It’s dizzying to think about how much Kanye’s life has changed since Graduation was released a decade ago (on Sept. 11, 2007). His mother, Donda, would die two months later, and the next spring he’d quietly break up with his fashion designer fiancée, Alexis Phifer. His shocking assertion that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” had happened two years earlier (almost to the day), but the act that would mar his public persona even more — “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time” — was still months away. And Kim Kardashian was just an acquaintance — not yet his wife or the mother of his two, soon to be three, young children.
In hindsight, Graduation might have been the last album that Old Kanye — happy, ambitious, a car-accident survivor made stronger by that which did not kill him — would ever create. It’s not perfect, by any means; I still don’t know how multiple people said yes to the droning snoozefest of “Drunk and Hot Girls,” and I’ve never been a fan of “The Good Life,” despite how nice it is to hear at a barbecue. (Yes, I know I’m in the minority here.)
But think about the bravado of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” or the aural adrenaline shot of “Stronger.” Even the smooth, sublime “Good Morning” is just so fresh and untethered — it’s Kanye living in a pure, creative dream-space. Compare that with something harsh and ferocious like Yeezus‘s “Black Skinhead”: The song is also brilliant, but it’s dark and rough from years of private pain and public backlash.
Graduation is so pure and joyful, and I imagine it’s because Kanye simply had less to worry about. His place in the music landscape was solidified, with two acclaimed albums and a bucket of high-profile producing credits behind him. He was in a (seemingly) happy and (definitely) private relationship, and he was the most innovative person in rap music at the time. Graduation feels like it was a place for him to experiment and play. I mean, what’s more unselfconscious and playful than sampling Steely Dan on “Champion”?
New Kanye is still doing okay, of course. Musically, all those struggles since September 2007 have made his work even more complex, as with his sonic masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (which got a straight ‘A’ from EW back in 2010), Yeezus, and last year’s The Life of Pablo. But when I listen to Graduation now, 10 years later, it feels like the end of something. It’s Old Kanye’s last great album — and one so full of cocky smiles and sunshine, I don’t think he could ever make it again.