Like the Mick Jagger of Dirty Work or Richard Nixon on the day of his second inaugural, Kanye West envisions conspiracies between dumb-asses and “the establishment.” Mobilizing resentment against those in power yet, of course, exempting themselves, these are men who had and have nothing to be glum about, yet their success felt compromised by paranoia, will to power, and (excluding Jagger) self-pity. I doubt if Kanye will ever top Graduation. As Anthony pointed out, it’s pretty enjoyable for a “victory lap album,” and the best proof that, unlike in most cases, a Kanye singles compilation would be disastrous. This guy has mastered record making; a sequence of singles would reveal his average rhyming, awkward flow, and unmitigated arrogance — his jokes aren’t funny enough to mitigate the arrogance. If it’s too easy to imagine Norman Vincent Peale admirer Nixon mournfully scribbling “Everything I’m not made me everything I am” on one of his yellow pads, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is scornful advice that the Jagger of “Hold Back” and “Dirty Work” might appreciate, though Kanye’s vituperations are pinched rather than truly explosive.
Graduation shows a producer whose no bandleader, but can get hummable riffs from guitarists and keyboardists, and sublets irony to Becker-Fagen and Daft Punk samples that mock his egoism. He’s mastered the Madonna trick of firing help after he’s memorized their playbook (even if her third album True Blue compensated for a lack of musical range with an expansion of the singer’s emotional range — Kanye does the opposite). “Stronger” really does get stronger with each listen, the sample/live instrument exchange in its last third more intricate, glimmering, and beautiful. “Flashing Lights” and “Champion” are ornate, opaque baubles, with as much a relation to the real world as the album’s anime-inspired cover art; and this goes double for the Chris Martin collab “Homecoming,” which from its barrelhouse piano hook to Kanye putting the words “from fireworks on Lake Michigan” in Martin’s mouth is fantasia of a high order. And, yeah, I find “Big Brother” maudlin and grotesque in all kind of ways; I’m not sure if Kanye himself understands what an inchoate brew he’s mixed here. The only analogies I can think of are cinematic: Judy Garland’s Academy Awards number in A Star is Born, or those clips of Fat Elvis in the seventies performing one of his standards. On script and as performances, these are gruesome spectacles, but something about the performers’ investment in their material — not once winking to the audience — is enough to make the results, if not art, textured camp. Which isn’t bad for a producer/mogul/egoist who wears pink cashmere.