The College Dropout – Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella Records)
For me, this collection of tracks is probably in my personal top ten of all time. It was one of my early introductions to hip-hop and established my fascination with the mind and music of Kanye West.
In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, before anyone knew his name, Kanye West was paying his dues as a producer with a yearning to rap. A few years of persevering and steadily improving meant influential people in the industry began to perk up their ears and listen. One of the first guys to pay real attention goes by the name of Jay-Z. West’s groundbreaking style of speeding up soul samples became the signature sound of Roc-a-Fella Records. Kanye produced the majority of the tracks on Jay-Z’s 2001 album The Blueprint and was subsequently signed as an in-house producer for the fledgling record label in 2002. For many young producers, simply being acknowledged by Jay-Z, let alone producing full songs for him would be considering a success. Not for Mr. West. Not satisfied with just making beats, Kanye wanted to prove himself as a rapper. This album, The College Dropout, was West’s proof he could hang with the big names in hip-hop.
The first single, “Through the Wire” came out on February 3rd, exactly a week before the album’s release in 2004. It was inspired by Kanye’s near-fatal car crash in 2002 and was recorded with his jaw still broken and wired shut, thus rapping “through the wire.” The song opens with Kanye’s slurred voice proclaiming “they can’t stop me from rapping” before the beat interpolates a pitched-up version of Chaka Khan’s iconic 1985 single “Through the Fire”. The track is a mark of Kanye’s work ethic as much as it is a beautiful piece of music. In what Kanye called a “life or death situation”, his first instinct was not to let the hype surrounding him go to waste and against the advice of his doctors he produced and rapped this song.
It’s hard to discuss The College Dropout without explaining the skits of which there are six throughout the album. It opens with comedian DeRay Davis (doing a Bernie Mac impression) asking Kanye to play something for the kids who are graduating. It basically sets up the concept of the album which is Kanye addressing the academic system who told him he’d never be anything if he didn’t get a degree. It also, more literally, sets up the first track of The College Dropout: “We Don’t Care”. This is a glorious, celebratory song which hears Kanye talk to a class at their graduation, telling them to do what they have to do, regardless of what it makes people think of them. “We forced to sell crack, rap and get a job/ You gotta do something man your ass is grown” raps West over a simple drum beat and faultlessly chopped sample while a choir of children sing “We wasn’t supposed to make it past twenty five/ Jokes on you, we’re still alive”. The whole track is just a message to people who are doing less than glamourous things to get by – do what you have to do, the priority is survival.
‘Bernie Mac’ returns and cannot believe what he has just heard. He calls Kanye the n-word and tells Kanye he won’t be graduating and to get off of his campus. The backing track takes a dark turn which sets the mood for the rest of the album.
The next track sees Kanye at his evaluative best as he analyses his battle with consumerism. On a muted acoustic guitar-driven beat, Kanye teams with Syleena Johnson to create a hit that was nominated for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 47th Grammy Awards.
Next up, a then-unknown John Legend steps up to the plate with his version of a classic gospel hit, originally by Albert E. Brumley, called “I’ll Fly Away”. This sets up the next track, “Spaceship” which deals with the idea of escapism alongside GLC and Consequence.
The Chicagoan talks of the days when he used to work in The Gap as a greeter and how he felt he was treated like a “token blackie” and exploited to make the store look progressive. They criticised his workrate, to which Kanye responds that he made “five beats a day for three summers”.
This song is followed by one of Kanye’s most iconic tracks. On “Jesus Walks”, Yeezy gets spiritual and talks about problems with his relationship with God. He also discusses issues with organised religion and how they need Jesus. The impact of this song on rap music is criminally understated. It can definitely be crediting for bridging the gap between mainstream hip-hop and the church. In fact, the legendary DMC of Run-DMC said that he had stopped listening to contemporary rap music until he heard “Jesus Walks”.
“Never Let Me Down” is perhaps the most skippable song on the album but nonetheless has a place on “The College Dropout”. Jay-Z’s braggadocios verse about how many number one albums he has is irrelevant to the rest of the song which is about overcoming insurmountable odds put in place by racism.
In one of Kanye’s most ‘one of us’ moments on the album, he tells a story about using the internet to get with girls on “Get ‘Em High” from the second verse onwards. Admirably honest, Kanye comically uses the fact he knows Talib Kweli to hook up with a girl. On a totally separate note Kanye says “my flow is in pockets like wallets, I got the bounce like hydraulics” on this song, which to me is a magnificent line. Common also says “real rappers are hard to find, like a remote” on this song, which to me is a horrendous line.
Another funny skit introduces the next song: “The New Workout Plan”. In the skit, some women are having a conversation about losing weight. One of the women says that because of a workout plan she’s been doing recently she’s a “video ho-fessional”. “The New Workout Plan” suggests that the workout plan she’s been doing is The Kanye West Workout Plan. While the song really doesn’t fit conceptually with the rest of the album, it is still one of Kanye’s wackiest and most fun songs. It’s arrangement is a masterpiece as it seamlessly transitions from sound to sound and even includes a soul clap towards the end. In it, he basically sells his product to women, saying if you follow the instructions then you might be able to become a basketball wife or something of similar stature.
Another song ever so slightly short of the mark on this album is “Breathe In, Breathe Out”, featuring Ludacris, one of hip-hop’s biggest names in 2004. For some reason he is relegated to hook duty on here. Anyhow, we get a gem from Kanye when he calls himself the first “n**** with a Benz and a backpack”. Not exactly a bad song, but with a slightly dull bluesy trumpet beat, it definitely doesn’t live up to the rest of the album.
Next comes a song bookended by two skits called “School Spirit” in which West essentially washes his hands of the school experiences and tells his mother he’s going to “get on this TV”. DeRay Davis returns for the skits to make fun of the higher education system and the subsequent unemployment that follows it. This carries on into the “Lil Jimmy Skit” which essentially does the same, but with a different character.
Guitars, piano, a full string arrangement and the Harlem Boys Choir all feature in “Two Words”, the symphonic peak of the album. Interesting verses come from Mos Def and Freeway, making this song a platform to combine, albeit briefly, the worlds of conscious rap and gangsta rap.
Another highlight of the “Dropout” is the heartfelt and soul-filled “Family Business” in which Kanye shares the relationships he has with his family members. He touches on several aspects of family life, some sombre, some happy. The side of Kanye which is so rarely exposed nowadays, his human side, is what made him so interesting initially and this song is about as ‘real life’ as a rap song can get. This is Kanye West at his reflective best.
In Jay-Z’s retirement movie “Fade to Black”, Kanye plays Jay a random beat of his. At the time, people would’ve presumed it was just another beat for “The Black Album”. Instead, it wrangled its way onto the tail end of Kanye’s debut album. And thank God! Instead, The Louis Vuitton Don’s fans are treated to a fifteen minute track in which Kanye excitedly tells part of his life story. Getting signed to Roc-a-Fella, moving around with his mother and even meeting Bun B at the Source Awards, nothing goes untouched here. It sort of ties everything he says elsewhere on “The College Dropout” into a pretty bow. Hip-hop artists like J Cole have utilised this type of outro since, and is yet another thing Kanye is entitled to take credit for creating.
Overall this album is still being talked about thirteen years on and will still be talked about forever. Before Kanye West was the king of controversy, he was just a kid from Chicago with a dream. “The College Dropout” is the realisation of that dream.
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