hen Kanye West comes up in conversation, the word “restraint” doesn’t usually get thrown around much. West has always come off as exuberant and overexcitable, a twitchy little guy perpetually uncertain of his status. Even when he steps outside of himself and catches a fleeting bout of righteousness, there’s something embarrassing about it: witness his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” outburst, next to a horrified Mike Meyers, on national television. His music overflows with a similar spirit of torrential eagerness, sprouting codas and instrumental breakdowns and full choirs on its way up, up, up. There’s probably no more irrepressible persona in hip-hop than Kanye West, which is why one of the most shocking things about Graduation, his third album, is that in some ways he displays something nearing restraint.
One, the album tops out at a spare thirteen tracks, compared to The College Dropout’s 20 and Late Registration’s 21. Two, apart from a ragged-sounding Lil’ Wayne on “Barry Bonds,” Graduation has no guest MCs. Sure, the music still overflows with West’s trademark generosity, but there are fewer moments of bloat than on the caloric Late Registration, which as a listening experience was akin to eating an entire cheesecake at one sitting. In some ways, Graduation serves as a document of West’s maturation.
Musically, at least, it’s the most accomplished thing he’s ever done. Never content to sit still, West has moved from the Dropout’s soul samples to Registration’s orchestral grandiosity to, on Graduation, a fascination with Euro-disco and expensive-sounding synths. The good news is in such unfamiliar surroundings, West retains both his confidence and his attention to detail. Kanye has always made headphone records, and this one is no exception: he’s as obsessed with sonic detail as any producer this side of Timbaland or Trent Reznor. Check out the forlorn guitars chiming in unison at the close of “Stronger”; the random trumpet blurts in the left channel on “Drunk and Hot Girls”; the multitracked, interlocking vocals on “The Good Life”: Kanye tucks enough flourishes in to the corners of the record to reward repeated and close listening.
He also continues to push at mainstream hip-hop’s sonic contours, sampling a number of unlikely sources that only start with the Daft Punk bite for “Stronger.” Can’s “Sing Swan Song” provides the basis for a song called “Drunk and Hot Girls,” which will probably cause the heads of record nerds to explode nationwide. Elsewhere, he samples Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” and Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country.” The gorgeously airy track for “Flashing Lights” builds from mournful strings (courtesy of Gamble and Huff arranger and soul-music veteran Larry Gold), a slithering house backbeat, and Day-Glo synths, and is one of the most unabashedly graceful things I’ve heard on a commercial hip-hop record in years.
But he still can’t totally suppress those outbursts, which means that Graduation, like its predecessors, is disarming, exasperating, and entertaining in about equal measure. There are the fits of pique: “You should be honored by my lateness / The fact that I would even show up to this fake shit!” he explodes impatiently on “Stronger.” There’s the obsessive, defensive self-assessment; on “The Glory,” he devotes about eight lines of a verse analyzing his decision to wear a lavender tuxedo to the Grammys last year. Several million albums into a multi-platinum career, and he’s still justifying his decision to drop out of school: “Scared of the future, complacent career student / Some people graduate but be still stupid,” he rhymes on “Good Morning.”
And yet, just when his massive inferiority complex threatens to suffocate the atmosphere, he drops “Everything I Am.” On it, Kanye ruefully surveys the consequences of his inability to keep his mouth shut: “So say goodbye to the NAACP Awards / Goodbye to the India.Arie award / They’d rather give me the ‘N***a, Please’ award.” There’s something endearing about him admitting “I’ll never be as laid back as this beat is,” especially when the beat in question is such a beautiful piece of soul-rap, with a scratched hook from DJ Premier. He also shows that he hasn’t completely forgotten about the outside world: “Just last year Chicago had over six hundred caskets / Man, killing’s some wack shit,” he rhymes, before adding sarcastically, “Oh I forgot, except for when n***as is rappin.” It’s as dogmatic as he cares to get, but it also works.
The only disappointment about Graduation is the continued narrow lyrical focus. When West showed up in 2003, he seemed wry, observant, and empathetic enough to tell any story: three albums into his career, it has become clear he can only obsessively reiterate his own, which has not changed much over the course of three albums. The point is driven home by “Homecoming”—a song also found on the advance copy of The College Dropout, known at that time as "Home"—which features a big, stadium-ready beat and a hook from Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Over this backdrop, Kanye rhymes about his guilt over leaving Chicago to pursue stardom. That the song fits in so well lyrically with the rest of Graduation demonstrates starkly that West hasn’t traveled very far from his defining moment. In some ways, he is still reliving it. Only the production values have changed.
Oh, but he will definitely outsell Curtis.