In 2007, Kanye didn’t know he would effectively end the near-20-year reign of gangsta rap by outselling 50 Cent’s lackluster album Curtis on their shared September release day. Kanye didn’t know his mother would pass away suddenly, or that his longtime fiance would leave him, or that he’d marry into the most famous American television family by choice. Graduation is a victory lap, the third part of a scrapped four-album story that was supposed to culminate with Good Ass Job, which instead became 808s & Heartbreak.
Graduation continues the plucky underdog narrative built on 2004’s breakthrough debut The College Dropout and 2005’s Late Registration, which heralded the emergence of an artiste/hitmaker. Kanye was beginning to be regarded as the biggest egomaniac in rap history while still not showing his face on the cover on his record, something he still hasn’t done. Kanye’s album covers hint at the music within: College Dropout is warm soul music, with brown, yellow, and burgundy tones on the cover and Kanye dressed in his trademark cuddly bear mascot. Late Registration is orchestral, full of strings, keys, and languid arrangements from Jon Brion—tellingly, the cover depicts the bear mascot, purposefully small, entering a vast new doorway that looks academic and orderly. By contrast, Graduation is exploding with anime, while the color choices of blue, yellow, pink and purple symbolize its ambitious energy, extravagance, and solidified confidence. Designed by Takashi Murakami (who Kanye described as “the Japanese Andy Warhol”), it nails Graduation’s wider palette of sample choices: Michael Jackson on “The Good Life,” Krautrock gods Can on “Drunk and Hot Girls,” Young Jeezy’s famous gravely “ha ha” adlibs on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” Elton John’s crooning on “Good Morning”.
Graduation was Kanye’s leanest album up until that point: zero skits, and eight tracks shorter than both Dropout and Registration. Instead of telling the listener about all of his plans, his failures, his dreams, and his mostly bad jokes on songs and on skits, Graduation shows us his improved flow, his vast tastes, his arena-inspired hooks, and his added weapons of samples, live instruments, Southern-rap synths, and 808s (thanks to the inclusion of DJ Toomp and Mike Dean). 50 Cent’s music career has never recovered from the sales showdown he lost to Kanye West, but the truth is that if 50 Cent could make hits like “Stronger,” “Flashing Lights,” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” gangsta rap would possibly still dominate the charts. Instead, a fashion-loving backpacker who wore Marty McFly shades and a Roc-a-Fella chain has remade rap and pop culture in his image every year for the past decade.