When Kanye West's third album, Graduation, was released in August 2007, the audience response was muted. That statement needs to be qualified, however. The album's two predecessors, 2004's College Dropout and the following year's Late Registration, had earned rapturous reviews, particularly the latter, which got a perfect five-star rating from both Rolling Stone and XXL magazine, and was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy. Graduation was well received, too, but not as passionately, because it initially struck listeners as gaudy and superficial. Nevertheless, it may be West's most important album.
On West's first two albums, he carefully nurtured his backpacker, voice-of-the-people credentials. He modeled himself as a humble braggart, a star shining too bright to finish college, yet he balanced his growing arrogance with socioeconomic insights on low-wage employment ("Spaceship"), shopaholics ("All Falls Down") and thug rap as a reflection of the precarious state of the working-class black community ("Crack Music"). He wanted to be the post-millennial version of Pete Rock. But with Graduation, he largely dispensed with the "conscious" raps and narrowly focused on his desire to achieve "stadium status" despite his increasingly disastrous personal life. It was the birth of the Kanye West that we know, love and are often annoyed by today.
As West "graduated" from his underground-rap roots into pop celebrity, he developed several themes. Some of these weren't known to us at the time of Graduation's release: his flailing relationship with his fiance Alexis Phifer informed lyrics like "Flashing Lights," wherein he describes arguing with a date just as the paparazzi spots them. The end of their romance, along with the death of his mother, Donda West, would later inspire the breakup album 808s & Heartbreak. (The Wikipedia page for Graduation exhaustively sources and catalogs the various stories behind its conception.)
Musically, Graduation has numerous strands, including the confessional lyricism of early 1970s pop and rock, from Elton John and Steely Dan to Can; the fomenting electro-house scene that was largely influenced by Daft Punk; and the gauzy, piano-driven sound of arena-rock bands like U2, Keane and Coldplay. Closer to home, West was also inspired by Southern trap rappers like Young Jeezy and T.I. These sounds led him to reduce the gospel-like flourishes of past work (though they remained present, like a reminder of his past, or perhaps a guilty conscience). He simplified his melodies into soft, ringing tones that would play well in large concert venues.
As a result, Graduation seems much more profound now. More than just a well-produced star trip, it finds West unafraid to share his neurotic musings as he struggles to contain his ego and international success. He wants his struggles to seem universal and relatable to us, no matter how remote his rich man's lifestyle may be. On "I Wonder," he raps, "How many ladies in the house? ... On that independent sh*t/ Trade it all for a husband and some kids/ You ever wondered what it all really means?/ You ever wonder if you'll find your dreams?" Here are the albums he might've listened to while chasing his.