Something crazy on my arm
I’m not entirely sure why I felt compelled to drop $9.99 plus tax on Graduation at Best Buy this morning. I’ve already downloaded the thing twice, in its clean and unclean forms. And there’s no golden ticket in the CD packaging, just a poster-sized version of the album’s garish, ugly cover-art and a booklet full of credit-information that I probably could’ve found on Wikipedia anyway. As far as I can tell, I bought the album so I could participate in the PR-driven bragging-rights cold-war between two self-aggrandizing millionaire asshole Universal Music Group employees, which probably isn’t a smart use of my money when my wedding is less than a month away and I need to hold onto every penny. Still, I don’t regret the purchase one iota, though I’d be hard-pressed to justify why exactly. Graduation isn’t even my favorite rap album of the year, but something about it keeps drawing me back in. I could’ve written entries about my ten favorite moments on Return of the Mac or Underground Kingz, two albums I like at least as much as Graduation, but for whatever reason I never did. And for whatever reason, I’m doing it right now for Graduation. Piecing this together, what really strikes me is that all these moments are tactile musical things, not punchlines or lyrical epiphanies. Kanye’s absolutely not a great rapper, but he’s great at piecing together these insidious little musical scraps that work their way into your bloodstream without necessarily letting you understand what’s happening. Here we go:
1. “Big Brother,” 4:11-4:22. The music fades back on Kanye’s conflicted and occasionally passive-aggressive tribute to Jay-Z so he can half-eloquently, half-intuitively say why exactly he and the rest of us care about Jay in the first place. And what comes out is a disconnected parade of images, delivered in an awe-choked hush: “A idol in my eyes, god of the game / Heart of the city, Roc-A-Fella chain / Never be the same, never be another / Number-one Young Hov, also my big brother.” It’s the lyrical equivalent of Kanye cutting out magazine pictures of Jay and glue-sticking them to the front of his Trapper Keeper. “Big Brother” is my favorite song on Graduation by far; by taking the focus off Kanye and putting it on someone who Kanye wants to emulate but knows he can never equal, it humanizes all the shit-talking that came before it. And this one moment near the end where Kanye just lets loose with this iconic stuff humanizes all the shit-talk that came before it on this song. There’s a bit on “The Glory” where Kanye talks about himself in a similar torrent of images: “The glory, the story, the chain, the Polo / The night, the grind, the empty bottles of No-Doz,” and it’s great. But I like it even better when Kanye lets up on the chest-puffed ambition and lets us know what he knows he’ll never become. It’s euphoric and sad at the same time, and it’s also proof-positive that Kanye feels the same way about Jay that the rest of us do. Graduation is the first Kanye album with no Jay verse, but the ghost of his presence here accomplishes the same thing in a really interesting way.
2. “Drunk and Hot Girls,” 3:45-3:48. “Drunk and Hot Girls” is a really interesting song. Lyrically, it’s the most slight thing on the album: a halfassed rant about how annoying/alluring drunk chicks can be. Musically, it might be the most overblown thing on an overblown album: a fuzzed-out claustrophobic waltz with distended Middle-Eastern strings and tinkly pianos and keening backing vocals and a weirdly gorgeous epic sung bridge from Mos Def. And just after the bridge ends and the lugubrious drums kick in, Kanye finally abandons all the sputtering angst on the song and lets loose with a goofy-as-fuck one-liner: “Aaahdaadaadaadaadaa, that’s how the fuck you sound!” It doesn’t even rhymes with what he said immediately before, but it’s such an unhinged and funny and ridiculous line that the rest of the song immediately becomes a whole lot easier to take. Kanye has more pretensions than he knows what to do with, certainly (this song’s Can sample, for instance), but he’s always willing to beat everyone else to the punch and completely undercut himself.
3. “Stronger,” 4:05-5:11. Going through my $9.99 credit booklet, I see the names of a whole lot of other producers besides Kanye. DJ Toomp did the beat to “Big Brother” and coproduced a couple of other songs, Nottz did “Barry Bonds,” Jon Brion helped out on a few songs, DJ Premier did the scratching on “Everything I Am,” Timbaland did “additional drum programming” on “Stronger” and “The Good Life.” The name that pops up the most is Mike Dean, a longtime Scarface crony and Rap-A-Lot house-producer and one of Southern rap’s great unsung heroes, possibly because he looks more like a part-time Guitar Center employee than a rap producer. I don’t have Late Registration in front of me right now, but I’m pretty sure he did some work on “Drive Slow” as well. Dean is all over Graduation: mixing, recording, playing keyboards. And he co-produced, recorded and arranged the long outro to “Stronger,” which is where the album’s much-discussed house-music influence comes most clearly into focus. Kanye and Dean gradually layer up all the track’s synths and drums, dropping them out and suddenly bringing them back. It’s a rave trick, a crescendo that has a profound physical effect on a dance-floor, not something that rap producers try all that often. Given that Dean usually traffics in slow, organic Texas-rap bangers, it’s really exciting to hear that he has something like this in him.
4. “The Good Life,” 1:36-1:37. Friends of mine were touting “The Good Life” as the single of the year the day after a snippet of the track leaked, but it took me a while longer to warm to the song’s dizzy euphoria. What’s weird about that is that most of the things about the song that I first regarded as stumbling blocks are now the things that I love the best: T-Pain, the squeaking vocal sample, the general air of celebratory emptiness. The moment I’ve listed here is the part where the song drops out and a screwed up voice booms “ass than the models.” It really annoyed me at first because it’s generally not a good idea to drop the instruments out of a track on a line that isn’t necessarily a song’s best. And the “ass than the models” bit is fucking dumb by any measure, but that screwed-up moment is definitely the one that jumps out of the song first, and at this point I can’t imagine how the song would sound if Kanye just delivered that line straight. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does, maintaining the song’s momentum but adding an idiosyncratic hook that just serves to make the whole song a little bit more memorable. This guy knows what he’s doing.
5. “The Good Life,” 0:01-0:34. Graduation is an album full of great intros: the “La la la” on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” the cotton-candy synths on “Champion,” etc. “Good Morning” is my favorite because of the slow, assured way it pulls the entire album into focus: a grunt, a muted echoed-out drum-pattern, a washed-out electric piano, a floating vocal loop. It’s just as relaxed and comfortable as it is epic and purposeful, and it lets us know we’re in good hands from the first minute.
6. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” 1:12. I love that Kanye brought Young Jeezy into the studio just so he ad-lib, not letting him rap or anything. And I love that it totally works; that “ha-haaa” on the chorus just kills me. Jeezy’s better at ad-libbing than rapping anyway, and Kanye knows how to play to his collaborators’ strengths.
7. “Flashing Lights,” 0:32-0:42. Kanye’s clearly been spending a whole lot of time listening to FutureSex/LoveSounds, and he rips the strobing synths from “My Love” here just like Timbaland probably ripped them from Tietso or someone. And once again, they’re totally gorgeous and ethereal, a perfect musical equivalent to the song’s title.
8. “Champion,” 1:59-2:21. One thing that I wish would come back to rap: shameless reggae appropriations, like for instance Brand Nubian’s “Who Can Get Busy Like This Man.” Lil Wayne’s occasional forays into dancehall patois are a start, I guess, but he tries a bit too hard to ape the accent. But the fake-reggae bridge on “Champion” is a revelation, a lighter-than-air burst of joy on a song that didn’t really need it.
9. “Barry Bonds,” 0:23. Way more than any of the actual lyrics on this song, the moment on the chorus where Kanye clears his throat just drips with uber-confident entitlement and absolutely makes the hook work. I also love that Wayne does it after his verse. Kanye and Wayne should do an entire song of vocal tics and nothing else.
10. “Homecoming,” 2:29-2:43. This song is, of course, Kanye’s dedication to his hometown, and it probably doesn’t make sense for Chris Martin to be anywhere near it, let alone rhapsodizing about fireworks on Lake Michigan. But I think I read somewhere that Coldplay actually practices in Chicago, and a friend recently made the point that when Chris Martin comes to Chicago he probably spends the entire time locked away from the city; the only bit of local color he probably gets a chance to experience would have to be fireworks over Lake Michigan. Even if Martin is totally bulshitting, the moment is so left-field and counterintuitive and fascinating that it almost makes up for the part on the chorus where he sort of yodels.
Voice review: Greg Tate on Kanye West’s Graduation
Voice review: Robert Christgau on Kanye West’s Late Registration
Voice review: Hua Hsu on Kanye West’s College Dropout