The Story Behind Kanye West’s Fantastical ‘Graduation’ Album Cover

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Graduation was a three-peat.

Kanye West won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album on his debut, College Dropout, and then again on his second studio album, Late Registration. And so when West’s third studio album Graduation received the Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album, the world of hip-hop knew that the buzz around this rising star wasn’t going to get any quieter. Graduation then won the award, and West became the legend he preached that he was.

We’ll spare you all the ornate descriptions of our favorite songs from the record—for now—as something more immediate caught our attention: the album cover. What is the story behind this cartoon cover? Read below to find out.

Graduation Album Cover Starring the Dropout Bear

The iconic Graduation album cover features a bear being launched into the atmosphere after graduating from a fictional college in “Universe City.” The scene is vibrant and whimsical, appearing almost childlike from some angles.

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, occasionally known as “the Warhol of Japan” created this cover art for West. The rapper had visited Murakami at his studio in Asaka, Japan, and the creative partnership was solidified then and there.

In a later interview with Entertainment Weekly, Murakami explained the concept for the album cover: “The cover is based on Kanye’s theme of student life. School. It’s a place of dreams, of righteousness, a place to have fun. It’s also occasionally a place where you experience the rigid dogma of the human race. Kanye’s music scrapes sentimentality and aggressiveness together like sandpaper, and he uses his grooves to unleash this tornado that spins with the zeitgeist of the times. I too wanted to be swept up and spun around in that tornado.”

Murakami is an expert at combining these seemingly opposite sentiments: fun and gravity, light and dark. In fact, the contemporary artist has made a name for himself by layering complex and dark meanings behind objectively cute cartoons and objects. Just as he did with West’s Dropout Bear.

The Dropout Bear was a mascot of sorts for the rapper. He appeared on West’s first two albums and came to represent West’s rejection of societal norms in favor of his own path. Check out a Murakami animation of the Dropout Bear finally graduating, below. (Watch for the scene where the Bear receives a “Bachelor of Hip Hop Music” for Kanye West.)

Post-Graduation

After Graduation, the Dropout Bear rarely—if ever—appeared on West’s content. It seemed that West had truly graduated from that phase of his life. West’s success, though, only continued to grow. He’s released eight solo studio albums since Graduation and won an impressive 24 Grammy Awards. He’s also become a subject of controversy in popular culture, which has increased his fame.

Yet, West never forgot his roots. West and Murakami collaborated again for the album cover of West’s collaborative album with Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts.

We suppose it’s as they say—you never truly stop learning.

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