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‘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.

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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.

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.

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 11 September 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.

Graduation can be bought here.

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