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Ten Years Ago, Kanye’s ‘Graduation’ Aimed for the Stars

West’s cosmic third LP, released 10 years ago today, marked the end of one era and the beginning of another—for both the rapper and hip-hop at large

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Outer space is everywhere: Not only are we physically surrounded by it, but we’re inundated with images of it, both real and fictional. NASA’s long-lived Cassini mission is ending this week, just after its even longer-lived Voyager mission marked its 40th anniversary. SpaceX is about to launch the most powerful operational rocket in the world. Star Trek is returning to TV, The Martian author Andy Weir is returning to bookshelves, and Destiny 2 and a new Metroid release are bringing gamers back to the stars. Please join us at The Ringer as we celebrate and explore the cultural resonance and science of space all week long.

Let’s get right to the fisticuffs: Kanye West’s best music video of all time is for “Good Morning,” the opening track on 2007’s Graduation. The animated short stars the Dropout Bear, the rapper’s fictional mascot who first appeared sitting forlornly on a set of gymnasium bleachers on the cover art for Kanye’s debut, The College Dropout. The Bear is a beloved persona in the Kanye West Extended Universe, surpassing CyHi The Prynce, Twista, and even the esteemed fictional fraternity Broke Phi Broke. As Kanye’s star rose higher and higher early in his career, the Bear kept him mortal. West was the same guy from Chicago with the same goofy Bear on the same journey toward the nebulous concept of “success,” the elusive brass ring that animates anxiety among the middle class, and especially the black middle class. To finally see the Bear get his due, with a three-minute animated adventure to call his own, was a thrill.

In the video, the Bear races to attend a graduation ceremony in Universe City, an alien-filled town on an unnamed planet. He curses his broken DeLorean, face-plants into a subway car, and evades cyclones in a magical storm cloud as West raps about his skepticism of higher education. Yet at the end of the short, the Bear reaches the ceremony just in time, rips off his clothes to reveal a cap and gown, and receives a bachelor’s degree in hip-hop from a wizened rabbit. Then he blasts off into the galaxy, where we leave him, frozen forever, on the Graduation cover. Though fans have regularly repurposed the Bear to match the aesthetic of Kanye’s later albums, the artist hasn’t revisited his most famous iconography since his third LP.

I think about the Bear sometimes, and where he was headed as he barrelled into the galaxy. In 2007, when Graduation debuted, the album felt like Kanye’s coronation. That year West bested 50 Cent in sales to become the new standard-bearer of hip-hop, landed another no. 1 hit to secure his pop music bona fides, and effortlessly launched an inescapable fashion trend. Kanye had finally achieved the success he’d been craving since his days working at the Gap. He was as close to Warhol as he’ll probably ever get.

But Graduation ended up being more of a funeral, marking the death of that cuddly bear, the Old Kanye™, and a hip-hop tradition still caught in the gravitational pull of ’90s rap. The album was a sonic revelation that became so mainstream so fast that it’s easy to forget how wild some of it sounded on first listen. It was a bridge between rap’s soul-sampling lineage and the genre-warping future that would quickly become solidified by projects such as Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon: The End of Day, and West’s own 808s & Heartbreak. Rap was about to enter a new orbit, and, in retrospect, Graduation feels like the blast-off point.

Kanye West’s ambitions on Graduation were clear months before the album came out. “I might as well mark the date our lives changed,” he said on the introduction to the May 2007 Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape. “I’m speaking to you from the future right now. ... They say, ‘Music changed a lot since you first dropped.’ I said music gon’ change a lot after I drop.”

He was gloating as the Daft Punk song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” played in the background, which at the time seemed like a strange, arbitrary musical choice. But the use of Daft Punk would only seem odd for all of two minutes, because the next song on the mixtape was an 83-second preview of a new single called “Stronger.” I vividly remember listening to this snippet on the tinny speakers attached to my family’s computer the summer before my senior year of high school. The cold down-pitched growl of the Daft Punk sample, matched with the glowing synthesizer and the thump of the electronic bass line was not what I was expecting from a guy whose biggest song to date was a summer anthem that flipped Ray Charles. This is an accurate-to-the-pixel recreation of my initial reaction:

Plenty of hip-hop producers, including West, had long borrowed from from a wide range of genres—The College Dropout alone sampled Marvin Gaye, Bette Midler, and Michael Bolton’s band Blackjack. But Kanye had previously been using all these variables to solve for y, where y is “a song immediately recognizable as rap.” With “Stronger,” his course of study abruptly shifted from algebra to calculus: The limit for what constitutes rap does not exist.

The song, West’s third no. 1 hit, was so ubiquitous in its moment that it’s a bit grating to revisit, unless I’m channeling the bewildered thrill I felt during the first 50 or so spins. But there are other out-of-this-world moments on Graduation that have held up better. “Flashing Lights,” all glittering synths and opulent strings, could certainly soundtrack a fashion show on the moon. If I ever have the privilege of taking a plaintive late-night ride on a comet, I’ll queue up “I Wonder” and think about how to find intergalactic fulfillment. “Good Life” distills the warmth of Michael Jackson’s affection on “P.Y.T.” to its essence, recreates it electronically, then layers the man-made sounds over the machine-made ones. None of this sounded like 2007 until Kanye West redefined what 2007 could sound like.

But there are some songs that don’t commit to the electro-pop futurism premise, as well as some legitimate misfires. The shit-talking revival session “The Glory” and chipmunk-soul retread “Everything I Am” both look back instead of forward. I’ve never been seasick, but I imagine if I listened to the deeply swaggerless “Drunk and Hot Girls” for an hour, I might be. “Homecoming” featuring Chris Martin was 10 times better back when it was “Home” featuring John Legend. And “Big Brother” is a whinier version of The College Dropout’s “Last Call,” though today we can use it to psychoanalyze the tumultuous Jay-Ye friendship.

The contrasting styles belie Graduation’s core problem—it doesn’t quite know what type of radical future it’s trying to chart. The album has little to say lyrically, so Kanye’s words rarely feel particularly essential to the otherworldly production. The tone is celebratory, but it’s hard to articulate what exactly Kanye is reveling in (“Good Life” is a toast to its own “blatant hit-recordness,” in the artist’s words). West is not searching for truth or human connection—he’s on a “quest to be cool.” He’s not making music for himself—he’s making “people’s theme songs.” The album sounds big—West was channelling legacy rock bands like U2 and the Rolling Stones to attain “stadium status” for music—but also a little hollow. While Kanye has always viewed his creations as both art and product, Graduation feels like the furthest he ever slipped onto the commercial half of the divide.

But even as the album’s gloss buffers away some of Kanye’s imperfections, its most vulnerable moments telegraph the genre-shifting pivot that was soon to come. On “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” the dour precursor to New Kanye™, the rapper seems to sense the creative wall he’s careening towards, though he hasn’t yet figured out how to avoid it. “Wait til I get my money right / Then you can’t tell me nothing, right?” It’s not a boast, but a hope that monetary rewards will bring professional and personal fulfillment. That question mark feels like the point where the original Kanye persona—the middle-class striver who managed to find a route besides college to a success that would make his mom proud—starts to crack. Within months of Graduation’s release, that persona would shatter.

Two months after Graduation was released, Kanye West’s mother, Donda, died of complications from plastic surgery. A few months later, he broke off his long-term engagement with his fiancée, Alexis Phifer. Instead of retreating from the spotlight, Kanye mourned in public. At the 2008 Grammys he performed “Stronger” in front of a spaceship and starlit vista, then sang a somber version of the once-jubilant Late Registration track “Hey Mama.” He picked up a vocoder and hopped on a remix of Young Jeezy’s “Put On” in a verse that oscillated between digitized rage and despair. He retreated to his studio in Hawaii and quickly applied the lessons learned from Graduation’s experimentation on a new project that felt even more alien: 808s & Heartbreak.

Kanye sometimes lumps 808s and Graduation together in interviews; he has called the mixing of the two the “Kanye West formula.” The pairing makes sense. It’s easy to imagine a downbeat album cut like “I Wonder” on 808s, or a strings-and-synths confection like “RoboCop” on Graduation. There’s no way Kanye could have made the leap into the unknown in 2008 without first testing the waters in 2007. Though 808s gets all the credit, Graduation was an early current in a sea change that would quickly subsume all of hip-hop.

Consider how many times the rules of rap were rewritten in the two years after Graduation: In early 2008, Lil Wayne released the first single off his long-awaited album Tha Carter III, an electronic, Auto-Tuned ode to oral sex called “Lollipop.” (West appeared on a remix, also using Auto-Tune.) Wayne furthered his Auto-Tune chops on West’s 808s, which also featured a then-unknown Ohio rapper named Kid Cudi, who was signed to Kanye’s label. Like Kanye during that period, Cudi was sad and lonely, but the way he rapped, it seemed like he’d felt that way his entire life. Man on the Moon, released in 2009, was about his unshakeable grief. It went double platinum.

It is hard now, with rap shattered into a thousand subcultures, to recall how bizarre all these releases felt one after another, and how much they threatened the hip-hop establishment (Jay-Z, perpetually late to the party in his elder years, released “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” in June 2009). West and Wayne, two of the biggest rappers of the 2000s, suddenly seemed like outsiders. Kid Cudi was from Cleveland. They all took up outer space as a unifying theme, from West’s celestial Glow in the Dark tour to Wayne’s insistence that he was a “martian” to Kid Cudi’s lunar obsessions on Man on the Moon. The cosmos had long been a powerful conceit used by rappers to signify that their music would not be bound by regionalism, radio trends, or black stereotypes (Afrika Bambaataa, OutKast, and Missy Elliott were all Afrofuturist pioneers in hip-hop). But the one-two-three punch of Kanye, Wayne, and Cudi was so culture-consuming that those barriers were, if not destroyed, at least significantly lowered.

Here in the 2010s, A$AP Rocky can release a hit single with Skrillex, Lil Uzi Vert can wail about his existential pain in Auto-Tune, and Young Thug can ping-pong from trap to R&B to country without (as much of) a traditionalist revolt. None of these artists needed to use space to execute visions that would have been deemed patently outrageous a decade ago. That’s because West, at the peak of his popularity, helped pull the entire genre into orbit alongside him. Graduation may not be the best Kanye album, and it’s certainly one of the least focused. But it scrambled rap’s center of gravity to the point that today the genre has no discernible anchor point (Kanye is now reportedly recording campfire hymns in Wyoming or something). We lost the Dropout Bear to the cosmos, but we gained a decade of music that followed his trail into the unknown. He made a worthy sacrifice.