It’s no secret that Kanye West’s head has grown to the size of a small planet. Between weathering a flurry of strange public foibles and jumping headfirst onto the neon-bright-style train, he’s grown from the little-producer-that-could into a supernova-size celebrity, with the ego to match. Pretty much every aspect of his third full-length, Graduation, reflects this bigger and grander Kanye, far removed from the one that many fell in love with on his highly anticipated 2004 debut, The College Dropout, but certainly no less talented.
Bursting with operatic string sections and much-talked-about synths, the production on Graduation is truly remarkable. Even on the melancholy numbers, such as the piano-led “I Wonder,” West turns it out with a crashing beat and winding keys. The samples throughout are used wonderfully, particularly when he flips Steely Dan (yes, Steely Dan) on “Champion” and Michael Jackson on “Good Life.” (The much hyped Daft Punk sample at the heart of the single “Stronger,” released this summer, is probably the best part of the song.) Still, West never settles for samples alone, and there’s a palpable sense of grandeur on each tune, with the sound of anything from cheering crowds to hard-rock guitars supplementing the beats and synths. It’s clear that West has one thing in mind, and he reveals it on “Big Brother,” his ode to Jay-Z: “Stadium status.”
But behind the bravado on Graduation — indeed, on “Big Brother” itself — West often gets introspective about his own fame and the attitude that has grown out of it. One minute he admits “My head’s so big you can’t sit behind me,” and the next complains that “They say I talk with so much emphasis/ Ooh, they so sensitive.” He even comments on something as superficial as his poor choice of outfit at the Grammy Awards: “That tux might’ve made me look a little guido/ But with my ego I could stand there in a Speedo and still look like a fuckin’ hero.”
West’s writing and delivery has improved since The College Dropout, though they’re still marked by both a cleverness and a clumsiness. He spends less time hiding behind guest emcees here than he has in the past, and the words behind his own flow reflect a changed man. Gone is most of the humor of the past. It still shows up in songs such as “Drunk and Hot Girls,” featuring Mos Def, but there is not a single comic interlude, and sadly there is no “Workout Plan” on Graduation. The upside is that we get an album that’s lean and without filler.
If the album’s title suggests a conceptual follow-up to his two previous albums, that never really comes to the fore. What is present in all three albums is that ego of his, again on display in every track on the album. But Graduation shows again that if anyone has the right to brag this much, Kanye West is one of the few.