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KANYE WEST, Graduation, Roc-A-Fella
The first single was the first sign of trouble. The first lines on "Can't Tell Me Nothing" reveal Kanye West's internal struggle between doing the right thing and doing what will get him paid. But it wasn't until seeing the video for the second single that it hit home: The stakes are higher for West on this album. With more shiny colors than anything in a decade, funny sunglasses and a catchy sample, it looked as if Kanye was poised to become the heir to Puff Daddy's throne. The "P.Y.T." sample that fueled "Good Life," the addictive single that coincided with the album's release, only reinforced the danger of selling out. Kanye was walking a fine line, and perhaps it was because of this that I set the album aside after only a couple listens to let it marinate. One by one the tracks came back to me -- both the catchy singles and the more obscure offerings. And as I revisited those cuts and listened piece by piece, I soon discovered that Kanye had put together another classic puzzle after all. And it was worth listening to in its entirety. There are still the Puffy tendencies, like lazily rhyming the same words with each other, the "we won't stop" mentality and, of course, that ego. (At one point Ye says "he's doing pretty good as far as geniuses go.") But the results are undeniable. "Flashing Lights" is a successful mesh of orchestral and electronic music not solely sample-driven but by a bassline and pace that keeps you nodding your head long after the song is over. "Good Morning" and "Champion" also stand out, but "I Wonder" misses with a chorus that drags and a stilted delivery. The guest turns are worthwhile, as Lil' Wayne shows up for "Barry Bonds," Mos Def contributes to "Drunk & Hot Girls," and the apparent Common throwaway "jam," "Everything I Am," features scratching by DJ Premier (and Chuck D lyrics via sample). "Homecoming" somehow manages to be the second straight hip-hop track with an appearance by Chris Martin that I don't mind, which honestly bothers me. It bothers West too, as he lets loose on Jay-Z a little bit on "Big Brother" for, among other things, stealing his idea for "a track with Coldplay." (Ahem, who cares?!) But is it a diss or a tribute? Well, both. Chalk it up to "sibling" rivalry and West's realization that he has to take Hova out in order to be No. 1. He's getting closer, especially on the preceding track. The Blueprint-esque "The Glory" is classic Kanye with a rapid-fire delivery and a sped-up sample. In it, he mentions that "after I live I want to be compared to 'Big' -- any one, Big Pun, Big L or Notorious." With three classics in three tries, he's probably already reached the status of two out of three. If he takes his next album in the right direction, he can get closer to Mr. Wallace than Mr. Combs. "Graduation" symbolically ends this legendary trilogy, but what's next? One can only hope it's as good.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

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