Classic Album Review: Kanye West

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.

 

#BBAR

 

Twitter – @boombapacidrap

 

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The Boom Bap and Acid Rap 2016 Year End Awards, Pt. 6

TRACK OF THE YEAR:

THE SHORTLIST:

  • KID CUDI (feat. PHARRELL WILLIAMS) – SURFIN’
  • SCHOOLBOY Q – THAT PART (BLACK HIPPY REMIX)
  • DESIIGNER – PANDA
  • ANDERSON .PAAK – COME DOWN
  • D.R.A.M. (feat. LIL YACHTY) – BROCCOLI
  • KANYE WEST (feat. CHANCE THE RAPPER, KIRK FRANKLIN, KELLY PRICE and THE-DREAM) – ULTRALIGHT BEAM
  • CHANCE THE RAPPER (feat. 2 CHAINZ and LIL WAYNE) – NO PROBLEM
  • DRAKE (feat. WIZKID and KYLA REID) – ONE DANCE

THE WINNER:

  • CHANCE THE RAPPER (feat. 2 CHAINZ and LIL WAYNE) – NO PROBLEM

Chance the Rapper cemented himself this year as music’s hottest free agent and if this song is anything to go by, he doesn’t see that changing for a long time. Flexing about being independent, he aptly calls on the Collegrove duo who have both had label issues in the past. Both Wayne and 2 Chainz delivered probably their best verses of the year which only helped this become such a behemoth of a song. Seeing out huge tracks from the likes of Drake, Kanye West and ScHoolboy Q, Chance went from the next big thing to an indisputable megastar this year. Long may it continue.

SIDENOTE:

While it has been a good year for rap music, we have had our fair share of trash too… Here’s the Worst Track of the Year award too:

THE SHORTLIST:

  • ZAY HILFIGERRR & ZAYION McCALL – JUJU ON THAT BEAT (TZ ANTHEM)
  • G-EAZY – ME, MYSELF AND I
  • MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS (feat. ANDERSON .PAAK AND IDRIS ELBA) – DANCE OFF
  • LIL YACHTY – ALL TIMES
  • MACHINE GUN KELLY – BAD THINGS

 

THE WINNER:

While I don’t recommend any of these songs, I don’t know if I’ve ever hated a song as much as this. I actually like everyone involved in this, Macklemore is usually pretty inoffensive, Anderson .Paak had a great year and you can’t hate Idris Elba. Somehow, though, this is a totally detestable abomination of a song. The concept of it is terrible, the lyrics are cringeworthy and the instrumental sounds unforgivably like some sort of 80’s synth rock impersonation.  I said my piece about the video before and I feel pretty much the same way about the song. Horrible.

The Boom Bap and Acid Rap 2016 Year End Awards, Pt 4

LYRICIST OF THE YEAR:

THE SHORTLIST:

  • J COLE – FOLDIN CLOTHES
  • CHANCE THE RAPPER – ULTRALIGHT BEAM
  • DANNY BROWN – DOWNWARD SPIRAL
  • KENDRICK LAMAR – THAT PART (BLACK HIPPY REMIX)
  • JAY Z – I GOT THE KEYS
  • JAY ELECTRONICA – HOW GREAT

 

THE WINNER:

kendrick-lamar

Even if Kendrick Lamar didn’t release untitled unmastered or any of his guest verses apart from the one on the Black Hippy remix of THat Part, we’d probably still be looking at him as lyricist of the year. Lamar’s dexterity with words has been common knowledge since his arrival on the scene, however he surprised even his most ardent fans with the complex rhyme patterns and content in that verse. To put it context, in just 24 bars, he fits 87 rhymes and they all make sense. He addresses the fact that despite the fact he was a straight-A student, he was still denied higher education because he was a black kid from the ghetto, among many other topics, including a callback to a Jay Z deep-cut we all forgot about. In about 45 seconds, Kendrick did what many rappers struggle to do in a lifetime – be real.

 

SIDENOTE:

The worst lyricist of the year is nearly impossible to crown so I decided to choose the worst lyric of the year instead. It could’ve easily gone to Drake for “Got so many chains, they call me Chaining Tatum (they do, they do)”. For a start, no they don’t. And also, wow, that is hilariously lazy. However this highly prestigious award goes to Kanye West. On The Life of Pablo, there are a few lines that could’ve taken it. The infamous Go-Pro lyric, the open fridge line, the bleached a****** line…But the winner has to be from Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1, when the GOOD Music mogul said “Now if I f*** this model/And she just bleached her a******/And I get bleach on my T-shirt/I’mma feel like an a******”. Just an ignorant and stupid line from an otherwise good song.

The Boom Bap and Acid Rap 2016 Year End Awards

2016 has been an upside down year across the board. We’re talking losing greats such as Prince and Bowie and of course Phife Dawg. We’re talking police brutality happening throughout the world. We’re talking Brexit, numerous terrorist attacks and Trump as president for crying out loud.

Musically, however, it has been one of the most distinctive years in recent memory. We had new verses from OGs like Nas, Jay Z and Andre 3000 and albums from GOATs like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. On the other hand, emerging forces like Migos, 21 Savage and Lil Yachty had their best years to date. The stars we’re accustomed to came back looking strong too, with stellar projects from The Game, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Drake and so many more. It’s fair to say that the hip-hop of 2016 helped us to escape from the real world for a bit at times.

Here’s the first installation of the Boom Bap and Acid Rap 2016 Year End Awards!

VIDEO OF THE YEAR:

THE SHORTLIST:

  • YOUNG THUG (feat. QUAVO) – F CANCER
  • LIL YACHTY – 1NIGHT
  • FRENCH MONTANA (feat. NAS & KANYE WEST) – FIGURE IT OUT
  • SCHOOLBOY Q (feat. KANYE WEST) – THAT PART
  • 2 CHAINZ – WATCH OUT
  • FRENCH MONTANA (feat. DRAKE) – NO SHOPPING
  • SKEPTA – THE MAN

THE WINNER:

  • SCHOOLBOY Q (feat. KANYE WEST) – THAT PART

Despite stiff competition from two very different French Montana efforts, a hilarious 2 Chainz video and the characteristically weird Young Thug ‘F Cancer’ among others, Top Dawg’s resident gangster from Hoover Street wins this category by the skin of his grillz. The Colin Tilley-directed video features Q getting dropped off at Kanye’s house, before West stumbles around the house in one take, wildly rapping lines such as “walkin’, livin’ legend, man I feel like Kobe”. All the nominations are worth a watch but this video is just so trippy and captivating, it would be hard to give this award to anything else.

SIDENOTE:

The worst video of the year, if you’re interested, was comfortably Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Anderson .Paak and Idris Elba’s ‘Dance Off’, which made close to 9 million people cringe on YouTube this year. If you can sit through this, you can sit through anything. Don’t be surprised if this track pops up again…

A Year to Remember’s Greatest Albums: Pusha T

Darkness Before Dawn: The Prelude – Pusha T (GOOD Music, Def Jam) – December 2015

Intended to serve as a prelude for the GOOD Music president’s third studio album, Darkness Before Dawn has set the bar excitingly high for the long-awaited King Push, due in spring of this year. For a start, the first single released in anticipation of the album, Untouchable heavily samples The Notorious B.I.G.’s iconic guest verse on Pudgee’s 1995 Think Big. In this verse, Biggie claims to be lyrically “untouchable, uncrushable”, which is clearly a recurring theme for Pusha on this project where he is consistently in a very self-appreciative mood.

The Metro Boomin-produced intro to the album sets the signature shady tone which Pusha T has utilised all through his solo career. Happily, this is followed up on in the majority of the next nine tracks.

One of my favourite tracks on the album is Crutches, Crosses, Caskets. A few curious lines (“Old n****s slapping young n****s, ha imagine that, where you from n****?”) on this song allude to the alleged Drake and Diddy altercation at a nightclub in December 2014. This is made more intriguing by the fact Diddy has production credit on this song. Pusha has cited this song as his favourite on the project, understandably.

Despite other masterful performances, the standout track must be M.P.A., an acronym for Money, Pussy, Alcohol, featuring his frequent collaborator and GOOD Music associate – check out New God Flow, Mercy, Runaway and So Appalled – Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and The-Dream. Sounding reminiscent of Blame Game by Kanye from his critically acclaimed (and one of my personal favourite) album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, M.P.A. has a star-filled feel about it that makes you sit up and take notice. And in the current era, a lot of hip-hop, although being good, doesn’t do this.

The Virginia-born and raised coke merchant continues to flow slickly over luxury beats crafted by top-tier producers such as Timbaland, Boi-1da, J Cole and Q-Tip. This album has a grandeur about it, polished to the point of excellence.

Pusha has a rare gift of being able to elaborate his grim images to the point where you finish listening to one of his projects and feel like a character from The Wire. The dictionary definition of ‘prelude’ is an event serving as an introduction to something more important. If that can’t sell Pusha T’s next album to you, nothing will.

#BBAR