There is no bigger lie on Graduation than when Kanye West claims he doesn't "try hard," as he does on the single "Can't Tell Me Nothing." West tries extremely hard at everything he does. And unlike his hip-hop and rock peers -- most of whom want Grammys and good reviews as much as he does -- he's unafraid to tell you.
On Graduation, West tries hard to address the problems on his first two albums, and succeeds: The new disc is tighter than Late Registration (fifty-one minutes long), with no skits (thank heavens) and less ornate production. None of the beats clobber you as immediately as "Jesus Walks" or "Gold Digger," but most of them improve on every listen: This is an album that you first like, then love. "Good Morning" elevates from a gentle hook to a perfectly chosen Jay-Z sample; "Barry Bonds" is a mix-tape song with a moaning groove that you could listen to for weeks; and on "Flashing Lights" and "Stronger," West single-handedly takes hip-hop back to its pre-Run-DMC disco days.
As a lyricist, West will never possess the pure cool or formal mastery of his mentor Jay-Z, but he's grown as a writer. (See the off-kilter, dreamlike "I Wonder.") And given the lousy year hip-hop has had, the music needs his spazzed-out, neurotic crea-tivity more than ever. As for the rest of you rappers: Try harder.
I ain't fresh out the hood/ I'm still in the hood," 50 Cent rhymes in "Fully Loaded Clip," feeling the heat even if he just sold 5 million copies of The Massacre a couple of years ago. He's out to prove he's everything he used to claim ("Still in da club, still sipping bub") while rocking "more whips than a runaway slave." Like The Massacre, Curtis divides between hard songs ("Man Down," "Fire," "I'll Still Kill") and soft songs ("Follow My Lead"), for the first time letting guests sing most of the hooks. Fiddy revisits old streets in "Straight to the Bank," produced by Ty Fyffe and Dr. Dre, while "Peep Show" brings back Eminem.
"My Gun Go Off" has a metal-guitar hook a la "Party Like a Rock Star," "I'll Still Kill" lets Akon thug out, and the summer jam "I Get Money" takes off on Naughty by Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray." The down side? The I-need-love pop tunes are not getting any better, even with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake in the stripper ditty "AYO Technology."
"Follow My Lead" is an inexplicable Robin Thicke duet ("Like Janet Jackson said, I miss you much/I really wanna feel your touch"), and "Amusement Park" is even sillier ("Watch me as I pull a rabbit out my hat/It won't be a rabbit, it'll be a gat"). Much better is "All of Me," with Mary J. Blige. Wailing, "I got a feeling like I'm fiending on crack," Blige steals the show without even trying.