Graduation is that “October Song” masterpiece: a piece of art that needs no external interpretation because it is complete in and of itself. At the most superficial and benign level, Kanye is Alec Trebeck and Graduation is Jeopardy: a series of answers engaging you to question. It is a fact that when immersed in the surreal, people’s ability to make sense of the world around them is increased. The fragmented fantastical enhances our ability to connect themes and build structure — when given fantasy we are best equipped to perceive reality. Thus is Kanye’s Graduation. An artist of West’s caliber is beyond “this world;” his ability to connect words, ideas, art forms, the abstract and concrete is unreal. Nowhere is this more present than in his masterful encapsulation of modern life – above and below: Graduation.
This is unforgettable because it is legendary, literally. Twelve tracks from Good Morning to Homecoming — from Drunk and Hot Girls to The Glory — illustrate the tale of how Kanye “Devil wears Prada/Adam Eve wear nada/I’m in between but way more fresher” West became a pop demigod; twelve great labours from the Nemean Lion to capturing Ceberus — from slaying Hydra to stealing Hesperides’ apples — illustrate the tale of how demigod Hercules became a mythological icon: epic. Shall we?
Pretense: As this is a complete masterpiece, any review would be unraveling that perfect tapestry. West made sense of it all; inevitably, the following will likely do the opposite.
The Sound: Graduation is neo-retro-purple-electro-pop-soul – like its cover. It is a compilation of classic and contemporary, acoustic and synthetic, of hip-hop, gospel, r&b, electronic, blues, and rap. It can do this because it is Pop, it does this best because Kanye is Pop.
The Story: The story is everything – the sound and the so what – so let’s go. Just as it is not what you look at but what you see, this isn’t about what you’re listening to, but what you hear. People can listen to Graduation all day, but when one goes into subjective “listening” mode they often miss the basics. Graduation is as much about the text as it is about the subtext, what Ye gives the listener is often very different from what they get – for better and worse. That said:
Good Morning is an orientation as much as it is a Graduation. The lyrics introduce the album brilliantly. There is the hybrid sound of synth and acoustic, as someone who is fresh from the academic domain: full of book knowledge, taking on the world open to everything, no particular focus except the ever elusive “success.” “Good morning/ Look at the valedictorian scared of the future/ While I hop in the Delorean/ Scared-to-face-the-world complacent career student/ Some people graduate, but we still stupid.” This track is the young, optimistic, sophomoric, naive graduate in the midst of a reality check. Good Morning to music, good morning to the real world — and its alter ego — good morning to life, good morning to the game, good morning to the false perception that you’ve made it, and the reality that you’ve only just begun.
Ye then takes us to Champion. This is as much a mantra to the man in the mirror, hyping the momentum to seize the world, as it is the retrospective realization that he reigned supreme before the fame. He was a made man before he was man-made. That pure perception, underground legend, Kanye at the core commanding “If you gon’ do it do it just like this.” The emphasis on sight and perception against reality is so strong here: “You don’t see just how wild the crowd is, just how fly my style is,” it’s about what the public doesn’t see: the basics, the champion right before them. They didn’t give him his props when he was at his pre-fame prime. “I don’t see why I need a stylist,” even then Ye knew his own style was hotter than the Desperate Housewives flashes. What we don’t see is what he does see, and vice versa; we didn’t see him until he stepped on stage, and it was then that he became what we falsely perceived him to be. Early words of wisdom from his father, “When you see clothes, close your eyelids,” because the clothes don’t make the man, and even the emperor’s floss is false; ignore the glitter when going for the gold. Champion takes Kanye from the man to the musician, past to present. He tells us exactly why he does what he intends to do: “When it feel like living’s harder than dyin’/ For me givin’ up’s way harder than tryin’.”
Ye was a champion well before the flashing lights, but it’s all about what is seen through “their eyes.” He was at his ultimate good, the only thing left was to become great. As is said: “The pursuit of goodness leads to greatness, but the pursuit of greatness leads to ruin. Pursue goodness and you will achieve great things.” It is almost a Siddhartha like tale of this icon being in a comfortable place, but seeing that bigger purpose and knowing that his life is not complete without a taste of the bitter and sweet. Whereas the future Buddha went to the slums, Ye ventured to the ugliest side of modern humanity: the Fame – that beautiful dirty rich world. “Lauryn Hill say her heart was in Zion/ I wish her heart still was in rhymin’/ ’cause who the kids gonna listen to? Huh?/ I guess me if it isn’t you.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of the upHill road ahead — that road through the trenches to true insane genius. Spoken like a Pop Martyr: “If not for the pleasure, least for the principle.” He is that sole beacon of soul for the kids to listen to. “They used to feel invisible/ Now they know they invincible:” from the transparent eye and the invisible hand to the invincible superhuman. How could this champion possibly get stronger? By defeating that which doesn’t kill him.
Strength resonates through most Pop martyrs, those artists who – like social martyrs give their lives for society’s souls – give their lives for art’s sake and society’s entertainment and what connects the strength with the martyrdom is the pursuit of ultimate strength through living every day as if it were a battle — with demons internal and external. Kanye tests his invincibility by taking on the Fame Monster, and by becoming that very beast. The sound is the story, from a hybrid acoustic/synthetic sound we veer into heavier synth, sheer industrial electronic. From acoustic to synth West is building an artificial, bionic, superhuman archetype. The champion was good, but the superhuman is stronger. The mantra: work it, make it, do it, makes us harder, better, faster, stronger. As we’ll soon learn though: when you try hard, is when you die hard. He’s not sure if people still make real shit anymore. Instead of being the realest out there, tell everybody that you know to bow in the presence of bionic greatness. Enter: life. Stronger is the first conversation with a “she.” If Graduation is nothing else it is Kanye’s homage to the lady in his life – ever transitory, but always present somehow – his greatest love and pursuit is of life itself. She gives life, and she is life. In “Stronger,” she’s the “black Kate Moss tonight”: that ideal, that unattainable, that unreal, that epitome of the other half and how they live. “Let’s get lost tonight/ You could be my black Kate Moss tonight/ Play secretary, I’m the boss tonight.”
“I Wonder… if you know what it means to find your dreams?” As this is a flipped distortion of modern reality blurred with the fantastical, Ye’s dreams are sheepskin veiling their nightmarish nature. This is the champion stepping back before stepping up to the stage. His vividly clear views of perception versus reality, the dichotomy, and true nature of both begin to blur together as he ventures deeper into this bright new world. To be great is to be misunderstood, welcome: greatness “You say I think I’m never wrong/ You know what, maybe you’re right, aight” and in the midst we lost sight of the good. “Do you even remember what the issue is?” There is the idealized life of “fame” that he’s been waiting his whole life for, but there’s the echoing second thought cautioning against where he’s headed. “You can still be who you wish you is/ It ain’t happen yet/ And that’s what the intuition is/ When you hop back in the car/ Drive back to the crib.” His intuition is to head back home, but like a fourth wise man, he listened to the psychic and pursued the lights. “And I’m back on my grind/ A psychic read my lifeline/ Told me in my lifetime/ My name would help light up the Chicago skyline.” His destiny was fame, for better or worse – and God-given, “Heaven’ll watch, God calling from the hot lines/ Why he keep giving me hot lines.” That lady returns. “How many ladies in the house/ On that independent shit/ Trade it all for a husband and some kids/ You ever wonder what it all really mean/ You ever wonder if you’ll find your dreams.” “I Wonder” has her wondering what her life would be if she didn’t settle for domesticity, and Ye takes her by the hand to venture to the bright lights beyond.
Ah the Good Life, even when Kanye T-Pain’s too much, he is brilliant. The Good Life is the good girl and she’s a state of mind, manifested in the material. It’s his break between the man and the money, the fundamentals or the flash. The battle between good and great continues: “The good life, let’s go on a living’ spree/ Shit they say the best things in life are free,” versus “50 told me go ‘head switch the style up/ And if they hate then let ’em hate/ And watch the money pile up, the good life.” 50 would give Ye that advice, 50’s Top 10 MC status was built on his business savvy, the hustle sans flow — man-made Ye, the money vice is his kryptonite.
Can’t Tell Me Nothing: epic standout in the midst of an completely epic album. The single speaks for itself, but: from the best things in the life being free to hush money. The Golden Rule is that he who has the gold makes the rules. From the good life to the great life, money corrupts and fame kills. So the martyr speaks: “Let up the suicide doors/ This is my life homey, you decide yours/ I know that Jesus died for us,” Lambo Gallardo? Porsche Boxter? Nah, the cash got Ye the keys to his dream whip: try the Pandora Box, open up the suicide doors and step into the fast life of good, great, and evil. “So I parallel double parked that motherfucker sideways,” life is his lady, and that car fucked it. “Old folks talking about back in my day, But homey this is my day/ You know I already graduated, And you can live through anything if magic made it.” He made it, but he has miles to go before he sleeps. “Life is a, uh, depending how you dress her,” dress her up, dress her down, life is what you make of it, reality is only what you perceive it to be. “So if the devil wear Prada/ Adam Eve wear nada/ I’m in between, but way more fresher,” halfway between the devil and original man is Ye the new “way more fresher” human archetype — with way less effort, “’cause when you try hard, That’s when you die hard.” Born good from the womb, now he’s halfway to greatness: “Good like God with an extra ‘o’.”
“Life of a Don, lights keep glowin’/ Ha Ha Hum, here’s another hit, Barry Bonds,” enter: greatness, featuring the greatest rapper alive: Weezy F. “They said he’s going crazy and we seen this before/ But I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go.” This is Ye becoming the beast, where he began a champion making his own name; now he’s Barry Bonds, living hit to hit off that most addictive of drugs: fame.
Drunk and Hot Girls finds Ye in pursuit of a dragon, and he’s dressed his lady life in stilettos, a miniskirt, and a halter. Every line is like a red light he rides through, “Stop dancing with your girlfriend and come dance with me/ Stop talking about your boyfriend since he is not me/ Stop running up my tab cause these drinks is not free.” This track is so universal and yet so isolated. The heavy bass drops for the bridge that sounds like a requiem: “Lot of dangerous necessity that people seek without regard/ To where they are, the human heart is curious above all things/ laa the lights are low, your eyes are bright/ the music, makes it sweet delight/ It’s out inside, I’m feeling right/ your dress is tight, Oh, I want you right now,” sounds like. “You only live once do whatever you like/ I thought I’d be with you for only one night/ Now I’m with this girl for the rest of my life.” It isn’t an invitation as much as it is a negation of hedonism. Know that you can do whatever you like with your life, but whatever it is you do with her remains. Only living once, Ye’s doing what he likes, in the midst of a love lost in the flashing lights.
And I Wonder what happened to that lady who broke free from the cult of domesticity, “she don’t believe in shootin’ stars, but she believe in shoes & cars.” The blurred reality peaks as Ye’s life becomes no more than an empty indulgence in the now, where he believed in the metaphysical, now there is nothing more than the material that matters in life. This life, this fame, exists only in the “mod” and where the good champion saw immortality, the great Barry Bonds now sees mortality. He exists only for the fickle public and their flashing lights. This is the peak of his brush/battle with fame: Ye traveled the world over in search of greatness, after that trek he had nothing but a handful of glitter when all he had to do was go West, dig deep, and get the gold. “Feeling like Katrina with no FEMA/ Like Martin with no Gina,” Kanye speaks from the place of the black man, both universal and individual: all needed FEMA, and all knew Martin needed Gina. Among the most poignant lines though is “In my past, you on the other side of the glass/ Of my memory’s museum/ I’m just saying, Hey Mona Lisa/ come home you know you can’t Rome without Caesar.” Here the good life is but a memory – to be viewed from the other side of the TV, mama. His past holds his greatest masterpiece. Should that good life – the good wife – come back, she’ll return to a dictator, an icon, an emperor reigning over his dying empire. He’s the greatest, the last, the legend, the fall.
From shining Caesar to everyman, our champion returns to find that everything he’s not makes him everything he am <– I like rhyming. The rise and fall, the ebb and flow, the fame and the familiar, it is all so cyclical. What makes a champion is the ability to ride the cycle and lose without losing the lesson. This is Ye looking back, in retrospect, from six feet above ground; the sound is a stark contrast to the heavy electro-synth, stripped down like a king without a crown. All for the best, as his head is no longer heavy, he can look up and see clearly just how far he’s come, “I never could see why people’ll reach a fake-ass facade they couldn’t keep up.” Again it is the emphasis of perception versus reality, of character versus reputation, how everything he isn’t, everything he tries but still fails to be after the fame, is what makes him good. “my 15 seconds up, but I got more to say/ That’s enough Mr. West, please no more today,” he sought the fame so he wouldn’t be invisible and by the time he got the spotlight and a clear mic the fame was gone — the game is over but the player remains, more glorious than ever.
The Glory is authentic bombastic soul. The Glory is good. “While you all was in limbo I raised the bar up/ I touched on everything,” when we weren’t looking he covered the bases. When he was invisible he set the level, now invincible the haters cries fall on deaf ears as he’s on the next level. He was who they wanted before they wanted it. The Glory is Ye paying posthumous homage like everyone else. “How I suppose to stand out when everyone get dressed up/ Yeah that tuxedo might have been a little guido/ But with my ego, I can stand there with a speedo/ And still be looked at like a fucking hero,” as the champion’s father warned to close his eyelids in sight of clothes, so Ye at his most heroic is stripped of the white guido tuxedo facade to reign supreme. While the clothes may make the common man, Kanye is King. Touching back down full circle to reality, past the celebrity sphere, he reminds us: “When you meet me in person what does it feel like/ I know, I know I look better in real life.” He did it for The Glory; half-god Hercules took on the twelve great labors, halfway-being between Lucifer and original man Ye took on the Fame Monster: both got The Glory and the story to back it up. Timeless as ever, Graduation reflects a Shakespearean tale in many ways. The only difference between a Shakespearean comedy and tragedy: the former ends in a wedding while the latter ends in a funeral. “Married to the game rock a chain stead of a wedding ring,” the game is the fame so this comedy is bound to end in tragedy seeing as he has to come back home to his wife, his life.
“I met this girl when I was three years old/And what I loved most she had so much soul” so she returns – the Homecoming. Kanye loves his music, his art is his life; just as life is his canvas, his original landscape was Chicago. “Now everybody got the game figured out all wrong/ I guess you never know what you got till its gone/ I guess this is why I’m here and I can’t come back home.”
Graduation is universal. It tells a story perfectly illustrating modern life and culture. It is individual and inclusive. It is literal and abstract. It is fantasy and reality. It is celebrity and citizen. It is mental and physical. It is the fluff and the fundamental. It is tragedy and comedy. It is right now and it is eternally timeless. It is a foreshadow and a reminiscence. It is orientation as much as it is graduation. It is legendary and it is unforgettable.