If I miss Robert Christgau’s old consumer guide format, it’s because his terse yet surprisingly dense brawn mots were absolutely ideal for certain artists. Pop music criticism, Christgau’s abruptness seemed to imply, shouldn’t have to take any longer to write than it takes to listen to a single on the radio. Especially not when the lyrics are only transparently expressive and the hooks grab your ear on the first listen (notably bypassing your brain), your balls on the second, and your soul from there on out. Kanye West is one of those artists, not only because reviewing his miseducational term papers makes one feel like writing “sp!” and “sez?” in the margins—“I guess this is my dissertation, Homie, this shit is basic, welcome to graduation,” he states bluntly “Good Morning,” the opening track of Graduation—but also because the album’s double-spaced sampling choices remain basically citational, even as his production has adopted a beefy, synth-glam sheen.
“Stronger,” the lead single (think of it as a May term) as well as the album’s second most justifiable title (behind “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” but we’ll get there in a minute), is one of the more galvanizing moments of contrast to the filtered soul of “Through the Wire” and “Touch the Sky.” Instead of trying to placate his oft-mentioned elders with Curtis Mayfield and Chaka Khan, the menacing vocoder samples of Daft Punk cut through the hazard tape and, if nothing else, form a much more appropriate match for Kanye’s still blustering hubris. That Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was itself built around a wonky but still resolutely analog Edwin Birdsong sample is worth a chuckle but no Christgau-ian footnote. (“7-Up fizz” tastes pretty much the same in any generation.)
Later on, Kanye reverses his old trick of pitching his samples up into Chipmunks range when he brings the outro to Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” down to T-Pain’s wholly synthetic level on “Good Life.” (You know what? Jackson still comes off more butch in the draw.) The vocal gizmodgery makes me want to throw a shawt one in T-Pain’s face, but the way Kanye layers Sale of the Century synths around him demonstrates what every good student eventually learns: the ability to bury ones weaker arguments within their showier claims. The same principle applies, in theory, to his collaboration with Chris Martin. (Grammy Awards through association await.)
Still, you couldn’t find a campus library cavernous enough to annotate “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” in which Kanye attempts to satirically undercut his supposedly self-deprecating biographical exorcism and ends up in a deep confusion, or the swooping drama queenery of “Flashing Lights,” in which he compares his recent media experience to what it must’ve felt like to be “Katrina with no FEMA.” Um, better not to bring up that episode at all, Mr. Black People Representative, at least not as a symbol of modest auto-criticism. Graduation is worth note in the sense that it offers proof Kanye isn’t on the five-year plan (The College Dropout registered in 2004), but I’m sort of looking forward to hearing the next album built around the disillusionment of his first entry-level position.