NEW YORK — Welcome to the G.O.O.D. life, where being recognized as one of the world’s biggest rap stars is just a stepping stone to planetary domination and everything you do is a movie. Kanye West hosted a listening session for his upcoming album, Graduation, on Tuesday night at Manhattan’s New World Stages, and if you know anything about how ’Ye does at his events, he’s going to give you something to talk about — especially with the tastemakers of the music industry in attendance.
Walking up to the door of the theater offered reassurance that West was going to deliver. Q-Tip of the legendary A Tribe Called Quest — a group Kanye has often said he channeled for some of his earlier music — was standing in the front, shaking hands and throwing “What’s up”s to a few of his acquaintances. Yup, Kanye is making the night a movie. When you got inside, Def Jam employees were handing out special programs filled with all the lyrics from West’s new LP as well as the cartoonish album artwork. Also included with the program were replicas of Kanye’s white, retro shades from the “Stronger” video.
Attendees then got on an escalator going down, where banana and blueberry smoothies were waiting, as were bags of the beloved Garrett’s popcorn. If you know anything about Chicago, Garrett’s is an essential part of the city’s cuisine, just as the Cubs are to the sports scene.
Inside, a bunch of people were mingling until the crowd was allowed to enter the actual auditorium, where a screen was planted on the stage and the seats quickly filled.
Kanye came out of the shadows and addressed his supporters.
“I feel this album is a comeback for me,” he said. “I was dealing with a lot of backlash.” He then went on to call Graduation the best album of his career and one of the top 10 best hip-hop albums of all-time.
“Thank you all for coming,” he added, then he let the music play.
Graduation is one of the most anticipated and important albums of the year because, for one, Kanye — despite his talks of a comeback — has built one of the strongest reputations in music, period. And on the basis of the tracks from the album that have crept out so far, talk among the audience members was not about whether the album would be good, but whether it would be his best. Plus, let’s be real: Kanye drops on September 11 (in case you haven’t heard three million times already: see “Kanye West Thanks 50 Cent For Much-Hyped Rivalry: ’We Push Each Other’ “ ), so that means in a year when most fans can count on one hand (and probably have a finger or two to spare) how many extraordinary hip-hop albums came out, Kanye is one of our last hopes. Everyone is ready for a hip-hop album that they can listen to for months, not just a week or two.
“Stronger,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Barry Bonds” and snippets of “Big Brother” and “Champion” had spoken volumes for the Chi-town native, hitting hard in advance of the LP. Kanye’s in a good spot.
The listening started with “Good Morning,” simplistic in its chorus — which repeats the song title time after time — but slick and aggressively keen in the verses. The track includes lines like: “I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary/ … Good morning, look at the valedictorian/ Some are scared of the future while I hop in the DeLorean.” Meanwhile, scenes of “2001: A Space Odyssey” played on the screen while lights flashed, going along with the thump of the beat. You almost felt like you were at a concert.
The celebratory “Champion” followed with sentiments of inspiration flooding the house: “Did you realize, that you are a champion?” On the track, West samples from Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” riding the loop of the phrase “their eyes” as if it were an instrument itself.
“I wanted to make songs that are people’s theme songs,” Kanye would say later in the night, referencing records such as “Champion” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” “What are you going through?”
Throughout the night, Kanye showed his many inspirations — from Japanese anime to “Tron” to Jay-Z — on the screen while the music played.
“Drunk and Hot Girls,” with its slow, carnival sideshow bounce, features one of the few guest cameos on the album (Mos Def, who was also in attendance) and finds Kanye looking for some shorties, but he finds more than he bargains for, pleading with one not to vomit in his vehicle, and in the end, his hookup lasts longer than he would have liked.
Kanye said “I Wonder,” with its heavy strings, is his version of U2’s “City of Blinding Lights.” He said he was inspired by watching Bono open stadium tours every night to incredible ovations. He concentrated on speaking volumes without using too many words on that one. West also said that throughout the album he simplified some of his rhymes, because he would be on tour with the Rolling Stones and couldn’t always rock the crowd with his most complex lyrics.
“I’d be saying my super raps, and this 50-year-old white lady would be looking like, ’I can’t wait till the Rolling Stones come on,’ ” he laughed. West also described Graduation as being “whiter” than his last two projects and “blacker” than his other works. His range on the album definitely is undeniable. He goes from giving the girls a club anthem on “Flashing Lights” to vintage Kanye soul loops on “The Glory” (“While y’all was in limbo, I raised the bar up,” he rhymes on the record) to his next single, “Good Life,” on which the lyrics go from boastful to comical.
“Well f—ing done,” one man sitting in the front row kept yelling as the album came to an end and West came back onstage.
Kanye closed by explaining that his music was neither negative nor positive: It’s reality. And he also likened MCs to men of the cloth.
“Rappers are like the modern-day preachers of our time,” he said. “Songs are like proverbs.”
Well, the applause he was getting sounded like an “Amen.”
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