Artist: Kanye West
Album Title: The College Dropout
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Release Date: February 10th, 2004
Producers: Kanye West
Given his antics, shameless self-promotion and his well-known unbridled displays of ego, it’s easy to render Chicago-native Kanye West with being synonymous with the phrase “annoying as hell”. If his most recent album Yeezus was your first time hearing him rap, then it’s even easier. It’s harder for me because I know that the answers to his towering narcissism regarding his own undeniable talents won’t be found in what he’s doing, but what he’s done…where he started.
I first knew of Mr. West as one of the in-house producers at Roc-A-Fella records, crafting beats for the likes of Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, et al. From the early-2000’s, his production style was very soulful: Chopped-up drums, high-pitched sped-up soul music samples, and his own instruments. I knew the name, loved the style, but didn’t have a face to attach to the name. Then I came upon a rap video on MTV2 in my college dorm one evening in early December 2003. I didn’t know who the video was by, but one frequently displayed image was of a young Black adult with a swollen jaw and facial lacerations. This soul-heavy beat was packed with stand-out lines like, “I must got an angel, ‘cause look how death missed his ass/Unbreakable, what you thought, they’d call me Mr. Glass?” that made me curious as to who this was. One minute later, I got my answer: The swollen face I saw was attached to the name “Kanye West”. The song, which he rapped with his jaw wired shut after a near-fatal car accident, was called “Through the Wire”. Not only was I surprised at what he looked like, but the biggest shock that was almost impulsively blurted out of my mouth by the end of the video was, “Holy shit, Kanye can RAP?!”
True, there’s nothing new about a producer who can actually rap: Erick Sermon, Slick Rick and El-P all had their hands behind the boards before grabbing a mic. But “Through the Wire” was a bit of a ‘coming out’ for a producer of Kanye’s ability. Though his flow was a lil’ off, he proved he had rapping chops. Obtaining a bootleg copy of Kanye’s Akademiks mixtape made me wish the release date of his debut album had been sped-up like his samples. I got my wish on the Tuesday of my 21st birthday. Even though I thought hitting that age was a milestone, buying Mr. West’s The College Dropout on my birthday was a greater gift than being legally allowed to drink alcohol (which I did on that day, albeit in excess). I had already resigned myself to being a severely undersexed college student at that point, so a stellar debut like this one allowed me to lose myself, forget about what/who I lacked and take in the deep breath of fresh air that it gave to me and several hip-hop fans.
Part of the appeal of Kanye’s debut was that he presented himself as something of an everyman. The other parts consisted of his beats (he produced this album in its entirety), clever lines, an ironic sense of humor and his satirical take on the higher education system that I was a part of at the time. His production on his debut even had the added soulful bonus of incorporating a boys’ choir. Starting with “We Don’t Care”, Kanye introduces folks to his wry outlook on the effectiveness of college education for inner-city drug dealing youths. On the Syleena Johnson assisted single “All Falls Down”, he rails against materialism. While a song like this can be interpreted as hypocritical, preachy and self-righteous, Kanye’s admissions about his own material excess save it from being labeled as such. The next two back-to-back singles, “Spaceship” and “Jesus Walks” are two of my favorites. The former, built around an infectious Marvin Gaye sample, is about working thankless, frustrating, institutionally-racist jobs until the day one can finally escape and have a job that makes them happy. Thematically, it’s similar to Aesop Rock’s “9-5’ers Anthem”. The album’s 3rd single, “Jesus Walks”, was probably the first time I heard a rap song examining Christ get play on the radio and in the clubs. Kanye mentioned in the lyrics that rapping about Jesus tends to be an unspoken taboo, but he knew that and probably relied on that confessed aspect of the lyrics to give it an extra push.
His guest artists he recruited only added to the luster of this album. Ludacris, Common, Freeway, Jay-Z, Mos Def & Talib Kweli had all collaborated with Kanye prior to this so it only makes sense for him to get some help from his friends. On “Get ’em High” Kanye spits with Common and Kweli over a bouncy crowd anthem with Kanye’s signature layered handclap drum snares. Common has the last verse. His wordplay, rhyme schemes and flow are well known…but listening to his verse 10 years later was like every time I re-watch The Wire: Both are so layered and imbedded with detail, references, nods and symbolism that I notice something I hadn’t caught in the previous viewing, every time. I won’t give a sample of the verse, just hop on youtube and check it out for yourself. Believe me.
From The College Dropout to Yeezus, one of the songs that ties them both together sonically is “The New Workout Plan”. Musically, it sounds similar to the Daft Punk-produced tracks on the latter album. The lyrics are a hilarious parody of those hip-hop dance/workout videos that cater to women. The “School Spirit” track and it’s corresponding skits of the same name were funny and scathing indictments of America’s collegiate education system. In a 1970’s soul-music influenced mood, Kanye gets up with Jamie Foxx and fellow Chicagoan Twista for the panty-dropping “Slow Jamz”. He even rhymes two words on every quarter-bar with Mos Def and Freeway on the aptly titled “Two Words”. The Harlem Boys Choir bring a haunting urban gospel feel to the song, as well.
The album was a critical and commercial success, and it definitely rang out in my college. So much so that, a year after we had 50 Cent perform, we had Luda AND Kanye in the Gampel pavilion for Spring Weekend. It’s definitely one of those albums that appealed to the streets and White America. That appeal remains somewhat true today, though affected by Kanye’s evolution as an artist and his embracing of his perception as some kind of deity. It’s also interesting to note that even his album packaging has changed. From then until now, he’s gone from liner notes of substance (in this case, a yearbook theme with actual senior portraits of himself and the album’s personnel) to having no liner notes.
Despite all of that, how do I feel about the album on it’s 10 year anniversary/my 31st birthday? I learned that I can still zone out to it, but listening to it for retrospective purposes has directed me to the notion that change doesn’t always constitute regression. He no longer use the dropout bear mascot or the education theme that tied his first three albums together. Right from the start, Mr. West has not had a bad album (I don’t count 808’s & Heartbreak). His media outbreaks are annoying, yes. But, his drive and talents are the very things that make him and most of his albums a consistent staple on my annual top 10 hip-hop review lists. It’s a relevant album for one more reason: If you want to understand a mega-star trendsetter like Kanye West, then go back to looking at who he was.
Sy L. Shackleford is a jack-of-all-trades columnist for Action A Go Go. A UConn graduate with a degree in both psychology and communication sciences, he is a walking encyclopedic repository for all things Marvel Comics, hip-hop, et. al.