Kanye West

Go ‘head Switch the Style Up: Graduation Turns 10

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.

New Artist Spotlight: c.robin Talks SoundCloud & Chaldean Heritage

Up until about a year ago, “SoundCloud rapper” was almost solely used as a disparaging term to discredit up-and-coming rappers. It wasn’t until artists like Lil Peep, Xxxtentacion, and Lil Pump began to blow up off of the service that people started to see it as a viable platform for talented artists to find their niche. Despite the wide variety of sounds and genres that exist on SoundCloud, there’s still a certain type of music associated with the scene and it can be tough to shed the preconceived notions of what a “SoundCloud rapper” sounds like no matter how strikingly different your music might be. 18-year-old Detroit-Metro artist c.robin says the only similarity between his music and an archetypal “SoundCloud rapper” is the use of autotune: “But even with that, I plan to go onto releasing complete albums without autotune as I mature as an artist,” he says.

Robin recently released his second self-produced mixtape Order 66 on the service (as well as a shortened EP version on Apple Music due to sample-clearance issues), a follow-up to 2016’s Goofy Tunes. Listening to the project, you can tell Robin is someone who draws from an amalgam of artists, both contemporary and classic. He mentions Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell, Rick James, Jai Paul, Frank Ocean, and Kanye West by name when talking about favorites and influences, and it shows: album standout “Star” samples Gil Scott Heron & Brian Jackson’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” and sounds almost like Ocean and West met over a Madlib beat. Likewise, “Hope They Don’t See the Smoke” has an almost Yeezus-esque breakdown. It all feels familiar yet forward-thinking. Robin credits his eclectic influences to his parents for raising him on Michael Jackson and his two older sisters for putting him on to “everything else.” 

“In elementary school I developed a hardcore fandom for Michael Jackson,” Robin said. “I’d watch his live performances and memorize the choreography then perform them to my mom.” 

Robin’s parents emigrated from Iraq in 1982, “the year Thriller came out,” he said. His family is Chaldean, an ethnicity with a population of about two million worldwide who are direct descendants of the people of Mesopotamia. Robin has a lighter skin tone and looks somewhat racially ambiguous, a fact that has made him feel like the odd one out at times, saying he’s “too white for middle easterners and too middle eastern for white people.” 

“White high school baseball players used to make fun of me for chewing sunflower seeds in class cuz I never played baseball and to them that’s a baseball thing,” he said. “They didn’t understand that I was not raised in the same culture as them. Sunflower seeds are a Chaldean household necessity at all times…I don’t play no fucking baseball!”

Prior to rapping, Robin began pursuing music as a producer, where he would listen to 9th Wonder and Kanye West instrumentals on YouTube for hours for inspiration.

“For years I was posting soul-sampled beats on YouTube,” he said. “I started recording my vocals on top of tracks because I wanted to create an album like The Wonder Years by 9th Wonder where it’s my production for the entire project but various artists rapping and singing on each track. I got a microphone so I could record reference takes to send to the artists I was planning to feature.”

In this way, Robin began rapping almost by accident, saying he originally created songs like “Dirty Lemonade” as a joke to listen to when hanging out and smoking with friends. It wasn’t until he began receiving positive reception on rap forums that he started to take music more seriously, though his racial identity also came into play with regard to how people received his music. “When I first started posting songs on the internet I saw a lot of people getting turned off cuz I was a ‘white rapper,'” he said. “I’m sure lots of these kids would feel awkward meeting me and realizing how much ‘whiter’ their personality is than me…I’m a first generation american.”

White rappers and SoundCloud success stories are far from anomalies in 2017, but preconceived notions about what a “white SoundCloud rapper” sounds like affects people’s perceptions of any music on the service, not just Robin’s. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t actually white: unfortunately, to an outsider, what you look like can matter more than what you actually are. Thankfully, in the case of c.robin, all it takes is one listen of the music itself to dispel notions like these, because Order 66 takes leaps and bounds away from the archetypal “SoundCloud Rap” album he crafted with Goofy Tunes. And despite Order 66 racking up over 100 thousand total plays on the service in just a few short weeks, Robin has his own qualms with the scene in general:

“I just think everyone’s become too comfortable creating the same song. Everyone is stuck trying to make the next catchy auotune banger that goes on Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat story. No one is focusing on chord progressions, no one is focusing on developing their natural vocal abilities, no one is focusing on maturing as a songwriter. For a while after Goofy Tunes, I was stuck trying to do the same thing as everyone else. I think it’s a problem that’s holding back a lot of talent in young artists. Everyone is trying to appeal to everyone, they’re forgetting to put any personality in the music. Personality is good, making music that isn’t going to be liked by everyone is good. Goofy Tunes was like me serving the people, Order 66 is like—okay I served you all, now you actually have to listen to what I like. It took me eight months to release the first single from Order 66 after Goofy Tunes, I spent a lot of time maturing as an artist in that time.”

When asked about the title Order 66, Robin confirmed that it was reference to Star Wars but wants to “keep the reasoning for that title a secret…for now.” In the meantime, you can stream Order 66 on SoundCloud or Apple Music below:

Review: Big Sean – Dark Sky Paradise

Beyond artists like Pusha T & Q-Tip, who had already established their careers prior to signing to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, it’s sometimes hard to understand why West signs who he signs. For as focused as he is at fine-tuning each-and-every aspect of each-and-every album he has a hand in, you wouldn’t think seemingly one-trick ponies like Big Sean or Kid Cudi would be in his wheelhouse.

On a lot of levels, Big Sean seems like a rapper who would be more at home among some of the lesser-Young Money artists. While he has a knack for putting out catchy singles and is likely the most-featured guest artist this side of 2 Chainz, he’s never really been the type of rapper you would think could hold your attention for a full-length album. However, considering Big Sean first made contact with West in 2005 and was subsequently signed in 2007 after being brought along the road during the recording of Graduation (yes, you read correctly: Big Sean has been on G.O.O.D. since “Stronger” and before Kid Cudi), it’s clear West saw untapped potential in him.

Unlike Cudder, who established his signature sound and quickly stumbled into semi-obscurity through awful side-projects, Sean seems to be only recently figuring out how to best utilize his style in constructing an album. Though he’s been in the mainstream for nearly five years at this point, we have to remember that he’s still young: at 26-years old, Sean is around the same age that Jay Z, Eminem, and Yeezy himself were when they put out their debut albums (big ups to Nas for creating the quintessential rap album before he was old enough to vote, but not everyone crafts their Illmatic at age 17).

While the general subject matter is fairly similar to that of Big Sean’s previous two albums (lacking fame and attention from women; gaining aforementioned fame and attention from women), Dark Sky Paradise feels like his first legitimate attempt at constructing a singular piece of work, rather than just a collection of songs. Even the bonus tracks fit the overall mood and aesthetic of the album—“Platinum and Wood” ends with the same quote that the album begins with, (“Sean, it’s good to be home, isn’t it?”) implying they’re possibly intended to be a sort of epilogue. As questionable of a title as Dark Sky Paradise might be (let’s not forget that Kanye West’s magnum opus is called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), the name really does ring true to the album’s atmosphere. For as much fun as Sean is having throughout, it’s evident that he’s been wrestling with a lot of stress. While his demons of fame might not be of the same caliber as Eminem or Kanye or even Drake, Dark Sky Paradise marks the first time in Big Sean’s discography where he’s successful in making you give a damn about what he has to say. Perhaps the most poignant description of Sean’s state of mind throughout the album comes early on in the record, in the opening lines of “Blessed”:

“Fuck a vacay I feel better at work”

Regardless of what you think of Big Sean’s music, he’s an undeniably hard worker, which is likely something that West respected about him in the first place. It’s easy to tell that Sean put a lot of thought into every facet of Dark Sky Paradise, including improving upon aspects that he usually isn’t reveled for, such as his technical ability. From the pyrotechnics of the second verse of “Paradise” to his best E-40 imitation on “I Don’t Fuck With You,” he demonstrates a previously-absent versatility in the flow department. Considering Sean’s track record of dropping verses that sound like they were recorded over the wrong instrumental, his success in this regard is a welcomed addition.

Dark Sky Paradise is feature-heavy, but it’s much more Sir Lucious Left Foot than it is Jesus Piece. That is, for the most part, the featured guests serve an actual purpose in accentuating the song and crafting the album’s overall sound, rather than just taking up space and putting the quality of the album on other people’s shoulders. Features seem to be picked carefully, likely in an effort to keep the album from becoming too bloated. Considering how bogged down with filler Hall of Fame was, it seems Sean went to great lengths in keeping the album as succinct as possible.

Unfortunately, a few misfires keep the record from reaching its full potential. The Chris Brown & Ty Dolla $ign-assisted “Play No Games” (why anyone continues to work with a human as deplorable as Chris Brown remains a mystery) serves as an extraneous epilogue to “I Don’t Fuck With You,” where Sean takes notes from Drake and raps about how he always responds to his girl’s texts. The juxtaposition with “I Don’t Fuck With You” might have worked if the song was any good, but as it stands, its only purpose is to interrupt the flow of the mostly great four track run that opens the album. In a similar fashion, “Win Some, Lose Some” unnecessarily shoves the album’s thesis in the listener’s face, which is especially insulting considering the album’s narrow subject matter.

Despite two mediocre songs crippling the flow of an otherwise enjoyable album, Dark Sky Paradise is Big Sean’s most competent and concise release to date. Though it may not be remembered as a classic, here’s to hoping it marks a turning point for the better in his career. If the amount of sheer joy and confidence that radiates throughout the album’s outro is any indication, there’s a good chance that Sean will continue to impress.

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