The fascination with college sports south of the border is something that we Canadians often have trouble understanding. Here in our country, university varsity athletics has a limited audience base, usually confined just students and alumni. Below the 49th parallel, on the other hand, thousands of spectators pack stadiums and arenas to watch college football and basketball each and every week.
The reason for this? Perhaps because in American popular mythology, the quest for greatness makes a better story than greatness itself. The goal of the American Dream may be to achieve fame, wealth and success, but what wins hearts and minds is the journey of the average person towards that success – their setbacks, their struggles, their eventual (but not inevitable) victory. These stories are harder to come by and often feel forced in the world of professional sports because the athletes have already “made it”; in college, the athletes live and breathe the quest for the American Dream every single day.
Kanye West’s career has matched his college-themed albums almost note for note. If Late Registration was his varsity album – bold, large and almost overweight with ambition – Graduation represents Kanye’s arrival in the big leagues. Selling almost a million copies in its first week and handing 50 Cent his early retirement papers (he’s going to live up to his promise to quit rapping, right?), Kanye has fought for his place among the biggest names in hip hop and has officially graduated to their ranks.
Like an athlete who has finally made it, Kanye’s performance on Graduation is equal parts professional and celebratory. Gone are the themed skits filling up the track listing, departed are the weighty guest spots to bump up the album’s sales (Lil Wayne gets a guest verse, and T-Pain and Chris Martin each get to sing a hook, but that’s about it). Kanye’s mostly on his own here, and he’s replaced much of his trademark self-consciousness that defined his first two albums with the cocky, triumphant side of his persona. In doing so, Kanye risks making a clichéd hip hop album about girls and money, but thankfully his charm, wit and silly sense of humour are able to keep things reasonably down to earth even as he’s touching the sky
That’s not to say that there isn’t still some soul-searching going on in Graduation. I ragged a bit on the decision to release “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” as a single, but as part of the album as a whole it’s a triumph, and maybe Kanye’s strongest lyric on the record. “Everything I Am” tries a bit too hard but still ends up a sympathetic self-portrait, but the lyric that’s bound to get the most attention is “Big Brother,” Kanye’s summation of his relationship with Jay-Z and the tensions that have grown between them. Its pacing is a bit off, but it’s a weirdly fascinating look at Kanye’s neuroses.
Even when he’s being confessional, Kanye has never been the world’s greatest MC. Most of the time, though, he’s clever and charming enough to get by and, more importantly, always brings the hooks. If anything, he’s grown significantly from his trademark chipmunk-soul sound into one of the most interesting samplers in hip hop. Over the course of Graduation’s 51 minutes, we get samples from Elton John, Steely Dan, Daft Punk, Michael Jackson, Can, Public Enemy and more. Some of the best beats of his career are here, and it’s the introduction of techno into his palette – hit single “Stronger” and my personal favourite, “Flashing Lights” – that leaves the strongest impression. The album hits a small rut in right in the middle, with the pairing of “Barry Bonds” and “Drunk and Hot Girls” slowing things down too much for my taste, but it rebounds and ends strong.
But as solid as Graduation is, I wonder if it will have the same staying power as Late Registration. The fact that my gut reaction is to prefer the latter suggests that perhaps I depart slightly from my Canadian brethren when it comes to the search for success. I want to hear varsity ambition in my records, the sound of someone throwing everything they have into the creative process in the hopes that the whole wide world will take notice. Messy though it was, that’s what Late Registration sounded like. Graduation may be a great album, but personally, I think I find the quest for greatness to be more interesting than greatness itself.