In 2007, Kanye West finds himself in a strange place. He rose to fame back in the early noughties as one of hip-hop’s most successful production auteurs. Following a car accident that almost cost him his life, he picked up the microphone and quickly proved himself as a personality with interests far outside typical rap concerns, jamming with Chris Martin and Fall Out Boy, campaigning against homophobia, and warming up the crowds for U2. Ghetto sounds this ain’t.
If Kanye’s first couple of albums saw him still perfecting his sound, tweaking and calibrating his beats, listening to ‘Graduation’ makes you wonder if all that talk of being an “innovator” has gone to his head. You’ve doubtless heard Number One single ‘Stronger’ already. Built on the chromed chassis of Daft Punk’s 2001 single ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’, it’s more or less a straight rip from the robots, practically P Diddy’s ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ in its brazen theft. Oh, OK, it works still, because it’s a great song – a silicone-hearted vocoder serenade, beefed up with hoover-like synthesisers. But this isn’t the sound of someone breaching new frontiers in the studio – it’s someone doing karaoke without knowing the words.
As well as Daft Punk, Kanye claims he’s been listening to Thom Yorke’s ‘The Eraser’, and you can hear these influences – synthesisers, electronic, but soulful – all over this record. The opening ‘I Wonder’ sees Kanye announcing “I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life” over zig-zagging keyboards and crunchy Game Boy beats. Similar is the following ‘Good Morning’ although it features keyboards so new-age hippy you half expect Enya to start warbling. And then comes the Chris Martin track, ‘Homecoming’. Written in an impromptu jam at Abbey Road, it sees Chris confined to the chorus, emoting at his most lip-quiveringly mournful, as Kanye tells the story of a childhood sweetheart that slipped through his fingers. Like everything so far, it’s solid; but didn’t Kanye’s boss, Jay-Z do this already on the track ‘Beach Chair’ last year?
Luckily, ‘Graduation’ finds its legs around the mid-section. ‘Champion’ plays it punchy and straightforward, voices chorusing “This is the story of a champion/ Tell me what it takes to be No 1” as Kanye announces “Used to feel invisible/Now I feel invincible”. Then there’s ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’. You’ve probably seen the video to this one on Kanye’s website – it’s the one where Will ‘Bonnie Prince Billy’ Oldham and US comedian Zach Galifianakis play bramble-bearded American white trash, flexing and posing like rappers but with pimped-out rides and gyrating strippers replaced by steaming tractors and corn-fed farm girls. Even without Galifianakis lip-synching “How you stay faithful to a room full of hoes?” as he gestures around a field of Friesian cows, it’s pretty special, a rare sort of track that brings little but chest-pumped arrogance and shameless cash-flashing to the table, but doesn’t leave you zoning out somewhere around the end of the third chorus.
Then there’s perhaps the record’s most luxurious, opulent-feeling production, ‘Good Life’. Built on a snippet from Michael Jackson’s ‘PYT (Pretty Young Thing)’, it’ll probably be the biggest hit off of ‘Graduation’ – the one point you feel like hip-hop’s King Midas truly just sat down and did what he does best.
And then? Well, the rest ain’t great. Kanye makes a big deal about being a conscious rapper, but ‘Drunk And Hot Girls’, a boozy, OutKast-style number pitched to the rhythm of an Eastern European drinking song pushes rap back into the dark ages. ‘Everything I Am’ recovers slightly, starting on a war tack, but slowly softening, compassion slipping through the seams (“Last year Chicago had 600 caskets/Man, killing’s some wack shit”). But ‘Goodnight’ is a plain mess – Kanye’s sung vocals are sloppy, and the zippy, 8-bit beats sound clunky against the grander, classical piano. Finally, ‘The Glory’, Kanye threatening to loop out the chorus into eternity might work as the peak of a classic album, but here it feels like a lap of honour undeserved.
What’s wrong with Kanye? In trying to branch out, diversify, rule the world, he’s left looking like a trend chaser. Hear him rap “You can get lost tonight/Be my black Kate Moss tonight” and you half imagine him leafing through a copy of Heat and wondering how he’d look with a Pete Doherty trilby. Despite its five or six great tracks, ‘Graduation’ feels more and more like the work of a follower, not a leader. He’s like the A-grade student that slacked all the way through college, but woke up one morning to realise his dissertation was due in and just copied it off the French exchange student down the hall. ‘Graduation’ isn’t a bad album – he’s got away with it. But sometimes you feel hip-hop’s saviour is taking the maxim “genius steals” rather too literally.