By Max Bell
In the early 2000s, Kanye West actually was the visionary of his proclamation. Rap writ large was myopically divided between the “commercial” and the “conscious.” Rappers with major label funding popped bottles with models and owned fleets of foreign cars. In parks and parking lots, rappers traded ego atomizing punchlines and took mass transit home. No one bridged the gap.
Rocking pastel-hued polos and a Jesus piece, Kanye saw the schism and became the avatar to fill the void. Somewhere between Mase and Mos Def, between Benzes and backpacks, there was Kanye. He would never let you forget the brilliance of his foresight, the number of A&Rs and Roc-a-Fella compatriots who didn’t see it.
Graduation, released 12 years ago on September 11, was Kanye’s victory lap. He’d silenced all detractors, filled the void in rap and become a major force in pop. He wanted to remind you that he was gravity-immune, that he saw a future where chart-topping rap could be primed for parties, yet thought-provoking enough for private reflection.
“[Kanye’s] a thinker. He looks at things a little differently than the average person does,” says DJ Toomp, the veteran Atlanta producer whose work you can hear on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Good Life” and “Big Brother.”
The two met several years before while working on T.I.’s 2003 album Trap Muzik in Atlanta. Toomp was a fan of Kanye’s work on JAY-Z’s Blueprint (September 11, 2001), but he and the rest of the people working on Trap Muzik had no idea that Kanye was planning to move from behind the MPC 2000 and ASR-10 and step in front of the mic.
“…[H]e played us some of his music. He wanted to see what we thought about it,” Toomp says. “Me, [T.I.], and the rest of the crew gave him a thumbs-up, like, ‘Your shit is hot! You’re next for real. You rap just as good as you produce.’”
The College Dropout, Kanye’s 2004 debut, confirmed both Toomp’s and Kanye’s prescience.
As he intended, Kanye brashly walked the line between mainstream and the “real hip-hop” of Rawkus Records and their ilk. Beats rooted in soul samples fused the exuberance and pop sheen of Bad Boy’s biggest hits with the grit of the boom-bap a la DJ Premier. He uplifted drug dealers (“We Don’t Care”) and made modern spirituals for 9-5ers suffering under racist bosses (“Spaceship”).
After exorcising his religious anxieties (“Jesus Walks”), he dropped a lecherous, uptempo club track (“New Workout Plan”). Kanye was conflicted and flawed, but he was real. The contradictions exposed the hypocrisy of the pious, Jansport-clutching underground and the lack of self-reflection from those wearing reflective suits.
Kanye drove a Maybach and read Maya Angelou, left Def Poetry Jam and hit the strip club. He celebrated wealth while questioning capitalism and the systemic racism that prevents black people from attaining wealth. His heart trumped logic, but the world felt him as he worked through what it means to be black and successful in America. Plus, College Dropout won the Grammy for Best Rap Album.
Late Registration (2005) was a refinement, a retread and another step forward. With help from composer Jon Brion, Kanye’s suites became cinematic, bordering on orchestral. He doubled down on the personal (“Roses,” “Hey Mama”) and expanded his sociopolitical scope, tracing the emergence of rap to the dawn of the crack epidemic (“Crack Music”) and writing singles that wrestled with the bloody realities of conflict diamonds (“Diamonds from Sierra Leone”).
The lechery persisted (“Addiction”) but remained hilarious. Again, the towering ego (“Touch the Sky”) couldn’t overshadow the music and the endearing transparency. He went multi-platinum for the second time and won another Grammy for Best Rap Album.
With Graduation, Kanye aimed to reach even more people; he set out to make “stadium music,” commercially accessible songs that were so big they could turn Steely Dan (“Champion”) and Can (“Drunk and Hot Girls”) samples into anthems.
Graduation achieved that aim. It would be the final multi-platinum installment of the college trilogy, the culmination of Kanye’s first act. With five Hot 100 charting singles, it’s difficult to imagine how it could’ve been bigger, more befitting of Tron-indebted live shows and shutter shades. And it all began with a Young Jeezy remix.
Enamored with the beat for Young Jeezy’s “I Got Money” (2006), Kanye connected with the song’s producer, longtime T.I. collaborator DJ Toomp (“24’s,” “What You Know”), to work on a remix. Jeezy didn’t initially care for the beat Kanye and Toomp composed over email, so Kanye decided to take it for himself.
“Kanye heard [“I Got Money”] and fell in love with the drums and the way I was playing around with the horns and stuff,” Toomp says. “We started going back and forth, and next thing you know we had a song together: ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing.’”
That song, the first Graduation single, is the first half of the album distilled: chest beating over grand, almost regal beats. It sounds like entrance music for extraterrestrial royalty.
Toomp’s trap drums knock beneath horns and woozy, portentous synths so deftly blended they’re sometimes indistinguishable. Lyrically, Kanye applies “money is power” logic to his then-recent public outbursts. He’s not wrong, but he’s not right.
The brilliance of the single is in the first line of the hook: “Wait ‘til I get my money right.” Kanye’s money was already right. He was the “Champion” living the “Good Life.” But Kanye turned self-adulation into inspiration. The “Drunk and Hot Girls” and “Flashing Lights” could be yours if you were “Stronger.” Just buy Graduation.
When Kanye decided to work on Graduation in earnest, he called Toomp and told him that he was coming to Atlanta. With Def Jam footing the bill, they rented out Doppler Studios and put the finishing touches on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” According to Toomp, Kanye finished about 80% of the album there, which explains why he shouts out Atlanta first his litany of major cities on “Good Life.”
“A lot of people record songs, throw them on the wall, and see what sticks. If Ye is planning on having 14 songs on an album, I don’t think he’ll record more than 17,” Toomp explains. “He already knows what he wants… Most of what Ye works on is going to make the album.”
The fact that Kanye recorded the bulk of the album in one location might account for the Graduation’s cohesiveness and concision. It’s the most tightly constructed album in Kanye’s catalog; he had ditched the skits in favor of a narrative arc.
After Kanye celebrates his success at the beginning, he moves on to its trappings (i.e. “Drunk and Hot Girls” and “Flashing Lights”). The four track coda that is “Everything I Am,” “The Glory,” “Homecoming” and “Big Brother” addresses his lingering anxieties, those that fame created and couldn’t dispel.
These tracks were one final purge of all that had plagued him over the years. The love and hate he received from Chicagoans (“Homecoming”) to the rising murder rates in that city (“Everything I Am”), the ridicule for his Grammy tux (“The Glory”) — Kanye bled out as he rocketed out of our universe.
“A lot of people tell me that this record is the one that made the south embrace him,” Toomp says. “Really, it’s one of the best albums. Period.”
The album ends with the grinding guitars and melancholic synths of the Toomp-produced “Big Brother.” Like the best Kanye tracks, his open letter to JAY-Z, his friend and mentor, is raw and unfiltered.
He appreciates all that JAY had done for him, but he hasn’t forgotten how he was treated before College Dropout and how the tables have turned (“Big brother saw me at the bottom of the totem / Now I’m at the top and everybody on the scrotum”). The world has to know that putting Coldplay (aka Chris Martin) on a rap song was Kanye’s idea.
Graduation was peak “old Kanye.” An irresistible combination of unabashed arrogance, self-righteous socio-political grandstanding, grievances big and petty, and juvenile sexual double entendres. As he did on the albums that came before, he gave you access to his psyche over progressive beats that altered the sound of rap music.
He bridged the gap and made navel-gazing a Homeric epic. He would go deeper and darker on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but he would start to lose fans on either side of the binary he’d rendered irrelevant. When Graduation dropped, he had them all.
(Photo credit: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)