When Kanye West released Graduation on September 11, 2007, it was the candy-colored, beatwise album that, famously, beat 50 Cent for a battle over release date bragging rights. But, 10 years later, we can see how it also pointed the way towards the AutoTuned vocals, EDM and arena rock influences that would help define the next decade in rap. This focused collection of 13 songs touched on his complex relationships with fame, his father, his hometown of Chicago and his “big brother” Jay-Z; and leaped into the world of experimental art via the Takashi Murikami album cover.
To celebrate the album’s 10th anniversary, here are some things you may not know about Graduation.
Kanye released an early version of “Homecoming” nearly five years earlier
Kanye West created a voluminous catalog of demo and mixtape tracks in the early days of his transition from buzzing producer to superstar rapper, and lines from those songs were often revised and reused throughout his first three albums. The most prominent instance is “Homecoming,” which takes its verses from “Home,” a College Dropout outtake that appeared on his 2002 mixtape Get Well Soon….The original beat and John Legend hook are replaced with a completely new track and chorus featuring Coldplay’s Chris Martin. But West’s lyrics, a Chicago-centric riff on Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” are more or less unchanged.
50 Cent had sold nearly twice as many albums as Kanye West before losing their famous sales showdown
When Graduation and 50 Cent’s Curtis were scheduled for the same release date on September 11, 2007, the media whipped up a sales war. The two frenemies appeared together on the cover of Rolling Stone and at the VMAs, and it seemed like a perfect battle for the soul of mainstream hip-hop – tough New York gangsterism vs. emotional suburban confessionals. While Kanye West’s decisive triumph over 50 seems inevitable in retrospect, it’s easy to forget how much of an underdog he was at the time. The College Dropout and Late Registration sold a combined 7 million copies in the U.S., but 50 Cent’s own first two albums, Get Rich or Die Trying and The Massacre, sold nearly 14 million, almost exactly twice as much. West had the last laugh: Graduation sold nearly a million copies in one week, and rap became the playground of emotional heroes like Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco, Drake and J. Cole.
T-Pain isn’t the only R&B star on “Good Life”
Though T-Pain is Kanye West’s co-star on the hit “Good Life” and Michael Jackson appears via sample, two other singers make brief appearances. Toward the end of the second verse, as T-Pain answers each West couplet with “Welcome to the good life,” Ne-Yo and John Legend take over the last couple refrains. It was one of West’s first instances of using major stars in almost inaudible cameos, a practice that reached its apex with the choir of A-listers that appeared on 2010’s “All of the Lights.”
Timbaland joined sessions at the 11th hour to put oomph in the drums
Although Jon Brion and other producers contributed to Kanye West’s first two albums, Graduation was a significant step towards the production supergroups that West would often assemble to collaborate on beats on his later albums. The Daft Punk-sampling single “Stronger” was West’s first co-production with Houston hip-hop veteran Mike Dean, but even after the track was released and became a hit, West was unsatisfied with the track’s kick drum. After hearing “Stronger” alongside Timbaland’s hit “The Way I Are,” West brought Timbaland to the studio for the final album sessions days before Graduation was finalized. When it all was said and done, West mixed “Stronger” a total of 75 times.
“Everything I Am” wasn’t the only beat Common passed on
Common’s second album for West’s G.O.O.D. Music, Finding Forever, was released just a few weeks before Graduation, so it’s not surprising that there was significant overlap in the sessions for the two albums, both of which featured Dwele and DJ Premier. Kanye famously touts “Everything I Am” as a rescued Finding Forever outtake in the song’s chorus: “Common passed on this beat, I made it to a jam”. However it wasn’t the only one. The track that follows it, “The Glory,” was also offered to Common before West wound up using the track.
“I Wonder” was inspired by U2’s “City of Blinding Lights”
Kanye West joined U2’s Vertigo Tour for several dates in 2005 and 2006, and watching the band open shows with 2005 single “City of Blinding Lights” made him envious of how the Irish quartet’s big melodic sound filled stadiums. So the slower, more melodic cadence and building anthemic energy of “I Wonder” and other songs on Graduation was in part West’s attempt at making rap music that worked the same way in live venues.
West met “Flashing Lights” vocalist Connie Mitchell’s band in an Australian diner
One of the most distinctive sounds on Graduation is the voice of Connie Mitchell, who utters the title of “Flashing Lights,” sings on “Champion” and appears as a loop on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” Those moments were all the result of a chance meeting in a diner in Sydney, Australia. West was in town for the Australian leg of his tour with U2, and struck up a conversation with two members of the group Sneaky Sound System, who recommended West invite their singer to the studio.
West sent a handwritten letter to Steely Dan to clear the “Champion” sample
Steely Dan never really knew what to make of hip-hop and tended to play hardball when rappers ask to sample the band’s impeccably produced jazz-rock grooves. Most famously, Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz had to give the band sole writing credit and a six-figure advance to use the sample on their 1998 hit “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby).” Kanye West didn’t have to fork over all his publishing to use 1976’s “Kid Charlemagne” on “Champion,” but he did make a personal appeal to get their approval. “We said ‘no’ at first,” Donald Fagen told Complex in 2012. “And then he wrote us a hand-written letter that was kind of touching, about how the song was about his father.”
Kanye West had a Spinal Tap moment on the tour in support of Graduation
A few months after the release of Graduation, Kanye West embarked on the Glow in the Dark Tour, which kicked off his run of tours marked by increasingly ambitious and creative stage design. But the massively successful tour was not without incident, with West infamously taking the stage eight hours behind schedule at Bonnaroo. In Sacramento, West slipped up and referred to the city he was in as “Seattle,” where he’d played two nights earlier, every touring musician’s nightmare as immortalized in Spinal Tap’s famous “Hello, Cleveland” scene.
While recording Graduation, Kanye West made a Comedy Central pilot
During sessions for Graduation in L.A. at the Record Plant, Kanye West and longtime collaborator Rhymefest started joking around in the studio and spitballing an idea for a grown-up puppet show in the vein of Crank Yankers. Soon, the two Chicago rappers were linking up with Jimmy Kimmel to shoot the Alligator Boots pilot for Comedy Central and meeting with comedy writers during the recording of “Flashing Lights.” The show was never picked up, and within a year West had moved on to another TV pet project, another unaired comedy pilot for HBO. One thing that did come out of the Alligator Boots: West insisted on casting Kim Kardashian (then known solely for a sex tape) in a sketch. The future spouses met for the first time on the project.