Ten years after Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ — and mine Yeezy and a whole generation meet real life and wonder ‘what it all really mean?‘

A cloud of marijuana smoke hovered in the apartment. It was early September 2007. Some of us lay on the floor. Some on the couch. Some at the kitchen table that had been used to roll the seven or eight jays. None of us said much. Per the rules of that summer’s “listening sessions,” no one spoke over the music. In this case, Kanye West’s new LP, Graduation, was the reason for the cypher.

Over that summer, these sessions had become a fixture. Thanks primarily to Lil Wayne’s run of mixtapes (it felt like they dropped every week), there was always a reason. But this session was different. On a day leading up to the start of our senior year at Hampton University, West spoke into existence our own existence.

Up to that moment, his music had always held collegiate and coming-of-age allusions, starting with 2004’s The College Dropout and Late Registration the following year. Often forgotten in the grand scheme of his catalog, West’s May 2007 Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape featured “Us Placers” featuring Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco (aka the short-lived supergroup Child Rebel Soldiers), “C.O.L.O.U.R.S.” featuring Fonzworth Bentley, Wayne and UGK, and my introduction to a rapper named Big Sean on “Getcha Some.” Graduation arrived when we were all about 21 years old — adults by age, but kids with so much life and the hurdles that came with it in front of us.

Kanye West spoke into existence our own existence.

At that time, it seemed West spoke for our entire generation. On Sept. 2, 2005, with New Orleans crippled by Hurricane Katrina, close to 2,000 people dead and even more displaced, West stood next to comedian Michael Myers and famously declared that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.” He spoke for us and to us. Several students who evacuated from New Orleans-based historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Xavier and Dillard transferred to Hampton. We read the reports. We watched CNN in horror, like the rest of the country. The anger we felt about seeing (mostly) black people referred to as “refugees” in their own city while their entire lives were submerged underwater left us enraged. Even when it’s a natural disaster, it’s somehow still our fault. West’s angst reflected our own.

Kanye West performs on stage at the Concert for Diana at Wembley Stadium on July 1, 2007 in London, England.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

He was confident — or arrogant, depending on the crowd — but inquisitive about himself and a world moving at warp speed. West seemed poised to carry rap into the next decade and beyond. And his music spoke louder than even he did. These were the pre-Tidal, pre-Apple Music, pre-Spotify US days. New albums leaked online roughly 10 to 14 days early, and it felt like blank CDs were single-handedly keeping places like Circuit City open. The summer-long wait for Graduation was an event itself, and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger” were the summer’s anthems.

With senior year washing ashore, and us thinking the world lay at our fingertips, hearing West’s defiant proclamations — Man, it’s so hard not to act reckless — were more a way of life than a hot single. Plus, we all knew Yeezy was good for a cohesive, intricate and beautifully sequenced album.

So when the word traveled, via text, Facebook and word-of-mouth, that the album had leaked, we all knew what to do.

Each person bring a pre-rolled jay — something to drink, too, and a stash for one more if the vibe called for it. (Spoiler: The vibe always called for one more.) None of the seven of us, roughly an even mixture of guys and girls who just loved chiefing and good music, believed we were doing anything illegal. We were college kids getting high and listening to great music — an American tradition if there ever was one.


You ever wonder what it all really mean?/ You wonder if you’ll ever find your dreams? — “I Wonder

In retrospect? We probably looked like the HBCU version of the cutaway scenes on That 70’s Show. Via nonverbal communication, we vibed out. I can’t forget what it felt like hearing “Good Life” for the first time. The Michael Jackson “P.Y.T.” sample is classic Kanye. But T-Pain’s outro — Is this good life better than the life I lived? / When I thought that I was gonna go crazy / And now my grandmamma/ Ain’t the only girl callin’ me baby — now that was a moment.

Rapper Kanye West performs onstage during the Hot 97 Summer Jam presented by Boost Mobile at Giants Stadium June 3, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Roger Kisby/Getty Images

“Flashing Lights” felt more like a movie than a song, and the hook from “Everything I Am” (Everything I’m not made me everything I am) became away messages on AOL Instant Messenger — they seemed like the world’s first tweets (Twitter technically existed then). And, in the moment, we didn’t know what to think about West’s ode to Jay-Z, “Big Brother.” We couldn’t see the joy of “Otis” yet. We couldn’t see how friendships sometimes go.

We ran West’s third effort back two or three times that night. The number of jays in rotation is lost to history, but the discussions following were incredible: Where does this place Kanye in terms of the game’s current greats? What is Kanye’s ceiling? And, of course, is anyone trying to order food? The Graduation listening session, at an off-campus apartment with smoke billowing from the screen door balcony, ranks as one of the most innocent moments of my entire college experience. We understood the magnitude of the senior year ahead of us, but what a time to be alive — just being there, in the moment.

That kind of innocence also applied to West. None of us, including West, knew it then, but life would forever change after that album. Most of us in that room graduated the following May and entered the “real world” just as the economy was diving into the worst pit since the Great Depression. Two months after Graduation’s release, West lost his combination best friend/mother, Donda West, who died as a result of complications from cosmetic surgery.

Donda West and Kanye West

Johnny Nunez/WireImage

By April 2008, Kanye West and then-fiancée Alexis Phifer called off their engagement. West secluded himself as he prepared for his celebrated Glow In The Dark Tour (with Lupe Fiasco opening, and N.E.R.D. and Rihanna on the bill as well). Within months, West lost the first woman he ever loved and had broken up with the one who was by his side when it happened.

The summer-long wait for Graduation was an event itself, and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger” were the summer’s anthems.

By 2009 he was running up on stage interrupting Taylor Swift and then escaping to Hawaii. So now what? It’s a question we both had to face. A question that would haunt us both. Where West fled to the islands to create new music, I fled to Georgetown University. Not necessarily because I wanted to go back to school, but it provided an escape and a way for me to think I wasn’t just wasting my time working dead-end jobs in the restaurant and retail industries. In college, it’s customary to think “graduation, job.” That’s embedded in your head since high school, if not earlier. But by ’09, the economy had completely tanked. Some of us had jobs, more of us didn’t. A lot of us were living at our parents’ homes, humbled by bedrooms we grew up in. Applying for jobs was no more than uploading resumes into a digital Bermuda Triangle: CVs were never heard from again. About the only positive from that year was the Obama family in the White House.

By 2012, the Obamas had returned for an encore. West held his first ready-to-wear show, married Kim Kardashian in Florence, Italy (as featured on special episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians), and captured Grammys with Jay-Z for 2011’s “N—as in Paris,” which sold 5 million copies alone. The recession apparently ended in late 2009. Some of us moved to new cities to chase original dreams. Some did OK. More were left wondering when and how the sleepless nights, rejection letters and no callbacks would be worth the heartbreaks.

Kanye West attends the Louise Goldin fashion show during MADE Fashion Week Spring 2014 at Milk Studios on September 7, 2013 in New York City.

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

And West’s celebrity increased. As he continued to search for peace in his, we searched for our own. At what point is sacrifice for a dream worth the pain? And at what costs do dreams become real? Life after Graduation, figuratively and literally, came with no road map.


Kanye West in 2017 is of course different from the one who created his own Graduation 10 years ago Monday. We all lose our innocence — it’s what happens if you’re blessed to live long enough.

West has a son and a daughter now (and another baby girl on the way carried by a surrogate) and is married to a mob. With Yeezy, he doubled down his dream of being a fashion innovator and changed for the better the fortunes of Adidas. West and Jay-Z aren’t on speaking terms in part because of West’s unpredictability. West’s life has become progressively more discombobulated: Paparazzi rants. Calling out Jay-Z at his shows. Blasting Wiz Khalifa in Twitter rants. Shaming ex-girlfriend Amber Rose. Supporting Trump. The hospitalization. But the three albums that follow Graduation — 808s & Heartbreaks, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne — still get burn.

The few from that original Graduation-day cypher who I keep in touch with have gone on to find some sort of peace in life, even in these times. We remain connected to Graduation because it helped define us with its unabashed confidence and unfiltered vulnerability. That’s what West represented perhaps more than any artist at that time. Volatile, charming and impulsive, he was rap’s most astute mama’s boy — and its most massively sensitive Gemini since Tupac Shakur. West’s waves not only topped charts and made headlines but also stirred emotions on a deeply personal level.

I know people wouldn’t usually rap this/ But I got the facts to back this / Just last year, Chicago had over 600 caskets / Man, killing’s some wack s—/ Oh, I forgot, ’cept when n—as is rappin’ / Do you know what it feel like when people is passin’?

We laugh about the cypher during Hampton homecoming weekends. But we also talk about how it doesn’t seem like West has found any peace. I don’t know. But I do know his mother was an integral part of the making of his first three albums — of the “old Kanye” he rapped about on last year’s entertaining, uneven The Life of Pablo. According to bereavement expert Phyllis R. Silverman, we lose not only the person who has died but also a relationship and the sense of self that existed in that relationship. It could be that West is searching for a sound that no longer exists because a large part of the inspiration for that sound no longer exists.

We remain connected to Graduation because it helped define us with its unabashed confidence and unfiltered vulnerability.

A couple of months ago, around the time West was seen chopping it up with Donald Trump, I had a conversation with a homey from that Graduation cypher. “I can’t believe this n—- is rocking blond hair now. … I wasted good weed on this dude,” he told me. “But I really believe this all boils down to his mom’s passing. He never took the time to cry, it seems.”

I mostly remember Graduation as the last album Donda West heard. The closest West’s come to addressing the effects of his mother’s death, and his burden living with it, came on 2015’s “Only One” — the meaning of his birth name. I can’t help but hear Graduation songs in “Only One.” If for no other reason than the 2007 Kanye could have never believed he’d have to make that song.

Positioned as an open letter to Kanye and Kim’s daughter, North, from her grandmother Donda, the record is a very specific emotional canvas of the pain Kanye carries. I talked to God about you/ He said he sent you an angel / And look at all that he gave you, Kanye sings. You asked for one and you got two / You know I never left you / ’Cause every road that leads to heaven’s right inside you. Playing the record back, with North sitting on his lap, Kanye couldn’t recall singing the words. He came to the conclusion that the words didn’t come from him, but through him. “My mom was singing to me,” he said, “and through me, to my daughter.”

It’s this burden, and this pursuit of peace, that Kanye Omari West has been living with since Graduation. In 2015, he said his biggest sacrifice was his mom. “If I had never moved to L.A., she’d be alive,” he told the U.K. music magazine Q. “I don’t want to go far into it because it will bring me to tears.”

That’s what Graduation means. It’s not just the album itself and some of the greatest songs he’s ever recorded that live on there, and how we were higher than telephone wires that late summer night. It’s not just how Graduation accurately reflected a period when so many of us believed we had life under control — and then we didn’t. Life happens. We found out the hard way, after graduation. Kanye, too, found out after Graduation.

Anheuser-Busch sends more than 155,000 emergency cans of water to Harvey victims The company temporarily halted beer production to can water for victims in areas devastated by the hurricane

In the midst of chaos and destruction left behind by Hurricane Harvey, brewing company Anheuser-Busch is coming to the aid of those affected by delivering canned emergency drinking water to devastated areas.

On Aug. 28, Anheuser-Busch sent its first truckload from Georgia to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to be delivered to the city’s local American Red Cross. In the upcoming days, other truckloads will deliver canned water to American Red Cross facilities across Texas, including Arlington, Corpus Christi, Houston and Austin.

“Putting our production and logistics strengths to work is the best way we can help in these situations,” said Bill Bradley, Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of community affairs. “Having successfully delivered three truckloads of clean, safe drinking water, when we received the request for additional shipments of water, we were happy to be able to help. By pausing our production line to produce more emergency drinking water, we are ensuring that we are always ready to support American communities in need.”

The company felt the need to act after Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25 near Port O’Connor, Texas, as a powerful Category 4 storm, producing winds of 130 mph. Since then, about 27 trillion gallons of rain have fallen over Texas and Louisiana, more than 200 shelters are housing nearly 32,000 displaced residents in Texas, and more than 72,000 people have been rescued. As of now, the storm-related death toll stands at 46, but that could rise as floodwaters recede.

The trucks are set to deliver more than 155,000 cans to the various facilities.

Anheuser-Busch has a history of halting beer production throughout the year to prepare the emergency canned water. In most years, the company has been one of the first to ship water during natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the Texas and Oklahoma floods in 2015.

Will Hurricane Harvey prompt NBA players to replicate 2005 Relief Game? Charity game lifted the spirits of Hurricane Katrina survivors

Then-Detroit Pistons star Chauncey Billups and I were nearly in tears from what we saw in a mammoth space inside the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston in September 2005.

There were hundreds of cots occupied primarily by mothers resting with young children and the elderly. They were displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, stressed and trying to figure out what to do next. Whatever possessions they had left sat next to their makeshift beds. The lines for medical help were long. Portable toilets were up front.

With former NBA player Kenny Smith leading the charge, NBA players, including Billups, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, were there to witness the pain, bring financial aid and offer a smile through a charity basketball game.

“It’s hurtful man, hurtful,” Billups told me at the time for a story in The Denver Post. “The only positive is at least these kids got to smile for a couple minutes.”

Hurricane Katrina was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the United States, causing destruction along the Gulf Coast from Central Florida to Texas and most notably in New Orleans. The August 2005 storm contributed to the deaths of more than 1,200 people and more than $100 billion in property damage. Many people affected by Hurricane Katrina relocated temporarily and then permanently to Houston.

Now Houston is suffering the nightmare that haunted New Orleans 12 years ago. Hurricane Harvey has dumped torrential rain on the city, with ABC News meteorologists forecasting historic rainfall totals of up to 50 inches by Wednesday. Houston has had more than 1,000 calls for rescue, and people were forced to their rooftops.

NBA All-Stars such as James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins have tweeted well-wishes and prayers to the people of Houston and elsewhere in Texas. Paul and Cousins also tweeted information on how to give to those in need through Youcaring.com and the Red Cross. Paul donated $50,000. Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander pledged $4 million to the relief effort on Monday and reportedly increased that donation to $10 million on Tuesday.

Chrysa Chin, executive vice president of strategy and development for the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), said Monday that the union is “exploring options” to help hurricane victims.

“We’re concerned and want to help,” Chin said.

Perhaps this time they can do it in New Orleans, where locals can certainly relate to the pain. Maybe Cousins and fellow New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis — along with Paul, who is president of the NBPA and a former Hornets star — could host a charity game at the Smoothie King Center in The Big Easy. Or maybe Paul and Harden, both Houston Rockets stars, could host it in Houston when possible. If a charity game and weekend is anything like it was in Houston during the 2005 NBA Players Hurricane Relief Game, it could be one of the most fulfilling moments of their NBA careers. It certainly was one of the most memorable moments for me in 18 seasons of covering the NBA.

Turner Sports NBA analyst and ex-Rockets guard Smith spearheaded putting together the star-studded rosters, the venue and television rights in 30 hours. Participating players each gave a minimum of $10,000. More than $1 million in funds, food and goods were collected before the Toyota Center doors opened in Houston. A crowd of 11,416 included Hurricane Katrina survivors, who were given free tickets in the upper deck, while the lower deck seats were sold for charity. The game included Billups, James, Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, who coached. There was even a brief performance by Kanye West.

“There’s never been a basketball game of more importance,” Smith said at the time.

Anthony cut short a vacation in the Bahamas to play and wore a T-shirt that read, “PRAY.”

“I’m doing this for the cause,” Anthony said.

Before the charity game, emotional NBA players visited several local shelters housing survivors. Then-Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin, who was recovering from knee surgery and didn’t play, donated shoes to the Fishers of Men Christian Church. Former NBA player and New Orleans native Robert Pack was also there. His aunt Debbie Mason was still missing at the time.

Perhaps James best described the emotions the NBA players had that day.

“If you’re not humble, everything we saw today made you put things in perspective,” James said.

It isn’t necessary for the players to do this. But whether it’s a financial donation or an autograph signing or picture taking, that could lessen the pain for a moment.

I’m sure the Hurricane Katrina survivors who went to the charity game or met the players still appreciate the help and smiles they received from the hoop stars 12 years ago. From what I witnessed, those NBA stars gave them great memories during one of the worst times of their lives.

Said then-12-year-old Diamond Hudson of New Orleans: “I wanted to faint when LeBron James kissed me on the forehead. I love every one of these basketball players.”

“It means a lot,” said Ronald Gabriel of Algiers, Louisiana, who landed several NBA player autographs at the time. “It means that they care, mindfully, thoughtfully. It matters.”

Daily Dose: 8/28/17 Texas tries to battle Hurricane Harvey

Hey, gang, I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: The Morning Roast is coming to an end. Football season is upon us, and programming is changing, alas. Good news: There’s one more show left. Check out this week.

All prayers go to Texas. In a storm the likes of which no one alive has ever seen before, Hurricane Harvey has basically destroyed large parts of the state with both rain and wind and the subsequent flooding. And it’s not getting any better anytime soon. They say that recovering from this will take years, and don’t forget: Quite a few people who survived Hurricane Katrina back in the day had permanently relocated to Houston. This is a nightmare all over again for them. The police chief’s advice? Hunker down, they’re trying. This is such a sad situation, overall.

Might be time to get that Amazon Prime account, if you’d been holding out. The official sale of Whole Foods to the megaretailer became official on Monday, and word is that prices will be dropping at the high-end grocer rather soon as a result. This means that Jeff Bezos owns one of the country’s most prominent media companies, as well as a massive online sales operation, besides a monster food chain. Dude is doing a lot. How this will affect any of those businesses overall, who knows? Here are the details.

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t watch the MTV Video Music Awards. Typically, it’s my favorite of all the award shows. This year, I just didn’t have it in me as a result of the fight on Saturday draining all my desire to watch long, live programming for the rest of the weekend. But Katy Perry was the host, and from what my Twitter feed says, there were a decent number of solid performances. It’ll likely air 23 more times in the next five days, but if you just want to catch up on what you missed, you can do that too.

By many accounts, Vontaze Burfict is a dirty player. He’s had that reputation for a while in Cincinnati, and now the league is suspending him for five games as a result of a hit he put on a Chiefs player this preseason. Look, I don’t know what his deal is or why he can’t seem to stay out of trouble regarding his on-the-field play, but this dude needs to get it together. The NFL allows a lot of reasonable leeway when it comes to the basic concept of knocking the crap out of people, and the fact that he can’t seem to get it right is troubling. He plans to appeal the decision.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Russell Wilson seems like a nice guy. He and Ciara make a lovely couple, and generally he is a pretty decently liked person. But whatever he had in mind for his outfit at the Mayweather-McGregor fight is beyond me. I mean, look at this outfit. Dude looks like Carlton from that episode of Fresh Prince when they go to Compton, California.

Snack Time: In the 21st season of the WNBA, not a single player has a sneaker line of her own. Seems like that’s a problem that needs to change.

Dessert: Shoutout to Katherine Johnson — you know, the NASA genius — who just celebrated her 99th birthday.

No long-ago hurricane will stop rapper Don Flamingo The Roc Nation artist says his East New Orleans neighborhood is resilient

“This ain’t Kansas,” yells Don Flamingo. He’s in front of his friend’s mother’s house, surveying boarded-up windows and a nearly decimated roof. “A tornado? We never get tornadoes!”

Most of New Orleans’ residents have a name for Hurricane Katrina, the storm that tore through the city in 2005, leaving a path of devastation from which the city is still recovering. They simply call it The Storm. Hurricanes are powerful, lasting tropical storms. Tornadoes are a violently rotating column of air. You say tomato. Katrina is so ingrained in the NOLA collective consciousness that when rapper Don Flamingo, who was raised in New Orleans East, discusses the tornado that ravaged the neighborhoods around his hometown in February, he frequently calls it a hurricane. By force of habit. Little did he know, just a mere six months later, almost to the day, the city would experience its worst flooding in 15 years. The hits, as they say, keep on coming.

New Orleans East is a NOLA suburb sitting east and north of the Mississippi River, making up part of the city’s 9th Ward. There’s no Bourbon Street. No Superdome. No fanfare. So it’s easy to overlook the damage from the strongest tornado to strike New Orleans in its recorded history. That’s where Don Flamingo, real name Donald Allen III, comes in. He made his name on the local independent circuits, rapping at shows and building his name until the folks at Roc Nation came calling.

But Flamingo always comes back home, though rarely is he sure what will be waiting for him when he returns. Don’s childhood home is gone. There’s no damage, no blighted property. Even that would be something. No, the plot of land where his house used to be is just a yard with no trace of a house ever being there. His whole life is unrecognizable, and he wants the world to know about it. And he wants to let the world know his city is built to survive. “This is a resilient city,” he says. “The soul and the togetherness in this city will keep us together and get us through this.”

Flamingo takes The Undefeated on a tour of New Orleans East.