2007 was a different time. MJ was still the king, Avril Lavigne was still a chart topper and Justin Beiber was still uncool.
It was a year of that brought us classics - Daft Punk released Live 2007, Radiohead revolutionised the industry with In Rainbows, and Maroon 5 released their magnum opus, It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. In the midst of emo’s renaissance, spearheaded by Fall Out Boy and Paramore, one man was shaking up the hip hop landscape. His name was Kanye West.
In 2007, Kanye had been in the production game for over ten years. His debut album had only released three years prior, making the rapper something of an up-and-coming prodigy. Imagine; a Kanye with no Kim, no fashion line and no Presidential aspirations. Given his larger-than-life status of late, one could call 2007 Kanye a pretty normal guy - comparably. Pink polos and backpacks were his fashion staples, and chipmunk soul was his genre. The pioneer and poster-child of the movement, it was a field in which he found himself unparalleled. Having released two acclaimed albums, The College Dropout and Late Registration, Kanye found himself working on his most ambitious project yet: Graduation.
Though the influence of his fourth record, 808s and Heartbreak, is widely discussed, the effects of Graduation’s unique sound and significant release are largely maligned. In releasing Graduation, Kanye took on gangsta rap’s cultural dominance, sowing the seeds of contemporary hip-hop and charting a path for the mainstream of today.
For his third LP, Kanye departed from the soul samples and orchestral swells of his previous two records. Though the album was the third in a planned tetralogy of education-based records, it bears little resemblance to those that came before it - it samples heavily from house music and indie rock and does away with skits, which were something of an early-2000s rap mainstay.
Whilst on tour with U2 in 2005 and the Rolling Stones in 2006, Kanye discovered that lyrical complexity didn’t lend itself to stadium shows. Whilst his more verbose hits were undeniably catchy - think “Gold Digger” and “Slow Jamz” - they weren’t exactly primed for the call-and-response environment of a U2 show. Those fans wanted something they could sing along to; something they could be involved in. Simplifying his lyrical content wasn’t a ‘dumbing down’ as much as a stylistic pivot, an attempt at turning hip hop into an arena-based spectacle.
This influence is felt most keenly on “I Wonder,” a song described by Kanye himself as his version of U2’s “City Of Blinding Lights.” Whilst the bars are uncharacteristically minimalist, made up of punchy single syllables, the message is still undeniably Kanye. Whilst U2 helped shape Graduation, Kanye helped shape U2’s No Line On The Horizon - Bono credits Yeezy with instilling in him a newfound “respect for the text”.
Graduation’s other significant departure concerned featuring artists. Whilst both The College Dropout and Late Registration made ample use of guest spots, Graduation did so to a lesser degree. Eight of the album’s thirteen tracks contain no guest spots, and of those that do, only “Barry Bonds” features a guest verse, provided by Lil Wayne. The rationale behind this can again be traced to Kanye’s rock n’ roll sensibilities. When listening to his favourite bands, such as Coldplay or The Killers, he “only [heard] one voice from start to finish.”
Despite a slather of new influences, Ye continued to focus on one of his greatest strengths, sampling. Whilst Kanye’s legendary music knowledge allowed him to source samples from artists such as Steely Dan, Elton John, Michael Jackson and Labi Siffre, his most famous sample - Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger” - was one he was totally unfamiliar with until 2006.
Seeing as Kanye had never heard Daft Punk before he was introduced to “Technologic” by A-Trak, he had little hesitation when it came to sampling it. A-Trak himself admits he was skeptical, in part due to his “nineties mentality in terms of sampling, where you’re supposed to find unknown records to use.” Kanye, having somehow missed out on Daft Punk’s fame and acclaim, didn’t treat the track as a French house classic, flipping it into a beat despite the nigh-perfect original. A-Trak admitted to being wrong when he heard Ye’s rework - “I remember calling him back and being like, begrudgingly, ‘alright, you flipped it, it’s dope’”.
Whilst Kanye’s pivot towards the conventions of rock and house were considered decisions, they weren’t necessarily seen as strategic moves. Graduation is often called Kanye’s weakest album by his fans, despite containing some of his most enduring tracks. It’s no coincidence that these reputations align. In pivoting towards these genres, Kanye seemingly abandoned the culture that had fostered his earlier successes.
What’s more, critics found West’s lyrical content increasingly narcissistic. Previously a vocal advocate of social justice, West was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the excesses and pitfalls of fame. Writing for The Guardian, Dorian Lynskey wondered: is West “losing the ability to speak to listeners who aren't themselves conflicted multi-millionaire rap stars?” Many saw the album as missing a sense of humanity to underpin the excesses detailed within.
Whilst the creative pivots that underpinned Graduation were undoubtedly a part of its commercial success, they had surprisingly little to do with the legacy it created. That legacy was spurred, at least in part, by an unintended and novel challenge that arose well after the record was completed.
Averting the sophomore slump only created more pressure for Kanye. Whilst he’d had proven the appeal of his novel style, it was still very much a niche alongside more traditional forms of gangsta rap. Pink polos and backpacks were Kanye’s trademarks purely because they were such an unconventional style - rap was still indelibly linked to images of drug dealing, gunshot wounds and vicious beef.
The ultimate test of Kanye’s innovation came when Graduation’s release changed to September 11, 2007 - the same day as 50 Cent planned to drop Curtis, his third studio album. The September issue of Rolling Stone set the stakes: “who is the King of hip-hop?”
The rivalry, described as friendly, was encouraged by Kanye mentor Jay Z, who said the competition was “a fantastic thing for hip-hop”. He fondly recalled his own release day battles against Outkast, claiming that the competitive spirit would “[drive] people to the store.” Kanye, originally skeptical of the idea, committed to the competition, saying “the date, Graduation, September 11, we ain't moving”.
Never one to downplay his greatness, 50 outdid the historically outspoken Kanye, claiming that he’d “no longer write music” were he beaten. “This is no rivalry,” he said, “I sell way more records than Kanye West, and I generate way more interest than Kanye West. They think they can match us up, but they'll find out when that week goes by and the sales come back”.
Kanye was more humble, qualifying his confidence with a disclaimer - he’d “rather come out on a day like that, up against 50… and be #2 on that day rather than come out and be #1 on a day nobody cares about”. Despite this sense of healthy competition, Kanye did call 50’s proposed Presidential-style debate “the stupidest thing” he’d ever heard.
Interest in the rivalry was stoked by uncertainty - in the months leading up to the releases, neither artist seemed to have a definitive edge. Both albums bore hit singles - Kanye’s Daft Punk-sampling “Stronger” was Graduation’s second single, whilst 50’s Justin Timberlake collaboration “Ayo Technology” was Curtis’ third. Both records were each artist's third album respectively. Both records represented a pivot towards pop - 50’s featuring artists included Robin Thicke and Nicole Scherzinger, whilst Kanye found unlikely collaborators in Daft Punk and Chris Martin.
Though hindsight undoubtedly favours Kanye, 50 had the home field advantage. Not only was his subgenre the reigning mainstream sound, but his debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, was Neilsen’s highest selling album of 2003. In 2004, the year The College Dropout was released, Kanye didn’t even crack the top 10. He did, however, beat 50 for the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album in 2006, when Late Registration earned Yeezy three statuettes. A rising critical appreciation of Kanye’s newfound style seemed to presage his commercial dominance.
In September 2008, one year after the release, Billboard released the annual numbers: whilst 50 had sold 1,336,000 units, Kanye had managed 2,116,000. It was, in both the long and short term, an upset of epic proportions. Whilst 50 believed in the power of the status quo, Kanye’s newfangled sound had won him a contest he initially didn’t even want to be a part of.
Who was the real winner? Immediately, neither side needed to claim victory - whilst Kanye triumphed in the battle between the two, Jay’s enthusiasm was well founded.
In a statement, 50 reflected on the sales war: “I am very excited to have participated in one of the biggest album release weeks in the last two years. Collectively, we have sold hundreds of thousands of units in our debut week. This marks a great moment for hip-hop music, one that will go down in history”.
Sales aside, the victory came as the first step in a sonic transition in hip hop. Unseated as the dominant school, gangsta rap quickly fell into disrepute. 50’s music career swiftly came undone, and he shifted his focus to other ventures - namely, Vitamin Water and his current TV show, Power. Top Dawg Entertainment, home of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and SZA, would eventually reinvigorate the subgenre, but not before Kanye’s influence had been felt.
Graduation is often credited with being the album that overthrew gangsta rap’s prominence in the hip-hop scene. An innocuous marketing ploy - a competitive album drop - turned a coincidence into a titanic entertainment showdown. It was a battle between the past and the future; two popular subgenres competing for the coveted title of “the mainstream.” In outselling 50, Kanye inadvertently led the charge against gangster posturing in rap.
His subsequent album, 808s and Heartbreak, took full advantage of the void created by Graduation, redefining acceptable emotional honesty in hip hop. With an invaluable assist from Kid Cudi, that album allowed for artists such as Chance the Rapper, Childish Gambino, KYLE, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and Drake to achieve mainstream success.
If 808s is the album that championed emotionally honest lyricism, then Graduation is the album that overruled gangsta bravado. Without the latter, it’s fair to say that the former could never have taken hold.