Kanye West's Graduation: A Preview

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Go nuts go apeshit

My favorite lyrics on Kanye West's Graduation, at least today, belong to Kanye's conflicted ode to Jay-Z "Big Brother," the last song on the album. At last night's Graduation listening session, people passed out programs that included all the lyrics from the album, as well as some goofy-ass plastic replicas of the goofy-ass glasses from the "Stronger" video, and I read the whole thing a couple of times on the subway home. The big difference between the personas of Kanye and 50 Cent, and yes we're going to keep talking about this, is that Kanye makes personal pop music, whereas 50 mostly just makes popular pop music. 50 doesn't vent his soul, and he's not particularly concerned with coming across as an actual human being; instead, he blows himself out into this indestructible ghetto superhero character. Kanye, by contrast, is just as arrogant, but his arrogance brings with it hesitation and vulnerability and uncertainty. At least for me, there's always been a certain fantasy-baseball-camp appeal to Kanye: this is what happens when a typical dorked-out rap fan with no pretensions toward street-cred or hard-scrabble origins suddenly gains access to the mysterious world of rap stardom. Graduation, judging by last night's listening session, is an album about that stardom and what it might mean, which has the weird effect of making it his least personal album. "Big Brother" is the only point on the album where Kanye's lyrics really seem specific to Kanye's actual experiences, and that's by design. Talking about Jay, Kanye is as much a fan as a personal acquaintance: "J-A-Y, and Ye so shy / That he won't even step to his idol to say hi," "On that 'Diamonds' remix, I swore I spazzed / Then my big brother came through and kicked my ass." Kanye's talking about his own experiences with Jay, and the song's getting a lot of internet-notice because he bitches about Jay a bit and airs out some internal Roc-A-Fella issues, but he talks about Jay with the same awe and reverence that most fans feel for the man. The song feels bigger than Kanye because he keeps it so specific. On the rest of the album, he tries to keep his lyrics as impersonal and nonspecific and, as he kept saying last night, simple as possible, so that they'd have a wider resonance. Linkin Park once said that they painstakingly remove everything from their lyrics that could be construed as specific or personal so that listeners will more easily be able to apply those lyrics to themselves. Onstage last night, Kanye kept talking about opening for U2 and the Rolling Stones, how he wanted his words to punch through the stadium-echoes at those shows and reach the people who weren't generally inclined to pay him any mind. Or, as he put it: "My job, at least two hundred days out the year, I'm onstage in front of 50,000 people. So I did this album to make my job easier."

Last night's listening session was certainly a hell of a production as far as these things go. Most listening parties are held in dimly-lit recording studios or bare conference rooms, and if you're lucky they'll bring in a couple of bottles of liquor and a tray of chicken. Kanye does things bigger than that. He rented out an entire off-Broadway theater, a really elaborate and expensive-looking spot that I had no idea existed. Bags of popcorn sat on tables in the lobby, and the bartenders served alcoholic milkshakes along with beer and wine; they were pretty good. In the theater itself, Kanye let the album play back-to-front without interrupting it, but he presented it with an elaborate light-show: fog machines, lasers, spotlights, everything impressively flashing in time with the music. During maybe half the songs, a big screen flashed images from movies, edited to sync up with the songs. Most of the movies were sci-fi: 2001, Akira, Tron, the future-scenes from 2046, some anime-porn. On a purely tactile level, this was a whole lot of fun; it's a rush to hear a Lil Wayne verse, even a halfassed Lil Wayne verse like the one on "Barry Bonds," when you're a little drunk and lights are flashing all around you and the hammer-fight scene from Old Boy is playing on a big screen in front of you. I wonder if Kanye was trying to recreate on a smaller level the overpowering spectacle of the recent Daft Punk live shows with this thing.

But these clips, I think, were chosen for their significance as well as their headrush visuals. Most of those movies are about people trying to come to terms with reserves of power or knowledge which they don't quite understand and which alienate them from the normal people around them; more and more, that's becoming the prevalent theme of Kanye's work. Brandon Soderberg wrote a good post a while ago about the "Stronger" video and how it basically remakes Akira with Kanye in the Tetsuo role: the tragic figure, tortured by powers he can't understand or control, rejected by society as a result. Kanye did a whole lot of talking about backlash onstage last night, and he talks about it even more during the album: "You say he get on your fuckin' nerves / You hope that he gets what he deserves," "People talk so much shit about me in barbershops they forget to get they hair cut." Kanye's more obsessed with haters than circa-97 Puffy, and even the celebratory songs feel somehow bitter. So the trick for Kanye is to make that frustration and defiance translate to people who aren't rich or famous. "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Stronger" both felt sort of slight and flat when I first heard them, but they gained power and resonance with repeated listens. I'm guessing the rest of the album probably will as well, but I wish Kanye rapped with the same sort of wide-open candor here as he did on the previous two albums. Most of these songs could be about anyone, and that's what Kanye had in mind. But part of what made College Dropout and Late Registration so memorable is that Kanye was able to depict his own personal experiences vividly enough that they became universal. Kanye said last night that he's trying to make theme-songs for people with this album, but I wonder if he wouldn't be more successful at that just by making theme-songs for himself.

Musically, Graduation is pretty spectacular. His tracks aren't as composed or detailed as they were on Late Registration; instead, they're glossier and more direct. He kept mentioning DJ Toomp from the stage, and it sounds like Toomp probably coproduced more than just "Can't Tell Me Nothing"; his smeared, stretched-out gothic synths are all over this thing. There's also a definite filter-disco streak that runs deeper than the Daft Punk sample on "Stronger," but it's not in the tempos, which mostly lurch. Instead, it's in the way all these layers of surface pile up on top of each other. On "Drunk and Hot Girls," Kanye even raps through T-Pain's autotuner. And when T-Pain himself comes through on "Good Life," his whole emo-cyborg schtick works perfectly. Kanye still uses helium-soul samples constantly, but now he thins them out and buries them under all those synths, so they sound like voices trapped in a huge machine, not like organic, subliminal connections to a mythical black-music past. He does the same thing with DJ Premier's scratches on "Everything I Am," pushing them to the bottom of the mix, turning them into ghosts. On "Homecoming," Chris Martin from Coldplay turns up to hammer on a piano and purr lazily about fragments of Chicago memories, sounding something like a fragment of memory himself. This new approach is just as versatile as Kanye's old style; some songs bulldoze with blunt power, while others float prettily.There's a lot to process on this album, and I'm looking forward to picking it apart further in the coming months.

During the post-album Q&A, Kanye talked a little about the sales-rivalry he has going with 50 Cent, and he was refreshingly blunt about how he and 50 are both using the whole thing to drum up attention. In fact, he basically bragged that he's been playing the rumor mill the whole time: "This the first time we let the press do all the work." Still, he took a few low-key shots at 50. When someone asked him how it felt to be onstage with everyone at the Scream Tour last week, he responded, "If felt all right. Felt better to be on the stage with me and Jay, like how we planned." And later, when someone asked him specifically about 50: "If 50 didn't have the 'I Get Money' record, it wouldn't have come out on the same day. It had to be a fight there." Kanye won't stop playing the celebrity game even as he admits to playing it.

Voice review: Robert Christgau on Kanye West's Late Registration
Voice review: Hua Hsu on Kanye West's College Dropout


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