I'm not much of a rap fan, but I thought I'd give Graduation, the latest from Kanye West, a shot. West is the most interesting of current rap artists, and he's managed the amazing feat of having both of his first two albums, The College Dropout and Late Registration, snag nominations for the Album of the Year Grammy Award. The way critics are singing the praises of this album, it seems a good shot it will follow the other two. While the album isn't amazing, it's not bad, in fact, it's pretty good.
The album opens with the mellow introduction "Good Morning," followed by retro-flavored "Champion," which borrows liberally from Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne," These tracks are fine, but not standouts, the first of which comes next.
"Stronger" is an electric, energetic track, a prime example of the current fusion between electronic music and hip-hop that's helping to propel rap back into the pop music spotlight. The electronica comes courtesy of dance master Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger."
The next three tracks are also among my favorites. Sample-heavy "I Wonder" ("My Song" by Labi Siffre) has a nice old school quality and welcome piano backing. "The Good Life" has a laid-back upbeat feel, "P.Y.T. (Michael Jackson)" samples, and surprising restraint in the product placement department, desipte this being a song about enjoying wealth and luxury. Darker "Can't Tell Me Nothing" would appear to send the mixed message that money can't buy happiness--West after all has just praised The Good Life--but even this more somber message is delivered with some brevity ("So if the devil wear Prada, Adam and Eve wear nada").
These are followed by perhaps my two least favorite. Tuneless "Barry Bonds" comes off like a big brag with no weight. "Here's another hit" he says, but I kind of doubt this track will be a hit. "Drunk and Hot Girls" is synth heavy but beat light, never mind misogynistic.
Thankfully two more standout tracks follow. "Flashing Lights" is totally cool. The kind of slower groove that still makes you want to move. It's typical celebrity stuff though--an anti-paparazzi rant about how all the "flashing lights" get him down, like a "Katrina with no FEMA." Then there's "Everything I Am," a slow, piano-laced track about being Kanye being true to himself.
Chris Martin of all people shows up for backing vocal duty on "The Homecoming." He's one among a long line of guests here, which includes T-Pain, Ne-Yo, John Legend, Lil Wayne, and Mos Def.
You have to admire him for admitting that he is who he is. He admits he's boastful ("with my ego, I can stand there in a Speedo and still be looked at like a...hero") he admits he likes to shop ("I shop so much I can speak Italian" he says in "Champion). He also loves to hand out free (or is it?) advertising. Louis Vuitton is the clear champion, mentioned in three tracks, followed by Christian Dior in two. Other product placements include Adidas, Bacardi, Delorean, Ferrari, Hugo Boss, Isotoner, Klondike, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Prada, Reebok, Speedo, Versace, and Volvo. Three films also get either direct or indirect mention: The Pursuit of Happyness, The Devil Wears Prada, and Snakes on a Plane.
Best tracks: Stronger, The Good Life, Flashing Lights, Can't Tell Me Nothing, Everything I Am, I Wonder