Figuring Out Kanye West's Graduation
Fresh off the plane, konichiwa bitches
I loved Late Registration as soon as I heard it, but my definitive moment with the album came late. I was leaving the office on night a couple of months after the album came out, and I stepped out into the first snow of the year just as "Heard Em Say" was coming on my iPod. It was perfect. "Heard Em Say" has this gentle, unforced float and this warm, muted longing that fit beautifully with that one evening, the snowflakes glowing for a split second as they fell past the streetlights, Christmas decorations up too early, cars going slower even though there wasn't any ice yet. Every time I've heard "Heard Em Say" since then, that image has automatically forced its way into my head. Graduation is still a week away from its release date, and I'm still sorting out my feelings about it, but I think I've already had my definitive moment with the album. That's either a tribute to the new culture of leaks and downloads and the accelerated way we process this shit or a condemnation of it, maybe both. I was driving back to New York two nights ago at two in the morning. Everyone else in the car was asleep, at least at first. I was moving fast and enjoying it, since the Jersey Turnpike is never, ever as empty as it was that night. And everything on the album sounded like it was custom-engineered to be heard in a situation just like that: lights streaking past, acrid factory-smoke hanging in the air, bass reverberating around the van. Every time Every time I hear "Drunk and Hot Girls" again, I'm going to immediately remember whipping over a deserted Verrazano Bridge, Manhattan lights glimmering away on the horizon.
I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about Graduation, but I like the album a lot better since taking that drive. Driving a car full of sleeping people at night is a weirdly solitary experience. People are all around you, in your car and in the cars around it, but you can't really interact with them, so you stare at the road and let your mind wander. Graduation has a similar feel. Kanye seems disconnected from the world around him: from his city on "Homecoming," from his mentor on "Big Brother," from the girls he's trying to fuck on "Drunk and Hot Girls." And that solitude can be a frustrating thing, but it can also be sort of comforting. The last two albums were full of songs about community and interconnectedness in one way or another: Kanye's faith, Kanye's family, Kanye's mother. The closest thing we get here is "Big Brother," a touching and personal dedication that's still written at a certain remove; Kanye's still too in awe of Jay-Z to consider him family.
In the lyrics and in the music, there's precious little warmth to be found here. Instead, there's frustration and resolve in the face of haters and dismissers. Even at his clumsiest, Kanye's music always has a serious evocative, ghostly quality. At first, all the new album's decomposing layers of synths sounded needlessly harsh and almost simplistic. After a few days, though, the album's gleaming electronic surface has become otherworldly in a weirdly moving way, like how that vocal sample in "Can't Tell Me Nothing" sounds like a trapped, lonely echo. DJ Toomp, of course, coproduced "Can't Tell Me Nothing," and the track bears a few formal similarities to his beat for T.I.'s "What You Know." But "What You Know" was an immediate rush, an instinctive roar of dominance. Kanye doesn't have T.I.'s swaggering ease, and he sound anxious and uncomfortable on those Toomp synths, which may be why I had to hear "Can't Tell Me Nothing" like ten times before deciding that I liked it. Plenty of times on Graduation, Kanye piles layers of apprehension and dread on rap tropes that most rappers deliver intuitively if not thoughtlessly. "Drunk and Hot Girls," as a friend recently pointed out, is sort of the ugly flip-side of something like "In Da Club," the girls always seeming just barely out of reach, the pursuit never entirely worthwhile, the beat awkwardly lurching sideways. On "Everything I Am," Kanye defines himself through exclusion, just talking about the things he can't ever be. On "Stronger," he talks about the resolve that comes with adversity. "Good Life" and "The Glory" feel so euphoric in part because they're the only moments on the album where Kanye allows himself to fully cut loose and enjoy his success.
I still have my problems with Graduation. I miss the warmth and fullness of Late Registration's strings and horns, and I wouldn't mind a few more guest-rappers breaking things up and leavening the mood every so often. Kanye wants this album to be, among other things, a display of his prowess as an MC, but the clunkers seem to come even more often than they have in the past: "Buy any jeans necessary," "Gnarls Barkley meets Charles Barkley," guh. But then, I've sort of come to like Kanye's lyrical blunders in the past as they've become familiar, and maybe the same thing will happen here. Kanye's albums take time to reveal themselves, and this certainly won't be the last entry I write about Graduation. Already, though, I can't think of another album I'd rather hear while driving across New Jersey at night. Given that that's something I'm going to be doing a whole lot over the next month, this album is already exerting more of a personal pull on me than almost anything else I've heard this year. Maybe Kanye's idea about making "theme songs for people" is working out after all.
Voice review: Robert Christgau on Kanye West's Late Registration
Voice review: Hua Hsu on Kanye West's College Dropout