Kanye West, “Graduation” (Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella)

By Mark Guarino

Forget the current battle stance between Kanye West and 50 Cent, the two rap heavyweights with new albums in stores today. Think more about why a genre of music has to mimic tactics usually associated with mullet-topped goons in a wrestling ring. With CD sales in their worst decline ever, it is revealing that these two releases are being marketed as nothing more than a back alley fight rather than the merits of the music. Competition is healthy, but with both sides fated to lose, it may not be wise.

West, 30, is a native Chicagoan who, though breakthrough production techniques, talent for crisscrossing genres and passion for fashion, has become one of the last, true pop stars interested in pushing creative boundaries. Whether in his music, or on a certain national telethon, he makes pronouncements that demand to be heard. He’s also a premier loudmouth, which — considering the corporate mouthpieces signed to record labels today — makes him one of last refreshing throwbacks to an era when irreverence mattered.

“Graduation” (Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella) is the long-awaited third chapter to his trilogy of pop albums framed with a back-to-school theme. Like any franchise, continuity is king. Collaborators are both familiar (Jon Brion) and new (Coldplay’s Chris Martin). There’s also West’s recognizable sampling technique, where vintage hits by Michael Jackson, Laura Nyro and others are compressed and quickened into aural exotica.

“Graduation” should have been held back a few semesters. Despite the momentum built by the first two albums, this third is a letdown. The lyrical complexities and major hooks of songs like “Jesus Walks” and “Gold Digger” are out to recess. Unlike the rags-to-riches narrative of his earlier songs, and their finely tuned insights into the self-doubts and struggles of your average nine-to-fiver, this album hits a wall typical of newcomers who, in a short period of time, became famous stars: Ideas dry up, leaving just complaints about celebrity hardships.

It’s likely you’ve already heard “Stronger,” the first single buoyed by French DJ duo Daft Punk. The song’s bustling beat and blaring synthesizers make it among West’s best. Its sophistication is not the norm elsewhere. On “Late Registration” and “College Dropout,” West was a sly tunesmith, configuring samples to create new and novel hooks. In this chapter, West raps over borrowed bits from Steely Dan or Elton John that play on unvarnished, a lazy choice. The arrangements are overly simplistic and there’s no continuity to these songs as a whole.

Ugly synthesizers and hand-in-the-air attitude stoke the album’s by-the-numbers party vibe. Although the misogyny of “Drunk and Hot Girls” is meant as satire, it’s dour and witless. In most songs, West complains being misunderstood (“I feel depression/under more scrutiny/and what I do/act more stupidly”), brags about his celebrity, and, on “Big Brother,” spends nearly five minutes paying homage to Jay-Z, his former mentor (and his label president), a “god of the game.” In academia, they call this groveling for tenure.

If West wasn’t the same person who revived mainstream hip-hop with new ideas, narratives and crossover appeal, “Graduation” would be just another lazy pop album following boilerplate cues to dull effect. But he is, which makes it more disappointing. Let’s hope he makes the grade in grad school.

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