Today marks the ten-year anniversary of Kanye West’s Graduation. Prior to the album hitting the streets, Yeezy had already established himself as kind of like a big deal, due to him dropping a couple of multi-platinum albums, topping the charts with several songs, winning six Grammys and mastering the art of crafting classics for himself and others like JAY-Z and Common. However, following the arrival of his third album, the Roc-A-Fella "Champion" found himself reaching a new zenith. A career-defining moment is one that is very important in making someone successful in their job or in deciding how they will be remembered. Kanye's career-defining moment is Graduation.
The sound of popular music began to feel a lot different following the release of Graduation and the music Kanye had been making at the time absolutely played a major role in the musical shift. It also saw the College Dropout graduating from very successful "conscious" or "backpack" rapper status, in an unapologetic pursuit of pop stardom. No longer relying on his signature sped-up soul samples, Kanye saw the success of singles like the Daft Punk-assisted "Stronger" and hood anthem with the Young Jeezy ad libs, "Can't Tell Me Nothing,” expand his reach.
You could also argue that Graduation was a changing of the guard of sorts that helped usher in the genre-blurred era that we've been enjoying for almost a decade. Tracks like "I Wonder," "Barry Bonds" and "Everything I Am," although very different in the respective sounds, all lived comfortably in perfect musical harmony on the Grammy Award-winning album. Our perception of what the standard hip hop album could sound like was now altered for good, while the floodgates for artists like Drake, Kid Cudi, Travi$ Scott and so many others to simultaneously find success on both the rap and pop side of things was now opened.
Before the Louie Vuitton Don argued over cool pants, it was his shutter shades era that put on display just how much he had not only a passion for fashion, but also his finger on the pulse of popular culture. Yes, Kanye had already proven that pink polos wouldn't hurt the Roc a few years earlier, but Cam’ron already had pink poppin’, and we had already trashed our throwback jerseys because of Ye's “Big Brother” JAY-Z. The style aesthetics and innovative dress code adopted by the “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” rap star around the time of Graduation’s release became the foundation for where hip hop and urban fashion would go. Clothing overall got a lot slimmer, jeans became skinnier, the colors we rocked got brighter and traditional urban wear brands that catered to the hip hop crowd started becoming less and less popular. Kanye wasn't just a part of fashion trends anymore, he was now at the forefront of those trends.
“Stadium status” was no longer just a cool line in a song. It was now a lifestyle for the Chicago native. Ye became more ambitious and yet more particular with how he presented himself, as well as his visuals (“Stronger,” “Flashing Lights”), artwork (the Takashi Murakami album cover) and tours (“Glow In The Dark”). Always a risk-taker, the "Jesus Walks" rapper found himself in multiple ways pushing boundaries when the guidelines of what could be considered hip hop were a lot more rigid.
It's difficult writing about a Kanye West album, because no matter what your thoughts are or how strong the evidence presented to support those thoughts is, you’re liable to be wrong. His catalog is so superb that at any given point the biggest Kanye fan can be convinced that they may have chosen the wrong best Kanye album as their favorite. Mr. West is really that GOOD. But as I reflect on one of my favorite albums of all time, ten years to the day I first listened to it, I realize the vital role Graduation played in his career, as well as in the overall reshaping hip hop has undergone over the last ten years. Nowadays it's undisputed that Kanye West is one of the fathers of modern hip hop. His impact is felt beyond the realm of hip hop and transcends music, fashion, art, and technology. But it wasn't always that way, and Graduation has everything to do with it.