While Graduation is far from the electro-house record some fans predicted when the Daft Punk-sampling "Stronger" first leaked, Kanye's interest in French house and rave extend beyond that one track. The stunning "I Wonder" combines a gentlemanly, piano-led sample (courtesy of 70s folk/jazz artist Labi Siffre) with a frizzy synth lead and alien-sounding keys, only to drown it all out with a massive swoop of strings; the weirdly dystopian club track "Drunk and Hot Girls" lurches along at a snail's pace, mixing Can's "Sing Swan Song" with a blend of gypsy music and detuned electronics for maximum queasiness; and the string-led "Flashing Lights" marries a Bond-worthy coda to staccato sounds and cut-up vocal samples. Where lesser producers have tried to bridge this gap only to wind up with beats that sound like bad mashups, West and co-producer DJ Toomp (T.I., "What You Know") make the juxapositions feel utterly natural. Combined with some other familiar source material ("Champion", for example, nicks from Steely Dan), that undercurrent of experimentation puts Kanye's talents to good use.
And that's barely scratching the surface. Aside from the patchy "Barry Bonds" (on which an inspired West confounds the odds by drastically outsmarting an uncharacteristically lazy Lil Wayne on the mic), nearly everything here feels tight and inventive. The aforementioned "I Wonder" and "Flashing Lights" are immediate highlights, as is the old-school gospel rave-up of "The Glory" and future smash "Good Life", which features T-Pain pitting his autotuned hooks against a bed of summery, squealing synths. Previous singles "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Stronger" somehow take on new life in context of the record, and even the Chris Martin-aided "Homecoming" feels like it hits the right notes.
Lyrically, West is magnanimous, corny, self-aggrandizing, and likeable in the all the usual ways. The difference here is that he's dialed down his inner conflict. The neurotic inner monologues of his most engaging verses are virtually absent here. If there's one criticism to be made of Graduation, it's that in striving for universality, he's sacrificed a more personal dimension of himself. The only time we even really get close to the mental hand-wringing of his early albums is on the closing "Big Brother", where he details his lifelong admiration for Jay-Z and hints at the post-Dropout turbulence between the two, before riffing on his own chorus to conclude: "My big brother was Big's brother/ So here's a few words from ya kid brother/ If you admire somebody you should go head and tell 'em/ People never get the flowers while they can still smell 'em".
Of course, West's true genius has always come out in his production work, and hearing him find natural ways of fitting these disparate elements together is worth the increased number of Louis Vee brags. While it might not be as substantial a record as we're used to hearing from him, it is his greatest leap forward, and further proof that few are as skilled at tracing out the complicated contours of pride, success and ambition as he is.