Swelled Head Of the Class

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Kanye West is forever scratching his self-aggrandizing itch, making boasts that are outrageous even by hip-hop's hyperbolic standards. The audacious auteur's latest claim: that his new album, "Graduation," is among the 10 best hip-hop releases ever.

Uh, no. "Graduation" is the best rap album of 2007; but given that the genre has been historically bad this year, that's sort of like saying West finished first in a one-man race. (Yea, Kanye!)

Look behind the facade of supreme self-confidence, though, and you'll find a complicated, conflicted figure -- which is what makes West such a compelling artist. Well, that and his obsessive creative vision. On "Graduation," we even find the noted megalomaniac agreeing with some of his critics. "You say I think I'm never wrong," West raps. "You know what? Maybe you're right/A'ight?"

West, 30, praises himself early and often ("Bow in the presence of greatness," he commands) and raps repeatedly about how fabulous his life is, what with the designer threads, the private jets, the stupidly expensive jewelry, etc. But he also sounds angsty throughout the ambitious album. He's pouty, petulant and defensive, racked with doubt and anxiety. That's readily apparent on the standout "Can't Tell Me Nothing," a dark, downbeat song in which West flogs himself for making bad decisions. "I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny," he rhymes. "And what I do? Act more stupidly."

In the soulful, simmering "Everything I Am," West goes from defiant to woeful in a matter of seconds. "I'm back to tear it up/Haters start your engines, I hear 'em gearing up," he raps. "People talk so much (expletive) about me at barbershops/They forget to get their hair cut/Okay, fair enough."

West isn't just convinced that he's under siege; he somehow believes that he's underappreciated, too. While it's true that he's not exactly a darling of the awards-show circuit -- West threw yet another hissy fit Sunday night after being shut out at the MTV Video Music Awards -- his first two albums, 2004's "College Dropout" and 2005's "Late Registration," were both critical and commercial hits. His production work for the likes of Jay-Z, Beyonce, Common and Alicia Keys has been similarly successful.

And yet, on "Graduation's" bizarrely titled "Barry Bonds," West declares: "I done played the underdog my whole career." Otherwise, the song is a self-mocking boast, in which West -- over minor-key synths and a hard, tough beat -- playfully acknowledges his own ginormous ego: "I'm high up on the line, you could get behind me/But my head's so big, you can't sit behind me." There is, however, room next to him, as West turns over a verse to the New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne.

It's probably not the smartest thing the self-proclaimed genius West has done lately, as Wayne's superlative flow -- so slippery, so free-- simply serves as a reminder that while West is among the most fascinating figures in hip-hop, he's hardly a great hip-hop vocalist -- his delivery can be stilted and awkward.

"Graduation" works because of West's ambitious ideas and the musical execution. As a writer, he delivers interesting lyrical conceits with a wicked sense of humor. And the rapper-producer (or is it producer-rapper?) is a restlessly inventive studio wizard who is forever darting away from his own shadow -- not to mention hip-hop's creative center.

Yes, "Graduation" features the requisite soul samples, along with booming hip-hop beats, turntable scratches and rap cameos by the likes of Mos Def, along with Lil Wayne. West also makes sly lyrical references to A Tribe Called Quest and Common; laments Lauryn Hill's retreat from the rap game; rhymes about Cam'ron's fur coats; and spends an entire song paying homage to Jay-Z. So very hip-hop.

But "Graduation" takes some seriously unexpected turns. Synths and atypical samples abound, with varying degrees of success. "Drunk and Hot Girls" is a wobbly drone that re-purposes Can's "Sing Swan Song" (Can!) and is, unfortunately, a soberingly bad experiment. Better is "Champion," which rides a looped sample of Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne." "The Glory" uses a sped-up sample of Laura Nyro's "Save the Country" to terrific effect, though the bracing song isn't exactly a grand sociopolitical statement. (In fact, West -- a bit of a pot-stirrer when he feels so inclined -- largely avoids Statement Songs, though he does rhyme "Katrina" and "FEMA" with TV's "Martin" and "Gina.")

The driving single "Stronger" is built around an exotic, robotic sample from the electro-music duo Daft Punk. There are also Elton John and Mountain samples, and a live appearance by Coldplay's Chris Martin, who for some reason performs on the dreary "Homecoming."

Can it be long before Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" gets the sample or cover treatment from the increasingly needy Kanye? It would undoubtedly be brilliant. Just ask him.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"I Wonder," "Everything I Am," "The Glory," "Can't Tell Me Nothing."

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