to hear a full-length anytime soon, you can expect unique and hopefully enlightening insight from someone who, while navigating the world of corporate politics, has always kept his ear to the pavement. Hailing from Virginia, but now firmly entrenched in the 215, M. Emanuel focuses his daily grind in the areas of intellectual property and entertainment law. His many interests include music, film, the arts, fashion, sports, and travel, holding hands on the beach, shots of Patron, and making it rain.