After nearly two hours of flaccid social satire, this summer's The Nanny Diaries (bear with me for a second) delivered a soothing message to that generation walking the fine line between anxiety-riddled procrastination and delayed gratification: "Stay in school, kids". The film's protagonist, who comes from the Carrie Bradshaw school of anthropology, heads to graduate school after her three-month foray into the “working” world of Manhattan nannying isn't as pleasant as what she blissfully, ignorantly imagines academia to be. She doesn't know what she wants, only that she wants to be happy. And in what setting are you going to find more happiness montages: in some spirit-crushing office or in the utopia of the classroom?
A much better movie would use the music of Kanye West in these montages, but not just because of the superficial narrative arc you might sketch across his three albums. Sure, The College Dropout announced Kanye's arrival with the pent-up energy and libido of a freshman on move-in day. Yes, Late Registration celebrated his position among rap's elite with the chaotic charm of a senior sweet-talking his way into an A. "I guess this is my dissertation", he laments on the opening track of Graduation, but it doesn't really ring true. Kanye fancies the album be a capstone marking his passage from hip-hop's pure pleasure pursuit to some nebulous, grown-up newness. What remains unclear is why he feels the need to move beyond his infectious egocentrism and ear for hyper-soul sampling, an equation still being put to good use (by himself and myriad copycats) to redefine the hip-hop-as-pop-music formula. We all know math is useless outside the classroom anyway. Kanye just doesn't want to admit he'd make a great academic.
This tension results in tracks that vacillate between swaggering braggadocio and self-conscious laments. The wary album opener “Good Morning (Intro)” is followed by the celebratory “Champion.” In the following pair, “Stronger” spins Daft Punk's computer-age anxieties into anthemic posturing, only to take a step aside for the plodding “I Wonder.” Critics of Kanye's staggered half-rhymes will find ample fodder here, but the track's real downfall is its scrap-heap Neptunes synthesizers. That's not to say that the vintage Kanye beatmaking, paired with a cheeky couplet, doesn't make some appearances. "Can I talk my shit again/ Even if I don't hit again?" he rhetorically asks before tearing into a sweet string arrangement on “The Glory.” Kanye even holds his own with Lil Wayne on “Barry Bonds.”
Still, he seems to get it half-right throughout. Like a good term paper, much of Graduation sounds great in theory but flounders in its execution. You might expect big things from a guest spot by Mos Def, but not when his sweet crooning is sandwiched between awkward verses about the pratfalls of drunk hookups on “Drunk & Hot Girls.” Perhaps nothing is as mind-boggling, though, as “Homecoming,” an ode to West's hometown of Chicago featuring Chris Martin. Really? Both Lupe and Common were too busy? I'd even go for R. Kelly. Anyone from near the Midwest has got to be able to sing about watching fireworks over Lake Michigan with more authenticity than Chris Martin. The very existence of the track might cynically be chalked up to crossover appeal, which might make sense were “Homecoming” the least bit radio-friendly. But Graduation seems to be less about Kanye rejecting the radio-friendly than it is about his simply stepping beyond the familiar. A daunting task, to be sure, but one that can still be achieved in the classroom.