Listening to Graduation, the middling new album from noted Chicago sweater-enthusiast Kanye West, it can be hard to remember that there is a world outside Kanye’s ego. It’s not so much that he’s more arrogant than other rappers — as a group, hip-hop artists are not exactly known for their modesty — but that he seems oblivious to the possibility his feelings and experiences might not be unique. After all, this is the guy who rapped, “I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless, ‘til I saw a picture of a shorty armless,” and seemed to think that he had hit on some kind of shocking revelation.
While his first two albums were loaded with musical fireworks — sparkling pop confections married to adventurous (if still radio-friendly) production — that distracted from his self-absorption and technical deficiencies as a rapper, Graduation feels like an extended swim in the tepid waters of Lake Kanye. Mostly forsaking the stylistic exploration of Late Registration, the new album is content to float through languid slow jams and clouds of pillowy synths. The bloat of Kanye’s first two records gets cut back here, and the record is blessedly free of time-wasting skits, but it’s not any more exciting for its increased focus. Most of the tracks feel undernourished and half-baked, unable to sustain much interest on repeat listens.
Songs like ‘Champion’ and ‘The Glory’ are pleasant enough, with gentle hooks and the sort of lush, layered production that Kanye can obviously pull off in his sleep at this point, but coming from a hitmaker this accomplished, they sound like placeholders. ‘Flashing Lights’ and ‘Barry Bonds’, by the same token, both work without being much to get excited about. The Daft Punk-sampling single ‘Stronger’ at least generates some real energy, but it never approaches the drama of ‘Jesus Walks’ or ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’, and its much-ballyhooed genre-crossover seems as much a feather in Daft Punk’s cap as in Kanye’s.
‘I Wonder’, on the other hand, courts obviousness with a Nina Simone sample, and ‘Good Life’ makes the mistake of sampling ‘Thriller’ without doing much to set itself apart from its far-superior source material. Graduation reaches its nadir with ‘Drunk and Hot Girls’, a bizarre piss-take on a Can sample (yes, that Can) that features what might be the year’s most inane chorus so far: “We go through too much bullshit just to mess with these drunk and hot girls.”
The lazy production and misguided gimmicks make Kanye’s limitations as a rapper more apparent than ever. His labored flow strains and grates on track after track, and until he manages some self-examination a little more probing than the platitudes he traffics in here (“Everything I’m not made me everything I am,” goes one), no number of pop-culture punchlines will make up for the constant navel-gazing he so clearly feels makes him better than everyone else.
Nearly every great rapper, from Rakim to Biggie to T.I., makes what they do sound easy. Kanye, by contrast, rarely sounds fluid or at ease — instead, he wants you to hear how hard he’s trying with every bitten-off line, as if what he’s saying will matter more if we know he had to sweat to get it out. Maybe he’s forgotten that the mere appearance of effort is no substitute for actually doing your homework.