‘Graduation’: How Kanye West Put Hip-Hop To The Test

With ‘Graduation’, Kanye West pushed hip-hop to its limits, ushering in an eclectic era that would embrace everything from rock to Chicago house.

Published on

Kanye West Graduation album cover web optimised 820
Cover: Courtesy of Universal Music

The Graduation artwork, a striking anime image by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami featuring a Kanye West-like bear being propelled skywards, serves as an apt analogy for the stratospheric creative ambitions of Kanye’s third album. Following the success of 2005’s Late Registration, he’d toured in support of U2 in an effort to broaden his fanbase. Watching the Irish megastars playing to packed arenas inspired Kanye to create an album that would invest rap with rock and pop dynamics, penning simplified lyrics that would better translate to large crowds.

Buy or stream Graduation.

Gone were the soul samples and grand orchestration that had dominated his first two albums. For Graduation, Kanye tapped into the stadium rock of the likes of The Killers, Radiohead, and Keane, while an eclectic selection of samples further broadened the album’s diverse sound. Lead single “Stronger” hinted at what would follow, its revolutionary hip-hop template combining a sample of Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” welded to heavy metallic beats and hair-rock synths. The song proved a huge hit, especially in the UK, where it became Kanye’s first No.1 single.

Perhaps the most winning expression of his new aesthetic, however, was “Flashing Lights,” another of the album’s singles. Combining slowed-down Chicago house beats, energetic EDM synths, and brilliant hooks to incandescent effect, it remains one of Kanye’s most beloved and critically lauded tracks.

Kanye West - Flashing Lights ft. Dwele

Click to load video

Further bridging the gap between hip-hop and mainstream rock, Coldplay singer Chris Martin was brought in to add anthemic weight to the arena-sized synths of “Homecoming,” while “Big Brother” – a tribute to Kanye’s long-time mentor, Jay Z – was built upon heavy guitar riffs. Elsewhere, “Champion’”s looped segment of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” lends the track hints of jazz-rock, while on “Drunk And Hot Girls” Kanye sings alongside Mos Def, the pair delivering an idiosyncratic cover-of-sorts of “Sing Swan Song” by krautrock legends Can.

Released on September 11, 2007, Graduation proved to be one of the year’s most memorable albums. Its release coincided with 50 Cent’s third album, Curtis; steeped in the traditions of gangsta rap, the latter stood in stark contrast to Kanye’s futuristic hybrid. A competition between the pair ensued, spurred on by 50 Cent’s assertion that he would easily outsell his rival.

In the end, Kanye won by a landslide as Graduation sold nearly one million albums to Curtis’ 691,000. Perhaps more importantly, Kanye’s success cemented hip-hop’s shift away from the gangsta rap that had dominated during the 90s, ushering in an eclectic brand of hip-hop that would embrace styles as diverse as house and rock music. Hip-hop was moving forward fast, and Kanye West would remain a driving force for change in the years to come.

Listen to the best of Kanye West on Apple Music and Spotify.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Isabel cooper

    May 9, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    Hi! I’m not sure how to get in contact with the author of this article, Paul Bowler. I am graduating high school this year and was wondering if I could use the picture of Kanye’s album used above to make a tapestry for a party? I left my email in the required field. I am not sure how your copyrighting works, but if you are ok with it I would love to use this picture, thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

uDiscover Music - Back To Top
uDiscover Music - Back To Top