The College Dropout
Def Jam, 2004
There are certain albums that contain specific memories. Baby Boomers can recall where they were when they first heard Sgt. Peppers, Gen-X’ers know exactly what they were doing when Nevermind dropped, older hip-hop heads remember Illmatic‘s debut to a point and I can distinctly recall where I was when I first listened to Kanye West’s The College Dropout.
I certainly don’t think The College Dropout is the greatest hip-hop album of all time, but it’s deserving of five mics and it’s one of those albums that came at a very important time in my life. At merely 13-years-old, I was in-between music stages, slowly transitioning from rough pop punk cuts to staple hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre, De La Soul and Eminem. When my good friend Joe brought his batch of CDs he purchased from a magazine down to his basement where we were all hanging out, I was too young to realize what exactly I was getting into. We spun The College Dropout full circle, and afterwards the music wouldn’t stop ringing. Even at 13, I had some sort of thought that The College Dropout was special. At 23, I now realize its utmost importance to hip-hop.
The College Dropout is driven mainly from Kanye West’s career before this startling debut. Dating back to 1999, The College Dropout is just as much a testament to Kanye’s work before 2004–such as working with the likes of Nas, Alicia Keys, Goodie Mob and contributing heavy-hitters to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint–as it is regarding its contents. This debut record from Kanye is a testament to all of that. It’s a testament to his unrelenting work up until this debut, and it’s a full followup to the greatness he supplied to other artists before 2004.
The greatness behind Kanye West’s records is that every one of them has songs that fully display where he was at during that specific time in history. “Through The Wire” was recorded after Kanye suffered a terrible injury, which resulted him in wearing a brace that wired his jaw shut. As the song title dictates, “Through The Wire” not only chronicles this story, but is also rapped through Kanye’s wire brace. You can hear him on the track spit straight through it. “School Spirit,” which samples Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark,” relays Kanye’s thoughts on college and why he dropped out, and on the Late Registration track “Hey Mama,” you can hear Kanye promising his mother that he’ll go back to school.
This is perhaps Kanye’s greatest trait as an artist and MC. He so effectively brands his life stories on his records, that replicating his method is an incredibly hard thing to do. Within these songs, Yeezy has an ability to transcribe these stories in various ways. There are the wordplay whistles (“Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis“), the relevant slant-rhymes (“I am the limelight, Blueprint five mics“), the downright “oh hell yeah” rhymes (“I’m Kan, the Louis Vuitton Don/ Bought my mom a purse, now she Louis Vuitton Mom“) and the emotional rhymes about Kanye’s love for his family that also pay tribute to past hip-hop gems (“I got an Aunt Ruth that can’t remember your name/ But I bet them Polaroids’ll send her down memory lane“).
The content behind The College Dropout speaks on so many levels. “Last Call” raises glasses to Yeezy’s success, but it’s also a testament to life lessons (“Last year shoppin my demo, I was tryin’ to shine/ Every motherfucker told me that I couldn’t rhyme/ Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem/ Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams“). “Jesus Walks” dominantly tackles religion and Christianity (“I’m just trying to say the way school need teachers/ The way Kathie Lee needed Regis that’s the way I need Jesus“). “We Don’t Care” documents drug dealing in the city and how it holds more incentive for a dropout than a job in the system (“The second verse is for my dogs working 9 to 5/ That still hustle cause a nigga can’t shine off $6.55“). And “Two Words” focuses on wordplay and poetic scheming with an emphasis on two words and two syllables for every quarter-bar: “Two words, Chi-town, Southside, worldwide/ Cause I rep that ’til I fuckin’ die/ One neck two chains, one waist two gats/ One wall twenty plaques, dues paid, gimme that.”
The College Dropout is monumental. When put into hip-hop’s history, it will stand as a record that helped push forward-thinking millennial music into the foray of mainstream sound with true backbone and purpose. It concentrated on family matters, inner-city matters, hypocrisy, wordplay poetry, religion, success stories and life lessons. When I was 13 I was merely listening to a dope record. Ten years later, I now realize that it’s a dope record with historic significance.
At this point in time, if you consider yourself a hip-hop head or even just a casual fan, you’ve heard of Kanye West. This past year he released his sixth studio album, Yeezus, and from South Park, the MTV Music Awards, the twitter rants, interest in fashion, Watch The Throne and the giant mountain he emerges from on tour, he has created a persona that has shaped hip-hop culture as well as popular culture. Whether you love him or hate him, there is no doubt about this. It’s hard to believe that only ten years ago, Kanye was just getting started.
In 2004 Kanye released The College Dropout and took the hip-hop world by storm. This is not to say that he came out of nowhere. He had been involved in the production of The Blueprint (2001) by Jay-Z and other records under the Roc-A-Fella label. However, The College Dropout was the first record where Kanye made the beats and hopped on the mic.
The College Dropout is a classic album for many reasons. There are the guest appearances from legends such as Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, Yasiin Bey, Twista, Ludacris and many more. There is his production style where he messes with the speeds of the songs he samples. An example of this is on “School Spirit” where he speeds up the beginning of Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark.” Similar to De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, hilarious skits hammer home Kanye’s feelings about what type of song is appropriate for the kids, what it means to earn a degree and what the ladies should listen to if they’re trying to get in shape for the summer. The thing about this record is the amount of ground he is able to cover. He speaks about mass consumerism on “All Falls Down,” is empowering on “Jesus Walks,” reveals the torment of working shitty jobs with awful bosses with “Spaceship” and draws from the strength of his family ties to the Civil Rights Movement on “Never Let Me Down.”
More than anything else, The College Dropout is classic because it is Kanye before the larger than life fame that took popular culture by storm. This is before Kanye could do no wrong and still had a lot to prove. Even so, with the overall feel of the record you get the sense of his ego and confidence as a hip-hop artist. Knowing all we know now, going back and listening to this is super revealing into who he would become. You should go back and listen to The College Dropout because it is Kanye when he was still raw.