Back before the social media era, Kanye West and 50 Cent pulled off a viral album rollout that tangibly shifted the hip-hop landscape. 50 wagered that if West’s Graduation outsold his Curtis on their shared debut week, he would retire from rapping. The competition made sense: both Kanye and 50’s sophomore efforts were well-received and took a more maximalist approach at what respectively made their first albums go down as classics. People were curious to hear what each rapper’s third commercial effort would sound like. Though at the end of the day it was a mere marketing ploy by two artists represented by the same label, the cultural implications of this face-off have since been proven. People didn’t want “gangsta rap” anymore, they wanted whatever new sound Kanye West was ready to dish out. Though 50 didn’t formally retire from rap, the sales and reception of Graduation as compared to Curtis essentially dethroned him as one of rap’s kings while turning West into a pop star.
If you’re the sort of listener to dismiss Kanye’s more recent efforts, Graduation may actually be the amalgamation of all that you love about the passionate and hyper-focused artist that is Kanye West. However, despite it containing a handful of his biggest and best songs, many have argued it to be one of the lesser albums in his catalogue. Some of this can probably be attributed to a “middle child” syndrome of sorts: it’s not the classic debut (The College Dropout) or the triumphant comeback album (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), nor is it the influential genre-bender (808s & Heartbreak) or the experimental critical darling (Yeezus).
The fact that a record with songs like “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights” is considered to be the worst album in his catalogue is a testament to the strength of his discography in and of itself (side note: I would hazard a guess that the average person can’t name a song from Curtis). Boasting a mix of soul samples and electropop, Gradation is a collection of futuristic stadium-ready anthems. Though Late Registration‘s orchestral live instrumentation was a natural step forward from The College Dropout‘s dusty chipmunk soul, Kanye’s work with the likes of Daft Punk and T-Pain was the first indication of more experimental turns to come. Even though West had the names of his education-themed albums picked out back during The College Dropout days, it’s hard to imagine an album such as this one existing under any other moniker.
Graduation exists as a transitionary period not only musically, but in terms of Kanye’s celebrity and personal life. It arrived two months before Donda West’s tragic death and a little over six before his breakup with then-fiancé Alexis Phifer. Within a year of “Stronger” propelling West beyond “famous rapper” to “legitimate superstar” (“Gold Digger” might have been a smash hit, but it didn’t inspire a generation of high schoolers to start wearing shutter shades), his larger-than-life persona had begun to crumble.
People often characterize 808s & Heartbreak as Kanye’s most influential contribution to hip-hop, and though you would be hard-pressed to argue otherwise, 808s would not exist without Graduation. While 808s & Heartbreak is Kanye’s most important album for rap, Graduation is Kanye’s most important album for Kanye. It marked a turn toward electronic music that would become widespread in both his music and hip-hop in general over the next decade. Before the personal turmoil that sparked his later experimentation, Kanye had already made it clear that he wasn’t an artist that would stay in his lane, and Graduation taught him that he could be both the hit-maker and the aggressive innovator. It showed him that he could follow up an album that featured “Clique” and “Mercy” with one that boasted “Blood on the Leaves” and “New Slaves.”
That Lil Wayne’s verse on “Barry Bonds” contains the bars “I’m all about my Franklins, Lincolns and Reagans/Whenever they make them, I shall hayve them/Oops I mean have them” and is still considered some of his laziest work during his prolific mid-2000s run encapsulates Graduation as a whole. The album that saw “Gold Digger” transition to “Stronger” and where Kanye out-rapped Lil Wayne at the height of his career is somehow the redheaded stepchild of his discography.
People tend to characterize Graduation as “happy,” and while that isn’t necessarily wrong, it also paints a singular picture of an album that’s much more complex than that. Graduation isn’t the album you put on after a breakup, but it’s the one you listen to a few weeks later once the healing process begins. It’s a testament to the good and the bad, reminding you that the heights you previously sought to achieve are still within your grasp.