Illustration by Trevor Fraley
In the music video for “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” towards the end, an expensive car drifts across a barren desert landscape while the song’s sampled Young Jeezy ad-lib’s echo over the beat’s fractured burst of sound:
I’m serious / I got / money
And I think it is easy to look back now and see this as some kind of commentary on how fame and riches alone won’t bring you closer to any kind of shared humanity with those you may love but feel distant from, or those you may love and have outlasted. But then again, it is what it is: an expensive car, kicking up sand. A video as rich and haunting as the song’s sonic landscape would suggest it should be. With headphones on, if I close my eyes while the song is playing, I feel the desert beneath my feet.
Graduation was the last album that Kanye West could make look easy. He hasn’t made an album look easy ever since, and there are a number of reasons for that — grief, fame, perhaps boredom pushing him into new creative territory quicker with each year — but there is something sort of magical about West’s first three album run that, in retrospect, seems entirely singular. College Dropout and Late Registration are landmark albums, with an entire world of growth between them. And yet, they both still felt like West could have made them with one arm tied behind his back. Part of this was surely for show: he was so enthusiastic about his entry into the rap world then that he coasted off of pure excitement of experimentation for a while. Nothing felt overly tedious or drenched in labor, even though his origin story (and his real-life behind the scenes work) exhibited the drive of someone who was consistently working, hard, and at all hours of the night.
The part of the Kanye West origin story that has, now, been lost to the sands of time is the part where we remember that his breakthrough single was recorded from a hospital bed, with his jaw wired shut. For West, early in his career, the window to fame was a rapidly closing thing — to be approached with a type of feverish urgency.
This made his first three albums high in concept and high in an always evolving risk of sound, but it also put the artist himself in a position of continually shifting ideals and interests. By the time Graduation rolled around, West had already become both famous and infamous, though not yet as (seemingly) controversial as he would become — he was just two years removed from insisting that George Bush didn’t care about black people during a Katrina benefit broadcast, but two years away from pulling a microphone from Taylor Swift’s hands at the 2009 video music awards.
In 2007, Kanye West was preparing to release the album that would make him a certified superstar. It almost didn’t matter how great or not great Graduation was — the album was set to be a coronation for an artist who had first mastered the music and then mastered the charisma, charm, and ability to rally a people behind a brand. Everything about the Graduation rollout felt large: there was the much-publicized sales battle with 50 Cent, who was also releasing his third studio album, Curtis, on the same day. There were the singles that showed West diving even deeper into a collaborative and sample catalog that included Daft Punk and Australian vocalist Connie Mitchell. There was the color palette: bright, cartoonish tones that showed a departure from the neutral color landscape of the first two albums. Collaborations with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami peppered the album’s visuals with his particular brand of animation-style paintings covered the album art, the interior jacket, and the artwork for each single. Each part was a single section of a crown, descending and ready to rest.
I am most interested in the album that arrives after the album where an artist becomes undeniably wealthy and/or famous. The album that comes when the artist can’t really pretend anymore that they’re still in the underground, toiling away at the idea of celebrity, or the album that comes when the artist is no longer The Artist but is also a statement, or the album that comes when a world is built that doesn’t resemble the world the artist actually comes from.
There are many forms that this type of album takes: trepidation, anxiety, ambivalence, joy. Some artists cling mightily to the idea that they are, in fact, the same person. Graduation is fascinating because it is somehow all of these at once. Kanye West knew fame was going to change him, and the album is a tug of war between how the fame will inevitably change him, and the way he wants it to change him. There is both braggadocio, traded back and forth with a peak-era Lil Wayne on “Barry Bonds,” and then there are moments of introspection, like on “Everything I Am,” where West comes face to face with his outspokenness which, at that point, was becoming a hallmark of his personality. A good reading of “Big Brother” is that it is about admiration for Jay Z, of course. But also about envy for someone who has what West wants and knows he is capable of getting.
To the reflective ear, the album is drowned in a kind of mournful melancholy that just happened to sound fun at the time. Yes to the songs like “Good Life” and “The Glory” that are both delightful and danceable anthems, where West finds his footing boasting about fame and riches, but also reaching back to signify his hard work. The message here — which runs throughout the album — is a simple one: I’ve earned this, whatever it is, and whatever is coming.
It is one thing to be rich and it is another thing to be so rich that you cannot be fucked with and it is another thing to still create good work when those two things collide. Graduation is one last gasp at self-analysis from an artist who, perhaps, knew that the ability to self-analyze was becoming further and further out of reach.
What became of Kanye West, as we know him now, didn’t seem possible to me when Graduation came out, but underneath the bright and celebratory nature of the album is a type of distance — the placing of an entire country between yourself in your destiny, in an attempt to hold on to your own narrative for just a little bit longer. Graduation is the last album where Kanye West had any doubt left, even if that doubt was a part of the performance. It was the last album where I believed that he wasn’t always sure of his ability to do impossible things. In less than a year, he would be shaped into an entirely different artist, surviving inside of an entirely different machine. Gaduation was the final glimpse of Kanye West, Era One. The dreamer who made good and then kept dreaming.
Looking back, it all felt like the scene in the 90s movie where the nerd with the good heart and attractive interest gets made over and descends down the steps, confident and put together immaculately. And it’s never really that much different of a look, is it? It’s maybe the clothes, sure. Maybe a removal of glasses. But what I’m really saying is that the nerd is only a feel-good story for us until they become a feel-good story for themselves. And then they’re surely not the nerd anymore. That makes them a little bit harder too root for.
In 2007, it was an honor to root for Kanye West as an underdog for one last time, even if it was an illusion.
I am the child of a dead mother, and that means that I believe myself to have a small kinship with other children of dead mothers, even if that is a flawed idea. I have no science behind this, but I think that if someone is at all close to their mother, that is a specific kind of loss — one that tethers us to each other in the hollow spaces where it resides. An empty bedroom, or a cleaned out closet, or a voice that only exists as a relic. In the months after my mother died, I would call her work phone, just to hear her voice on her answering machine, until it was gone. The thing that no one considers about sampling is the ways in which it can briefly allow a space for someone departed to live again, in small bursts. What it must be like, to be the child of a dead mother who left behind recordings of her voice that might, perhaps, be repurposed into something greater. To be Gil Bianchini, Laura Nyro’s only child, who lost his mother in 1997. To love music and hear your mother’s voice pushed through the beat of an artist of your generation when putting on “The Glory.”
In this way, the sampler may be doing a small and unknown mercy for an audience, or they may not. I know that I would give anything to have my mother’s voice live in a place where it couldn’t be erased. When you don’t know that someone is going to die suddenly, it doesn’t exactly make sense to record their moments for posterity. My mother was not a singer — but for the moments in the kitchen or car when a song she loved would catch the air and she’d find a pocket to live inside of its humming. No one would have sampled her voice for any rap song I could go back and play for years to come. I am saying that there are days I don’t recall what my mother’s voice sounded like, because time sinks its teeth into even the most cherished things and drags them from us as we grow distance between those things. It always comes back to me eventually — in a whisper or a song she knew the words to or in a joke that might have forced her loud and trembling laugh into a room. And yet, the work it takes to recall the memory of something that I once lived for is the most jarring.
When Kanye West made Graduation, he didn’t know that his mother would be dead a mere two months after the album was released. She is present on the album, though only through West himself, who laments how she couldn’t get through to him, or reminisces about driving her Volvo with the gas tank on empty while hustling beats. She appears in the way that mothers often appear on rap albums when the rappers making them assume their mothers will be alive forever: an endearing, hovering, nostalgic, and consistently loved force.
Donda West died of heart disease after suffering complications from cosmetic surgery. She was 58 years old, and Kanye West told magazines that he blamed himself. In 2015, he told an interviewer that he sacrificed his mother for his level of success. Which, by that point, was unparalleled. He had, by then, broken through all of the walls he was expected to — just not in the fashion that he was expected to do it. Almost a year later, around the anniversary of his mother’s death in 2016, West suffered a mental break and was admitted to the hospital, causing speculation that the break arrived due to his inability to move past the blame he felt for his mother’s death.
This is something that only a person who loves a dead person can understand, I suppose. It is easy to invent ways to blame yourself for something if a person isn’t around to tell you that it is not, in fact, your fault. Kanye says if he never moved to Los Angeles in 2007, his mother would be alive. And that might not be true. Or at least, there’s no way to know whether or not that’s true and so common knowledge would say that there’s no use in thinking about it. But I imagine that if I didn’t do a laundry list of things that I did, everyone I miss would still be alive and around a table with me, laughing at how old we’ve become. Regret is the truest gift that death leaves.
Maybe it’s because Graduation was the last album that Kanye West had his mother alive. After his mother’s death, he also split with his fiancé, Alexis Phifer, which completed a whirlwind of emotional reckoning that spit out a newer, different Kanye West. Kanye West in his second era, who felt both more human and more distant. Still crafting impossible music, but more concerned with the rigorous work of first excavating the emotional fight and then reveling in whatever excess could drown out the noise the fight was making. Alcohol, fashion, famous women. I don’t think there’s as much to be made about this as people insist now. We are halved by our traumas, and the fact that parts of us don’t make it through to the other side is simply logic. I don’t feel the need to analyze this as some might — perhaps because I, too, was once one person and then another. But I really find myself cherishing Graduation still. It’s not what I think most would consider West’s best album — he is an artist who is lucky enough to have both an early career masterpiece (College Dropout) and (what stands now as) a mid-late career masterpiece (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and so Graduation sometimes gets lost in a clogged timeline of both brilliance and headlines. But it is my favorite album to return to. The one where, in the dark of the desert, Kanye West wore a blinding chain and told us he was going to one day be too rich to be fucked with, and then it happened. The one where a car pulled itself across the sand and wasn’t yet a metaphor for loneliness. The one where a singular artist stood at the uncertain precipice of megastardom and jumped, not yet knowing where the wind would take him during the fall.