“People talk so much shit about me at barber shops, they forget to get they hair cut,” raps Kanye West on “Everything I Am”. I can’t say I ever forgot to get my hair cut, even if you’d think so judging by the mop I was rocking in my teenage years. But I definitely talked shit about Kanye. Everyone did. He’s Kanye West, a walking meme capable of igniting a social media firestorm just by opening his mouth. But my friends at uni raved about him, so one night I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about. I went to bed, put my headphones on and started listening to 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I thought I’d give him two, maybe three songs to impress me before I nodded off and forgot all about him.
After three songs, I was hooked. After six, I was mesmerised. By the end of the album, I was almost in tears. Even through all my preconceptions about Kanye West I could see that Fantasy is an honest-to-God masterpiece. I’ve been going around preaching the good word ever since but finding mostly deaf ears – there are those who think Kanye is an idiot and those who’ve listened to his music.
The downside of discovering Kanye via Fantasy was that I loved it so much that I approached his other albums looking for more of the same. I was disappointed to find that he’s never made an album like it before or since, and it took me years to learn to appreciate the other ones on their own merits. I started with Yeezus, which I now love, then The Life of Pablo, which I now like. But I’d never ventured to the stuff Kanye made before he made Fantasy, before he needed to make Fantasy – before he made an ass of himself at the VMA’s and became a global laughingstock. From the few tracks I’d heard, there was less urgency in his music before that, less of a need to prove himself.
But that’s not to say it wasn’t great stuff. Graduation is a solid album. Kanye, it turns out, had plenty to say before 2010 and plenty of “haters” to say it to. You’ll find recurring themes like fame and the money it’s brought him – on “Drunk and Hot Girls” and “Flashing Lights” Kanye seems to both celebrate and lament the materialism and excess that go hand-in-hand with celebrity, and you’re never quite sure which one it is. He has bite, too. One thing about Kanye is that he always seems to feel the need to defend himself. The chorus to “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” sounds like he sang it with two middle fingers in the air, even if during the verses he rues the missteps he’s made as a celebrity. “Everything I Am”, with its mid-tempo rhythm and pleasing piano backing, sounds more like Kanye reassessing his situation after a good sleep. He’s also disarmingly introspective. A standout track is album closer “Big Brother”, in which Kanye painstakingly talks us through his not-quite-perfect relationship with his friend, mentor and rival Jay-Z.
What’s always struck me about Kanye West is that he doesn’t just rap over a backing beat. He constructs songs. There’s some wonderful stuff on this album besides the rapping. The blend of synth and strings on “Flashing Lights” works way better than I’d have expected. I listened to the instrumental track of “Everything I Am” on repeat while writing this review because it’s so chilled. I’m only sorry it took me so long to discover this album, and yet, at the risk of sounding corny, it came to me at just the right time. I needed to get out of the habit of holding all Kanye’s other albums up against My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and while that one is still my favourite of his, I highly recommend Graduation.