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How Kanye West Gained a Global Audience with ‘Graduation’

Breaking barriers by owning all arenas, Boardroom explores how Kanye condensed eras, ears, and all expectations for his pop pinnacle.

Mass appeal is a station rarely seen in the arts. In business, you can have the biggest bottom line. In sports, you can be crowned the heavyweight champ. But to take the title in a subjective space like music? That’s a tough task.

Fifteen years ago, Kanye West did exactly that with the release of his third studio solo project, Graduation.

Coming off back-to-back Album of the Year nominations at the Grammy Awards, West was somehow both the toast of the recording industry and an up-and-coming underdog.

Graduation
Kanye West performs at BET studios on August 21, 2007 in New York City. (John Ricard/FilmMagic)

For an artist not nuanced in dancing and singing, he was competing with U2 and Justin Timberlake for universal accolades. At times, he was also competing with himself when it came to awards, having produced tracks for Alicia Keys, Usher, and other high-profile nominees.

However, on Sept. 11, 2007, he was competing with a force far more fierce: 50 Cent.

Taking on rap’s biggest bully, Kanye put his arrogance on the line by battling the G-Unit frontman for a SoundScan clash. Keep in mind, 50’s last project — 2005’s The Massacre — sold 1.15 million records in four days.

Not only was West going against a marketing machine backed by Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Interscope, he was laying it all on the line in the bloodsport of rap.

The ultimate underdog in this battle, Kanye kept his eye on the prize while engaging with all the pre-match festivities. However, Kanye’s real competition was not 50 Cent; it was Radiohead, The Killers, and Amy Winehouse.

See, to be the biggest thing from Chicago since Michael Jordan wore a Bulls jersey, the bar was Michael Jackson, not Mike Jones.

Because of this, Kanye went on an absolute tear for all of 2007, perfecting an album that could get rotation on pop stations and still garner the respect of rap royalty and indie audiences alike. While Graduation feels effortless in retrospect, West was absolutely intent on just how big his brand could be.

“If you’re driving in a car and you’re trying to get to another lane, you’re looking for your opportunity to get in this lane, right?” Kanye posed to Marc Ecko in a 2007 Complex cover story. “My goal is to be on the freeway in a fucking plane. In all lanes at all times.”

Boardroom breaks down the Kanye classic track by track, offering an outline of the totality and scope of Graduation as an album and marketing rollout.

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Good Morning

Shelving skits in favor of a welcoming opener, “Good Morning” greets all audiences with warmth, setting the stage for the retro-future sound. Painting palatably in technicolor, those close to Kanye considered it a first-round knockout not based on aggressiveness but rather progressiveness.

“Kanye had a listening session in a movie theater and I’ll never forget it,” Mos Def, now known as Yassin Bey, recalled recently on Drink Champs.

“You came into the movie theater and he had programs with all of the songs and some of the lyrics. There’s caramel popcorn and edited visuals from anime movies that he liked. He played that in sync with the music. The moment that he did that and I left the theater? I was like, ‘Kanye wins.’ I don’t care what 50 Cent got in the tank, he is not beating this album at this time. It was so creative.”

Attuned to early iPhones as a wake-up alarm, “Good Morning” inverted the ethos introduced in Jay-Z’s Blueprint by bringing rap into the future rather than taking it back to soul samples of the past. Imagining music without era or genre, the intro paid homage to the 2001 Hov classic he helped produce while establishing Ye as an artist that knew no bounds.

“I mean ‘Good Morning?'” Bey beamed. “Graduation is like a Thriller moment that people don’t properly appreciate. It kept the record industry floating for at least the next five years. It helped them transition into the whole streaming model. I mean, who performs like that? It wasn’t Coldplay, it wasn’t U2, it was Kanye West with a beautifully, cleanly produced album that was pure hip-hop.”

Accessibility was at the core of Graduation and it all started with the opening track. Years later on Yeezus, West would take the opposite approach by jolting the audience with the distorted dance record, “On Site.” Here to impress, not to impose, West set the groundwork for an even wider net, redrawing The Dropout Bear in Takashi Murakami art, animated as if the art school slacker was now an iced-out Marty McFly.

He was.

Champion

Adhering to Chris Rock’s criticism of no rap songs about dads, Kanye dug into his toolbox and pulled out “Champion.” By tributing his photographer father in an inspirational everyman sense, he doubled down on an appeal to actual ’07-era parents by sampling Steely Dan.

Like West, the jazz-rock duo defied genre and assumptions about audience demographics. Appealing to all by being true to themselves, Steely Dan finds fanfare ranging from The Simpsons to Andre 3000. Knowing how to layer levels of artistry with that of collaborative partners, Kanye called in Muppets creator Jim Henson for the song’s 2008 music video.

High on humor and big on foreshadowing, the song’s clip sees a puppet version of Kanye training for a spoof of that summer’s Olympic Games. West would run 2008 at a sprint pace, partnering with sportswear giant Nike while launching the Glow in the Dark Tour with help from Henson.

In some senses, the “Champion” video was set into Kanye’s love of dad jokes. Famously, West was working on a Comedy Central series called Alligator Boots, a spoof of The Muppet Show written by Jordan Peele that never made it to air.

Stronger

In the latter months of 2005, Kanye West went on the road as an opening act for U2’s Vertigo Tour. Taking on stadium-sized audiences from Auckland to Omaha, West learned on the fly just how massive a song had to be if it were to rock upward of 87,000 fans.

Enter “Stronger.”

Abandoning the soul samples of the past that powered “Slow Jams,” “Through the Wire,” “Gold Digger,” and “Touch the Sky,” West went to the future by enlisting Daft Punk for what became a No. 1 hit. Juxtaposing drums from Timbaland with Akira imagery, the club smash charted everywhere from New Zealand to the UK, all aided by a big-budget Hype Williams video.

“Kanye almost had a brain aneurysm, editing this video for three months,” then road manager Don C told MTV in 2007. “Literally, 10 weeks of editing going back in. Then, he still was not satisfied, so he shot more footage in New York. Kanye put everything else on halt. He was in the editing suite till 4 or 5 in the morning. He went way over budget editing, sitting in them expensive editing suites. He kept going — and not only kept going, but he wanted to shoot more footage.”

All the hard work paid off. Not only did “Stronger” go platinum in six countries — including 8x platinum in Australia — it established Kanye visually as an absolute style icon to a global audience. Previewing Pastelle in lyrics while rocking Japanese sneakers once thought to be his Nike collab, West had his real “one glove” moment in the form of the famous shutter shades.

The Alain Mikli sunglasses stole the show despite the Daft Punk robots and Tokyo setting, making the louvered lens so mass that every kiosk around the world was selling them for years to come. While West didn’t make a direct dime from the impact of his influence on eyewear in 2007, his equity increased exponentially all with one video.

Less than a year later at the 2008 Grammy Awards, the power of “Stronger” would provide the stage to introduce the product that would finally leverage all his cultural cache: the Nike Air Yeezy 1.

I Wonder

As alluded to, Kanye’s time spent opening internationally for U2 made a major impression on him. To that point, every song on Graduation was designed to be stadium status: big records built off easy-to-echo lyrics and hooks.

At 2021’s Free Larry Hoover Benefit Concert, proof of concept came through 14 years later as fans sang along to “I Wonder” despite the album cut never being released on radio. Where promotion lacked, connectivity shone through as West reached an audience of 70,000 in-person attendees and Amazon stream-watchers in over 240 countries.

Essentially a relationship record, Kanye’s song is about aspirations, romantic conflicts, and where exactly worth and meaning truly reside between the two tropes. In 2022, the conviction and conflict prove just as true for Ye in 2007 as it does for fans. From a sonic standpoint, the nods to new wave foreshadow his next effort, 808s & Heartbreak, while Jon Brion’s brilliance on Late Registration remains in tow.

Even as an album cut, “I Wonder” exemplifies Graduation’s retro-future grandeur with the balance of brashness and vulnerability that made fans fall in love with Kanye from the start.

Good Life

Everyone recalls Kanye West storming the stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, but most forget him doing the same thing at the 2006 MTV Europe Awards. Flying overseas assuming he’d win Best Video for “Touch the Sky,” Ye boozed before the ceremony and interrupted dance duo, Justice, as it took home the trophy for “We Are Your Friends.”

While it played like bad press for West at the time, it was actually the start of a beautiful friendship. When working on “Stronger,” he reached out to then-Daft Punk manager Pedro Winter to clear the song’s sample. As it turned out, Winter also managed Justice. Embarrassed about the incident, Ye revealed he was a big fan.

And just as Ye was working on new music and video, so was Justice.

2007’s “D.A.N.C.E.” was produced in Paris months before the EMA incident, readying a release that deserved a visual just as big. A tribute to Michael Jackson, the song interpolated numerous hits by the King of Pop, strung soulfully together in a manner that defied genre and crossed borders. All the while, West worked on a parallel path.

Graduation’s “Good Life” sampled the Thriller favorite “P.Y.T.,” massive in messaging and made even bigger by an assist from radio resident T-Pain. To debut the song, Entourage rolled out the red carpet for a Kanye cameo and closing credits introduction. For its accompanying music video, the EMA incident played out in full circle fashion.

Enlisting Jonas & François for direction with animation by So-Me, Kanye hired the same crew that handled visual creation for Justice’s smash singles. Commercially, “Good Life” went 3x platinum in the US with charting performances globally. Critically, it was nominated for 13 major awards, winning eight of them.

When it was all said and done, justice was served.

Can’t Tell Me Nothing

For all the mainstream ambitions angled toward Graduation, Kanye knew it was all for nothing if he didn’t have the streets. To start the rollout for his third album, the first single was not “Good Life” nor “Stronger.”

Rather, it was “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.”

On May 17, 2007, West went straight to Hot 97 to debut the album’s first single. In sonics and sentiment, the self-proclaimed “theme song” was made in the image of Young Jeezy: the thug motivator from Atlanta that was moving units, spirits, and Snowman tees through the release of back-to-back platinum albums.

Bringing in DJ Toomp, the producer behind Jeezy’s “I Luv It” and “I Got Money,” West poured out his soul over synths and Connie Mitchell vocals for what many consider the realest shit he ever wrote. Backed by an arena rock sing-a-long hook and of-the-moment mixtape rollout, West met hip-hop’s core fanbase right where they were at while still introducing them to new sounds and ideas.

On the corresponding Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape, Kanye rapped over everything from Rich Boy to Peter Bjorn and John, previewing singles from the upcoming Common album and breaking Big Sean as a G.O.O.D. Music artist. The project, co-hosted by A&R Plain Pat, in many ways laid out the formula for A Kid Named Cudi, which was released a year after.

More than anything, it laid out West’s biggest street single — one that went 4x platinum — while showing his ability to operate and excel in what felt like multiple worlds.

“For me, to have a party at the Louis Vuitton store and then to get into the car and hear Kay Slay playing ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ was the greatest accomplishment for me,” West told Ecko in Complex.

“That was like the airplane thing. You’re in all lanes.”

Barry Bonds

Graduation
photo by Phoevin Winter/Getty Images

When working on Graduation, Kanye keyed in on being the sole voice for the duration of the album.

Though much of his magic historically was merging artists of opposing audiences on the same track, this project was all about positioning him as the lone lyricist in the same fashion Brendan Flowers was with The Killers. This wasn’t based on ego, but rather on continuity in concert.

However, exceptions must be made to the recognize the moment. Just as Jay-Z allowed Eminem on “Renegade” — The Blueprint’s only guest verse — Kanye conceded to the greatness of Lil Wayne on “Barry Bonds.”

Epitomizing rap on steroids, Wayne was in the midst of a flurry of features and monster run of mixtapes that’s inspired the likes of Future, Drake, and others since, but hasn’t truly been replicated.

Though 2Pac was well revered for his work ethic, platforms in the ’90s didn’t allow for the proliferation of content as they did in the ’00s. From Family Guy-style tangents to quotables on unofficial projects that still stand today, one could easily argue that the Mixtape Weezy version of every early aughts rap single was better than the take that charted.

Bringing in Nottz, the VA producer responsible for many a raw NYC album cut, Ye sparred with Wayne for what’s essentially a high-stakes intermission. At the time, they were the only two rappers truly trying to be rock stars and actually pulling it off. At that moment, they were exchanging punchlines pointed at their purist critics, similar to what Drake and Rick Ross did years later on “Lord Knows.”

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Additionally, the song somewhat gave birth to two of the biggest trends in the 2010s: the naming of a song after a public figure phenomenon popularized by Lil B and the hashtag flow famed by Big Sean.

To many, the home run derby duet is a quick casual flex. To rap’s elite, it’s much more.

“I mean, ‘Barry Bonds?'” Bey continued on the Drink Champs podcast. “What are we even talking about? This shit was out of control.”

Drunk & Hot Girls

photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

In a recently uploaded and since-deleted Instagram post, Kanye West detailed his all-time favorite comedians, starting with himself, pivoting to Anthony Jeselnik, and closing with Kevin Hart, specifically in Jumanji.

A fan of himself and extremes, “Drunk and Hot Girls” dives into situational humor by blurring the line between comedy and tragedy. Getting out the demons of “Gold Digger” — a song that still stands as his biggest hit — West recruited rapper/thespian Mos Def for a sung refrain for an anti-hit.

A fan of Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords, Ye cut a track that reads like an odd SNL short. Working with Jon Brion and featuring a sample from “Sing Swan Song,” all parties agreed on the idea of an unusual party song.

Like alcohol, it’s a downer. In turn, it’s a palette cleanser for the bright direction the rest of the album takes.

Flashing Lights

A Getty Image search of ‘Kanye West 2007’ reveals not just an array of red carpet looks and big stage performances, but more so an abundance of Fashion Week appearances from the year prior.

Previewing presentations from Vivienne Westwood to Marc Jacobs from New York to Paris, West, and then-fiance Alexis Phifer, took in inspiration right on the runway.

Knowing the silhouettes and themes set to reach retail a year ahead, “Flashing Lights” leaned into the posh world of wearable art long loved by West. Futuristic and retro at the same time, the song was equal parts “Billie Jean” and Blondie, sashaying at a pace all fans in any arena could recite.

This fashion-forward approach to hip-hop pissed off OGs like KRS-One but enticed up-and-comers like Charles Hamilton and Wale.

Produced in part by Eric Hudson, a wunderkind whose father co-wrote “Holiday” by Madonna, the New Jersey native helped Kanye set the mood of being front row in Italy the same way he helped John Legend bring fans in on a romantic rendevous with 2006’s “PDA.”

Ever the artist, Kanye refrained from making “Flashing Lights” the totem pop crossover by going completely against the grain with the song’s video. Working with Spike Jonze, he upended model memes by bringing in Rita G of KING fame rather than a stick-figure of the Vogue variety. Both the song and his life are cut short in the slightly NSFW clip, upending any ideas of TRL or 106 & Park spins during the daytime.

Years later, when taking to Ustream to talk about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West cited “Flashing Lights” as his favorite music video he’d ever made. Despite never reaching its pop potential through countdown shows, the song still came off as a crossover commercial success, scoring Ciroc commercials and hitting No. 1 in the UK.

Everything I Am

If “Flashing Lights” proves the most proactive song on Graduation, “Everything I Am” may be the least. Leave it to Kanye West to make said song go viral.

Appearing on Saturday Night Live in an episode hosted by LeBron James, Kanye fumbled the lyrics when performing a song about imperfection. Owning the moment, he pivoted into an impromptu freestyle that made more noise.

All along, the song’s forward-facing subtext spoke to just how much Kanye was doing in 2007.

Months before Graduation came out, Common released Finding Forever — the anticipated follow-up to 2005’s Be. Once again, West was behind the boards as the album’s executive producer. All the while working on futuristic stadium-sized sounds for Graduation, he was crafting conscious singles for Common with warmth as an homage to the late J Dilla.

Though Common passed on “Everything I Am,” Finding Forever still went on to gain three Grammy nominations in 2008. It went No. 1 in the US the same year Graduation dropped, providing the grounded zag to Ye’s sky-high ambitions.

The Glory

photo by M. Caulfield/WireImage for The Recording Academy

“Can I talk my shit again?” is an interesting opener for someone who’s never asked for permission to speak.

On “The Glory,” the first song previewed in an on-stage freestyle from Kanye long before Graduation was released, West big-ups himself in an acceptance speech style send-off. While the track doesn’t end the album, it does offer an almost final chapter to the sped-up soul sample production that helped Ye break.

In an alternate universe where Kanye’s not designing sneakers for Nike and Louis Vuitton all at once, writing a taste-making blog, and recruiting Daft Punk for a genre-shaking sound, “The Glory” is the first single off Graduation and an easy segue into the scrapped follow-up, A Good Ass Job.

Instead, it’s a thank you to his College Dropout day-ones.

And, of course, himself.

Homecoming

Much like “The Glory” is a nod to those long on board, “Homecoming” is a motion that he’s ironically left home and never looked back.

Inverting a warm mixtape cut think with a Chicago accent and pre-fame John Legend howling, “Homecoming” reinvents Freshman Adjustment fan favorite / The College Dropout leftover, “Home,” in favor of a Chris Martin chorus and pop-leaning production. Even if the lyrics are almost identical, it’s a totally different song in sonic and sentiment.

Day 1 fans will tell you “Home” is better, and they’re not wrong. However, Kanye already had that audience. He’d already performed at The Knitting Factory in 2003 with his eyes set on the Super Bowl in 3003. More Jetsons, let’s Jeffersons, the sounds and stages were only intended to get bigger at this point.

Big Brother

Graduation opens with an homage to The Blueprint and ends with one just the same.

On “Big Brother,” Kanye leans into “Last Call” style storytelling to discuss his admiration for his hero, Jay-Z. In one sense, bringing it back to the GOAT is the most hip-hop thing West could’ve done to close out his pop masterpiece. In another way, it was a counter-culture move in regard to giving flowers in the competitive sport of rap.

Carrying more about range than rules, West crafted an arena rock anthem intended for fans from Oakland to Auckland to raise their lighters and give it up for NYC’s storied MC. Addressing uncertainty inside the Roc and uncertainty amongst his peers, Ye uses specific real-life examples to tell a tale truly larger than life. In a way, it foreshadows Jay-Z’s eventual path to take on festival crowds and employ a live band.

Coming in at 13 tracks, Graduation mirrors The Blueprint in structure but opposes it in sound. Kanye proves that the only way an artist can create their future is by not resting on the wins of their past. Not only did Ye win the release date battle with 50 Cent, taking place on 9/11 just like The Blueprint, but he also shifted the entire industry and audience.

“It felt like a referendum,” Bey said. “This side or this side is going to determine the cultural direction for this group for at least the next five years, if not the full generation. In my opinion, that’s what Graduation did. It opened up the paradigm creatively for what could be viewed as ground-breaking and inventive with also having a big scale. There was nobody at that type of pop culture scale who was being that creative, especially in hip-hop.”

As alluded to, it wasn’t a given he would win by any means. The ultimate underdog, he had to dive deep into his self-belief while attempting to reach the masses.

photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage

“It was around the time of him and 50 and who was going to be the king of hip hop,” Bey notes. “This is 50 post-Get Rich or Die Tryin’, so he’s up. Get Rich or Die Tryin’? I don’t care what you feel about gangster rap or even 50 himself, that shit is classic. 50’s up and loaded up with another one. So there was that whole battle that they were very happy to have.”

On Sep. 11, 2007, Kanye West won culture’s civil war through innovation and democracy. In 2022, fans from that era feel conflicted about Ye’s current conquests and means of mass messaging, though often forget the tragedy that took place after Graduation‘s epic ascent.

Losing his mother to medical malpractice and ending his engagement with Alexis Phifer, Kanye continued on the global Glow in the Dark Tour, taking his dreams to new heights while living the depths of his nightmares. Sobbing on stage, the passionate performer experienced one of the cruelest summer seasons of life by experiencing the highest highs and lowest lows all in a matter of months.

The pain and productivity created 808s & Heartbreak, which in turn opened the lane for an up-and-coming artist named Drake. Whether Kanye experienced loss or win, he always amplified it through art.

Where West goes next with fashion or politics is anyone’s guess in 2022. Where West took music and culture 15 years ago is a gift that still inspires.

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