From his introductory single "Through The Wire" onward, Kanye West has trafficked in naked emotional transparency. The College Dropout was a thrillingly intimate chronicle of his evolution from faux-underdog (true underdogs generally don't launch solo rapping careers with millions in the bank, a wall full of platinum plaques, and the ringing endorsement of Jay-Z) to hip-hop superstar. By the time 2005's Late Registration came around, West had grown into a charismatic monster of id and ego while retaining his rich musicality and irresistible sense of humor.
West's surprisingly brief new Graduation is half ecstatic victory lap, half moody price-of-fame lament. The 13 song titles say it all: "Champion," the monster techno-funk anthem "Stronger," "Good Life," "The Glory," and "Barry Bonds" all revel in the trappings of success, even as the terrific hyper-soul single "Can't Tell Me Nothing" tempers that enthusiasm with the haunting realization that for someone who's hit the top, there's nowhere to go but down, and the public's love has a tricky way of curdling into resentment.
With just a few guests to offset his rapping—Li'l Wayne raps, while Mos Def, Dwele, and T-Pain each sing a bit—West's rough edges stand in sharper relief, from cornball pop-culture references (Snakes On A Plane, anyone?) to the way his lines sometimes don't rhyme, no matter how much he twists and contorts them. West continues to undercut his raging self-aggrandizement with sly self-deprecation, an open mind, and a broad musical palette that occasionally gets him into trouble, as when he has Chris Martin sing the hook for a song about West's hometown (because who embodies Chicago's rich musical heritage better than the dude from Coldplay?), or has Mos Def contribute a lovely little vocal to an otherwise dreary track ("Drunk And Hot Girls") that takes all the fun out of boorish misogyny. Fascinatingly flawed, Graduation finds an imperfect man seeking, and occasionally finding, perfection in his music.