Ten years ago, Kanye West’s third album Graduation was released, selling close to a million copies in its first week and cementing his place as a leading figure in the rap game. Sonically, Graduation was a huge departure from West’s first two albums, featuring a bombastic collage of synthesizers and stadium rock pieced together by a variety of eclectic samples ranging from obscure jazz musicians to electronic heavyweights. In tribute to Graduation’s 10th anniversary, we take a look at some of the most important samples heard on the album.
‘Kid Charlemagne’ - Steely Dan (1976)
As used in ‘Champions’
‘Champion’ sees West flex over a synth-heavy track with a reggae-inspired bridge sung by Connie Mitchell, the singer for Australian synth-pop group Sneaky Sound System, and features a recurring vocal motif sampled from Steely Dan’s 1976 single ‘Kid Charlemagne’. While Steely Dan initially refused Kanye clearance from the sample, Donald Fagen told Complex that a hand-written letter from West changed their minds.
“Kanye actually sent us a sample of his tunes, and frankly, Walter and I listened to it, and although we’d love some of the income, neither of us particularly liked what he had done with it. We said 'No', at first, and then he wrote us a hand-written letter that was kind of touching, about how the song was about his father, and he said, 'I love your stuff, and I really want to use it because it’s a very personal thing for me'. My mind doesn’t work like that—I would never use someone else’s stuff if I was writing something personal, but I guess that’s how he was thinking about it. It was such a good letter that we said, 'All right, go ahead', and we made a deal with him."
‘Sing Swan Song’ - Can (1972)
As used in ‘Drunk and Hot Girls (feat. Mos Def)’
Easily the most divisive track on Graduation, ‘Drunk and Hot Girls’ interpolates both the melody and part of the chorus of ‘Sing Swan Song’ by Can, which originally appeared on their 1972 classic Ege Bamyasi. While it’s not the best track on the record, it’s definitely cool to hear West and Mos Def pay tribute to the Krautrock legends.
‘Pretty Young Thing (P.Y.T)’ - Michael Jackson (1983)
As used in ‘Good Life (feat. T-Pain)’
One of the better known cuts from the record, ‘Good Life’ is a certified club hit, with T-Pain’s autotune inflections and the squelchy '80s synths providing one of the album's instrumental highlights. However, you might not have noticed the subtle Michael Jackson sample throughout ‘Good Life’, with a section from the final chorus of his Thriller dancefloor banger ‘Pretty Young Thing (P.Y.T)’ proving to be an essential part in the refrain of the track.
‘My Song’ - Labbi Siffre (1972)
As used in ‘I Wonder’
West's signature production technique of combining thumping boom-bap beats and obscure samples is on display in ‘I Wonder’, with the rapper/producer sampling the piano and refrain of ‘My Song’ by Labbi Siffre, a British jazz and soul musician from the '70s. Siffre is no stranger to having his music sampled in hip hop, however – his groove heavy track ‘I Got The...’ was notably sampled on Eminem’s 2000 classic ‘My Name Is’.
‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ - Elton John (1975)
As used in ‘Good Morning’
The opening cut to Graduation, ‘Good Morning’ kicks off the record with a pitched-up vocal style pinched from Elton John’s mid-'70s hit ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’. West and Elton John later collaborated again on West’s 2010 magnum opus, with John playing piano on the star-studded ‘All Of The Lights.’
'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ - Daft Punk (2001)
As used in ‘Stronger’
You really can’t discuss Graduation without mentioning the album's famous Daft Punk sample – you know, the one that you literally heard every day on the radio in 2008. Apparently West mixed ‘Stronger’ almost 75 times before he was satisfied with the sound of the kick drum, eventually bringing in Timbaland to help him perfect the sound he was after. In retrospect, it was worth it – ‘Stronger’ helped to expose Daft Punk to a new hip hop audience, and allowed West to collaborate with the robots once again on his industrial 2013 LP Yeezus.
In retrospect Kanye West's third album was a graduation of sorts - it was the point in which he transitioned from hip hop's lauded new innovator to becoming a bona fide pop star in his right. While the success and acclaim of the albums on either side of Graduation have meant that it is often left out of discussions on West's impact as a musician, after ten years it is clear that he wasn't slowing down at all, merely exploting a broader palette, as exemplified in the broad ranging nature of the above samples.