Make one great album, people take notice. Make two great albums, you’ve got some serious bragging rights. Make THREE great albums, consecutively, in a space of three and a half years? Can’t blame that on dumb luck.

So let’s acknowledge: Kanye West is one of, if not THE premiere hip-hop artist of his generation. Even though he’s still not a tremendously skilled emcee, his wit and humor makes up for lacking technical skill. As a producer, he’s helped bring a certain soulful musicality to the traditional boom-bap of hip-hop music  without compromising who he is, which is admirable considering how easily most rappers fall into street cliche.

Not including the last couple of OutKast albums, and Kanye West is easily the most avant-garde rapper to sell millions of albums. While the man’s ego (and you’ve gotta give the guy props for at least being self-aware about this) has created many detractors, Kanye’s music responds and does not allow rebuttal.  Graduation isn’t flawless, but there’s not one dud among it’s thirteen tracks, even as Kanye does some serious sonic exploration while reigning in some annoying excesses that marred his first two otherwise-excellent albums.

Kanye seems to have taken a lead from his man Common and trimmed his album size.  As a result,  Graduation (13 tracks in about 52 minutes) is the first Kanye album that leaves you wanting more. He’s dispensed with the overflow of guest artists, and even though there are lots of big names here (Jay-Z, John Legend, Ne-Yo, Timbaland), they’re relegated to unnoticed background roles only made clear by the album’s liner notes.  Thankfully, Kanye also killed off the interludes and spends Graduation delivering banger after banger with no interruptions.

While Kanye’s first two albums were more introspective, Graduation’s main theme is Kanye West and his bad self.  This would suggest ego run amok, a bad thing, for most artists, but Kanye is witty and self-deprecating enough that this doesn’t seem like the rap version of Michael Jackson’s HIStory.

A man with six Grammys and  two multi-platinum albums sporting a chip on his shoulder is unique, but that’s also Kanye.  Songs like I Wonder, Can’t Tell Me Nothin’ and Stronger find West on a mission to establish himself as a musical force. You’ve gotta admire his sense of purpose.  He’s obviously pushing himself in a way that most commercially successful rappers don’t, avoiding the musical equivalent of fat and happy.

Graduation’s production values are outstanding.  Musically, the album’s forward-thinking and creative, but also a stylistic switch;  jumping from the warm soul samples heavily used in his first two albums to a more icy, synthesizer-driven sound. Even songs with vaguely familiar samples twist those samples in a way that people who know the original songs have gotta give props to.

On Stronger, West turns Daft Punk’s post-disco Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger into a more effective cross between hip-hop and sci-fi than anything Pharrell or Timbaland has done yet. (Quick sidenote: how many of the idiots calling Stronger a commercial sample-jacking pop song actually know what the original song sounds like?  Because believe me, it wasn’t a hit)

Good Life manages to cram a track from the best-selling album of all time and a cameo from one of the most ubiquitous artist of the year into what might be 2007’s most undeniable single.  The Michael Jackson PYT sample is artfully manipulated.  Kanye slows the instrumental down while keeping the vocal at normal speed, adds air-raid siren-sounding synthesizers, a vocal from T-Pain (which Kanye could have sung himself), and winds up with a celebratory anthem that would have been the soundtrack to the summer of 2007 had it not been released with a week of summer left.

As versatile as Graduation is, the different sounds mesh well together. The bass-heavy Barry Bonds suggests an early Nineties jeep beat, but could just as easily have been a jazz record back in the day. On the very next track, Flashing Lights,  goes techno, with synths and strings giving a vibe akin to walking down a New York street on a Friday night after having a few too many drinks.

Kanye’s lyrics will never equal KRS-ONE or Rakim, as much as he may aspire otherwise.  The man who considered his style to be “more like spoken word” back in 2004 is still not a fantastically proficient rhymer, even resorting back to what I consider the cardinal sin among emcees and rhyming the same word at the end of two consecutive lines. But Kanye makes up for his lyrical faux pas with a wit and a sense of humor that rappers with three times his skill couldn’t conjure up. Lines like “In two years I went from Dwayne Wayne to Dwayne Wade” and way-left pop culture reference (who remembers Chauncey from BLACKstreet?) gave me more than a couple of “I can’t believe he said that” smiles of recognition.

But a lack of technical skill can be blown away with feeling.  There are many more talented emcees, but not many who make better records. Graduation jumps from the league of “very good” into the league of “Damn near excellent” with the four songs closing the album. The piano groove of  Everything I Am finds Kanye reflecting on his past and feeling grateful for walking a different path in his career. The Glory uses a sped-up sample (Kanye’s stock-in-trade) and chorale male vocals to give a spiritual addition to the celebratory vibe previously visited on Good Life.

‘Ye ends the album with two love letters:  Homecoming takes a page from Common’s  I Used To Love H.E.R. and creates a love song where the interest ends up being his home city of Chicago. The crowd noise and gospel-etched piano backing conjure up images of a Rocky movie, and while I love Coldplay, I can’t help but think Kanye should have used a vocalist that was actually from Chicago. Was Chaka Khan unavailable? What the hell does Chris Martin know about fireworks on Lake Michigan?

Finally, there’s Big Brother, an open-hearted song directed at Jay-Z. While some immature and testosterone-laden fans of hip-hop might scoff at the idea of Kanye dedicating a song to his boss, mentor and benefactor, I agree wholeheartedly with this line from Kanye:

If you admire somebody, you should go ‘head, tell ’em
People never get the flowers while they can still smell ’em

More black men and people in general need to express this kind of emotion, in music and in everyday life.

The only vague misstep on Graduation comes with Drunk & Hot Girls, on which Kanye (briefly joined by Mos Def, last seen looking for the remnants of his rap career) sings (yes, sings) about…well, drunk and hot girls.  It sounds almost like a studio goof, a move that makes it both endearing and kind of annoying. It doesn’t really subtract from the album’s quality, but it’s the only song that doesn’t add to it.

The things I like about Kanye from a personality standpoint — his arrogance, his outspokenness, his emotional nakedness  — would be worth nothing if his music wasn’t as good as it is. While I’d probably stop short of calling him a genius as he refers to himself on Barry Bonds, Graduation is Kanye’s third consecutive excellent album and quite possibly the best hip-hop album I’ve heard in 2007, something rare in any type of music.  This album couldn’t have a more appropriate name because Kanye West is without a doubt the valedictorian of current hip-hop.