Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ Still Belongs To “Us” (Essay)

Words by Stacy-Ann Ellis. Art by Sam Liacos.

See what I want so much, should never hurt this bad
Never did this before, that’s what the virgin says
We’ve been generally warned, that’s what the surgeon says
God talk to me now, this is an emergency

Kanye West’s “Bittersweet” is a trigger. The four minute long song has a funny way of turning back the clock to 10 years ago when I was *this* close to hating today’s most temperamental musical icon.

In the months before I’d come to know “Bittersweet” intimately, I’d wince at the very utterance of ‘Ye’s name. I loathed the braggadocios inflections of his voice that have since become golden sound bytes. The most irritating thing of all, though, was the sound of my then-boyfriend, James*, emphatically yelping “Kanye to the!” at any given moment. Kanye to the WHAT? I would always ask him, but a playful shrug on his end would always render my inquiry rhetorical.

My high school bae was the first one to truly introduce me to Kanye West, the artist, because he was a super fan and I hated it. I’d never met a Stan before him. His love for ‘Ye was unlike anything I’d seen before, obsessive and abnormal. James spoke to me in lyrical snippets more often than he should’ve, force-fed me factoids gathered from fan sites and, from time to time, would rock those stupid plastic shutter shades with pride.

Granted, I was familiar with a good number of Kanye’s previous songs and had enjoyed them. I’d known all the radio frequents, but I hadn’t necessarily think of them in terms of The College Dropout and Late Registration. I’d heard “All Falls Down,” “Through The Wire,” “Jesus Walks” and “Slow Jamz,” “Touch the Sky,” “Gold Digger” and “Hey Mama,” but as someone who never purchased albums, there was no way for me to piece together who Kanye West was or what Kanye West did. As far as I was concerned, all of these jams were just good ass songs from a flashy guy out of Chicago. But no worries, there was James to fill in all those gaps for me, whether I wanted him to or not. In turn, as I do when I’m in a stubborn mood, I pushed back, just to say I couldn’t be influenced. Purposeless hatred for a talented artist grew out of petty rebellion. I couldn’t stand Kanye or my boyfriend’s inexplicable love for him. Until…I finally could.

It was Graduation, ‘Ye’s third album, that softened me. I fell in love with it at the same speed that I fell in what I believed was love with James. James was my first love and lover; the first person to make me find myself and lose myself at the very same time. He was also the last.

Starting in April of 2007, the slow entangling of our hearts was effortless and coated with a sheen of naïveté, but I wouldn’t have guessed that my senior year would be my only window into what love could maybe feel like. That my only time spent as someone’s real girlfriend would be pre-adulthood. Truth be told, I’ve all but forgotten the feeling. I can’t even pretend anymore. The sensation fizzled out like a mild Charley Horse, gone once I stood up to shake out my legs after the fallout.

Graduation was the soundtrack to the only real relationship I’ve ever known. It narrated our union’s peaks and valleys. Hearing “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” brings me back to the coy days filled with held hands, stolen kisses, and a collective childishness that feels inexcusable now. Quite cornily, we both used Kanye West gospels as our senior quotes. “Now I can let these dream killers kill my self-esteem, or use my arrogance as steam to power my dreams” from “Last Call” for him; “People always say that you can’t please everybody…Why not attempt it? ‘Cause think of all the people you will please if you try,” from a 2006 interview for me. We were discovering ourselves, each other and how we fit together.

“Stronger” queues up recollections from our summer of firsts, spent galavanting across NYC boroughs to see one another, on spontaneous dates to the movies, park and zoo, or falling asleep mid-conversation after ungodly lengths of time spent on the phone. “The Good Life,” “Good Morning” and “I Wonder” summed up those fleeting feelings after we’d found our rhythm. Summer was waning and we were invincible, or so I thought.

I didn’t know the wistful “Bittersweet,” Graduation‘s Japanese bonus track (although it was originally penned with John Mayer for Late Registration), would signal the beginning of the end. With the honeymoon phase over, arguments came more frequently. Insults were hurled out carelessly on both ends and feelings were hurt. Fatigue set in. Was this a necessary accessory to love? Was it worth it if it came with battles I preferred to avoid but he enjoyed the challenge and thrill of engaging in? One day, right before the Christmas holiday, I decided it wasn’t.

I bawled for hours after we hung up, sitting in the joyless finality of my decision. It didn’t feel “over” in the morning, but when I found out about him moving on with a “friend” of mine the very next afternoon, I accepted that it was. I had caused that. We explored the murkiness of post-togetherness friendship for a few months, but the last strands of what we’d spent nearly a year building fringed and snapped, with the strings of “Bittersweet” playing in my mind all the while.

Ten years later, after time and distance waxed over all the scabs, only the positive markers of our relationship remain. I kept a stuffed animal he gifted me and a few other trinkets of his in a box, but the most tactile thing I can associate with the emotional weight of those eight months is that album. Graduation always reignites the limp threads of my memories, ensuring that anything attached to songs 1-15 (including the bonus tracks) will always be synonymous with him. Pardon me, us.