The album cover of the new Kanye West record, Graduation, is a purple, animated monstrosity. On the front, a letter jacket-clad bear is catapulted into the stratosphere from among a sea of cartoon animals tossing graduation caps.
Bear necessity: Kanye West streamlines his sound on his third record, the cohesive Graduation, and proves that he is smarter than the average bear.
Given the title of his third album, you’d think Kanye West might consider growing up—drop the bear mascot that has adorned his record covers since 2004’s The College Dropout, avoid sales spats with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, maybe pack in the whole “college” theme altogether.
Then again, asking West to grow up is more ludicrous than Ludacris, namely because the Louis Vuitton don’s attention to his craft places him firmly in the “adult” range of the hip-hop spectrum. The man’s got an ego big enough to have its own bling, but—considering Graduation will most likely be a platinum record by the time you read this—he may as well shine on, because a healthy combination of boast and beats haven’t hurt his sales figures.
And West has grown up. A bit, but enough to release what is, musically, his most cohesive record. The soul and R&B cuts that West used to anchor some of his biggest hits—the use of Ray Charles in “Gold Digger” and Chaka Khan in “Through the Wire”—are gone. In their place are samples from or references to records by Steely Dan, Can and Elton John, nearly unidentifiable beneath the sheets of subtly buzzing synthesizers that carry most of Graduation.
Nowhere is West’s progress more evident than on his lead single, “Stronger,” which doesn’t sample from Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” but completely remodels the song according to the electronic duo’s mission statement. Opening with a choppy sea of robotic chanting, West quickly fills in the low end with a steady bass riff and simple blasts of synthesizers, then cruises comfortably alongside his sleek creation, staggering his delivery like a man-machine hybrid.
Strands of the same electronic drones run through the bulk of Graduation, most effective when West slices through the washes of synth to make polyrhythmic club-thumpers. “The Good Life” paints over West’s opening lines from “School Spirit” and reuses them in a new, digitized backing vocal; “Champion” adds a Caribbean-touched vocal track to the same techno formula as “Stronger” and revitalizes it.
West has pared down his wordy delivery—he brags more efficiently, which takes a lot of the fun right out of his songs. When West breaks from the reigns of his tunes, however, it is all the more noticeable—listen to his crack-throated impression of a female admirer in “Drunk and Hot Girls” and his throat-clearing rhymes in “Barry Bonds.”
And there’s still a kid in Kan. Opening “Stronger” with “Let’s get lost tonight/ You can be my black Kate Moss tonight” gets at everything the man still is—a musician filled with savvy references and clever beats, a young man filled with a sense of entitlement and a student with a broad view of the hip-hop campus.