The scene is exactly ten years ago today: after months and months of tinkering, Kanye West has finally unveiled his third studio album, Graduation. And after the one-two punch of his first full-lengths, The College Dropout and Late Registration, anticipation was understandably high. It rocketed to the top of the Billboard 200, and received glowing reviews, though the reception was not quite as rapturous as it was for either of his first two releases.
In hindsight, it is evident that Graduation – like all of West’s releases – is a masterpiece on its own terms. He eschewed the warm soul samples and rich orchestral instrumentation that characterized his first two albums in favor of a colder, retro-oriented synthesized sound, one that reflected his ennui with his newfound superstardom. For die-hard Dropout fans, this sonic shift was met with skepticism, but it would of course go on to largely define the electronica-focused hip-hop landscape of the ensuing decade. And when assessed next to the similarly-minded, but devastatingly bleak, albums like 808s & Heartbreak and Yeezus, Graduation serves as a perfect bridge between West’s formative and exploratory years.
In honor of the landmark album’s tenth anniversary, we’ve ranked each of the official studio version of Graduation‘s thirteen tracks in order of greatness. Suffice to say, it was not easy – this record could really be its own greatest hits collection. Peruse our ranking below.
13. “Big Brother”
It’s the last track on the album and, coincidentally, would be our first pick if we had to cut something off of Graduation. Perhaps it’s because we know they would make up and be best buds a few year later, but Kanye’s five-minute airing of grievances for feeling left out by JAY-Z is nothing but an unnecessary pout-fest. The beat, while fitting in with the record as a whole, is nothing special. The most exciting element of this song may be when Ye raps about doing a track with Coldplay, a track that you literally just heard before this one if you’re listening to the album in sequence. Hooray for meta moments.
Choice Lyric: “Back in my mind I’m like, ‘Damn, no way’ / Translate, español: ‘No way, José'”
12. “I Wonder”
Shows of lyrical dexterity aren’t enough to transform this track into the memorable slow-ballad “I Wonder” tries so hard to be. Fault its placement on the album (in between two of the strongest pop-leaning singles) or its dubious feminist morality (“What you about? Oh, that independent shit”), but things just aren’t clicking into place with this one. And that sample gets annoying as hell by song’s end.
Choice Lyric: “God calling from the hotlines / Why he keep giving me hot lines? / I’m a star, how could I not shine?”
11. “Barry Bonds”
Little of Graduation sounds dated, but if there is one instance of the album reeking more of 2007 than it should, it is “Barry Bonds.” Ironically composed before the title-inspiration’s steroid scandal, the song suffers from an aimless production that feels less like a Nottz beat and more like a discarded piece of the Mario Kart soundtrack intended for Bowser’s castle. Not even a verse from Lil Wayne in his prime can save this clunker.
Choice Lyric: “Dude! Fresh off the plane, Konnichiwa, bitches”
“Champion” packs a hell of a lot in for being the shortest track on the album, clocking in at just under three minutes. Kanye weaves in a collage of memories of his father while simultaneously reckoning with his own, relatively new, status as a father figure; or at least, a role model. And all of that while a meandering Steely Dan vocal sample bubbles to the surface, continually looping itself and reflecting meaning with each turn the song takes.
Choice Lyric: “You don’t see just how fly my style is / I don’t see why I need a stylist”
9. “The Glory”
More than any other song on Graduation, “The Glory” is guilty of treading old ground. Which, even if you overlook the absurdity of judging Kanye for falling back on his revolutionary template for making hip-hop, is fine. “The Glory” could have appeared on either Dropout or Registration, and it would have been just as satisfactory. But in measuring the greatness of a Graduation-track, it means this one is forgettable.
As mentioned above, this is the ‘Coldplay song’ that Kanye has the gumption to shout out for its awesomeness literally moments after it appears. The thing is… it might just live up to his boast. There are far better songs about Ye’s hometown nostalgia in his catalogue (old school deep cut “Home” off the Freshmen Adjustment mixtape for starters), but “Homecoming” benefits from the glitzy pop-sheen it comes encrusted in, that and its hook courtesy of pre-Grammy Album of the Year Award winner Chris Martin.
Choice Lyric: “She said, ‘You left your kids, and they just like you / They wanna rap and make soul beats just like you / But they just not you’ and I just got through
7. “Drunk and Hot Girls”
It is heartening to know that Kanye’s deep-dive down the rabbit hole of Krautrock would result in an anthem for anyone who’s ever been annoyed their potential hook-up may vomit in the car. Warping a sample from Can of all bands, “Drunk and Hot Girls” exemplifies the Kanye West school of picking up women, in all its hilariously problematic glory. What a chorus though.
Choice Lyric: “‘”Ah da da da da’ That’s how the fuck you sound / You drunk and hot girl”
6. “Good Morning”
Of the many samples employed from veteran rock icons of the ’70s on this album, none of them close to packing the emotional wallop of Elton John’s tenor soaring high into the heavens. It is this sound – combined with a precise, muted beat and a good-old-fashioned ‘uuuuh’ – that opens the record, making good on Kanye’s narrative catharsis. Somehow, through all the bullshit, we made it to graduation day, and yes, it sounds this damn triumphant.
Choice Lyric: “Good morning, look at the valedictorian / Scared of the future while I hop in the DeLorean”
5. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
If we were judging Kanye songs based solely on one-liners, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” would easily claim a spot in the top five. Ye’s lyrical abilities are firing on all cylinders for every line of this stand-out, from insisting he “double parallel parked that motherfucker sideways” to the instantly-iconic aside “Class started two hours ago, OH, AM I LATE?!” Whether he meant to or not, Kanye delivered a timeless anthem for those that have simply run out of fucks to give.
Choice Lyric: “So if the devil wear Prada, Adam Eve wear nada / I’m in between but way more fresher”
4. “Everything I Am”
It speaks volumes that having living legend DJ Premier featured as a guest record-scratcher is among the least-notable aspects of “Everything I Am.” Backed by a melancholy piano line and a Greek chorus’ worth of ‘oooh’s, Kanye writs his existential crisis large, pondering the nature of his fame, his legacy and the very beat he is in the midst of rapping over. “I know people wouldn’t usually rap this,” he begins before launching into statistics of Chicago’s homicide rate; it’s a sentiment where – for once – he is underselling himself. Hardly anyone ever raps about the angst found here.
Choice Lyric: “People talk so much shit about me at barbershops / They forget to get their hair cut
3. “Good Life”
For all of his many, many references to his idol Michael Jackson, the number of times that Kanye actually samples the King of Pop is comparatively low. But you best believe that when the time comes to actually nip a sound bite or two from Jackson’s discography, it will be done with all the grandiosity his monarchial title requires. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the case of “Good Life,” a song so profoundly bombastic and braggadocious that T-Pain revealing what his grandma calls him is badass beyond belief.
Choice Lyric: “Have you ever popped champagne on a plane, while gettin’ some brain / Whipped it out, she said ‘I never seen Snakes on a Plane'”
It seems like this song has been with us forever, or at least since Prince was on Apollonia and O.J. had Isotoners. That “Stronger” would reach such stratospheric heights of pop culture fame – from grocery store aisles to bar mitzvahs – seems a given to us in 2017. It is difficult to recall a time when Kanye lifting a Daft Punk sample was “inspired” or “edgy,” let alone the fact that there was a time in which radio rap hits didn’t sound like this. For better or worse, “Stronger” gave rise to all that came in its wake, but even a decade later, this song still goes unbelievably hard.
Choice Lyric: “Damn, they don’t make ’em like this anymore / I ask, ‘cause I’m not sure / Do anybody make real shit anymore?”
1. “Flashing Lights”
Though “Stronger” may compete for the title in its chart-performance, there is no song that better exemplifies the sounds and themes of Graduation than “Flashing Lights.” Razor-sharp synths chords pierce through a relentlessly-pounding beat while the lines of synth flutter and stutter, twirling about like the visual trickery of the song’s title. Ye spins tales of decadence that feel both braggy and confessional, as if he can already taste the bile in the back of his mouth while drinking a celebratory toast. In a word, the song is overripe, heavy with a richness that is beginning to sour. It’s a masterpiece of a song, and undoubtedly the brightest jewel in the crown of Graduation.
Choice Lyric: “Man, why can’t life always be this easy? / She in the mirror dancin’ so sleazy / I get a call, like, ‘Where are you, Yeezy?'”
For more just like this, take a look at ten things you may not know about the creation of the track “Stronger” right here.
- Cover Image: Kevin Winter / Getty Images