Does Kanye West’s ‘The College Dropout’ Stand the Test of Time?
Ten years ago today, Kanye West released his debut solo album, ‘The College Dropout.’ That also happened to be the day he shifted the paradigm of hip-hop.
In 2004, street rap was the trend du jour, but ‘The College Dropout’ offered so much more than hardbody bars. The entirely self-produced effort was the story of one visionary from Chicago and his journey of frustration and inspiration; hardships and humor; religion and race.
Mainstream and underground were as divided as ever, but heads had finally met “the first n—- with a Benz and a backpack,” and he wore a pink polo.
Although Kanye West the solo artist was a concept many major labels failed to get behind (idiots), ‘The College Dropout’ was a rousing success; the album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, spawned four top 20 singles (‘Through the Wire,’ ‘Slow Jamz,’ ‘All Falls Down,’ ‘Jesus Walks’) and went on to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album.
These are partly the reasons why ‘The College Dropout’ is considered by many to be a classic hip-hop album. So on the 10th anniversary of Kanye’s debut masterpiece, we look back and see if ‘College Dropout’ stands the test of time.
‘We Don’t Care’
The sped-up sample of Jimmy Castor’s ‘I Just Wanna Stop’ which greets us on ‘We Don’t Care’ sounds a lot like birds chirping on a Saturday morning in spring. In other words, it’s the perfect metaphor for how refreshing ‘The College Dropout’ was. While his peers (including his Roc-A-Fella label mates) glamorized the crack game, Kanye spoke to and about drug dealers with a compassion and honesty that cut through the bravado: “The second verse for my dawgs that working 9-5/That still hustle cause a ni–a can’t shine off $6.55.” Despite lacking all the credentials to call himself a gangsta rapper, Ye proved he can speak to – and for – the streets as well as any durag-rocking rapper.
‘All Falls Down’ Feat. Syleena Johnson
Kanye West truly set himself apart from the mass of macho MCs on ‘All Falls Down.’ Narrating the struggles of a single black female before sharing his own insecurities, it was a candid examination of himself and consumerism in the African American community, as well as a display of supreme storytelling. Avoiding sounding holier-than-thou, Ye kept himself human with lines like, “F–k it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou.” Perhaps the most emphatic quote came at the very end, though: “We all self-conscious I’m just the first to admit it.” There would be no J. Cole, no Kid Cudi and especially no Drake if it weren’t for ‘All Falls Down.’
‘Spaceship’ Feat. GLC & Consequence
Even just two songs in (excluding the skits) The College Dropout was more compelling, more stimulating and more genuine than most rap albums. By the time ‘Spaceship’ came around, you were absolutely sold on this Kanye West guy. Unless you were lucky enough in life or just had rich parents, ‘Spaceship’ was the song that carried you through that sh–ty job. The opening line, “If my manager insults me again I will be assaulting him,” captured that depression and frustration so well. Even if, like myself, you were too young to enter the working world when ‘The College Dropout’ arrived, you knew ‘Spaceship’ was a song you’d count on at some point in your adult life.
‘Jesus Walks’ was unequivocally the hardest record on ‘The College Dropout,’ and maybe in Kanye’s entire discography. The beat knocked, his wordplay was on point and he spit with the intensity of the best street MCs. Aside from being a club hit that still gets reactions today, the greatest thing about ‘Jesus Walks’ is that it was a Trojan horse; it was an enlightening song packaged as a street anthem. The irony wasn’t as subtle as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Swimming Pools’; he basically called his own bluff by asking, “If I talk about God my record won’t get played?” But it’s that boldness that epitomizes Kanye West.
‘Never Let Me Down’ Feat. Jay Z & J. Ivy
When people talk about that “old, soulful Kanye,” ‘Never Let Me Down’ is the perfect example. The crispy, cushioned production and soothing vocal riff provided the perfect backdrop to Ye’s heartfelt verse, which was ripe with race, religion and death. It was one the first rapping collaborations between Kanye and Jay Z, and the protégé might just have outshined his mentor on this one (*gasp*). Last-minute addition J. Ivy held his own with a stirring poem which not only tied the song together, but changed lives; ‘People said that they were considering taking their lives but they heard my verse and they reconsidered committing suicide,’ he told Billboard.
‘Get ‘Em High’ Feat. Talib Kweli & Common
‘Get Em High’ couldn’t be a more different song following ‘Never Let Me Down.’ Like the title suggests, this one was about two things and two things only: getting high and getting lucky. Kanye was up against two seasoned MCs in Talib Kweli and Common, who respectively killed it, but he held his own with witty punchlines: “Why you think me and Dame cool? We’re assholes!/That’s why we hear your music in fast forward.” The fact that he had two of the most conscious-minded lyricist rapping about some ignorant shit spoke to both the character of ‘The College Dropout’ and the audacity of Kanye West.
‘The New Workout Plan’
Contrary to what your girl may have to told you, ‘The New Workout Plan’ was the weakest song – perhaps the only weak song – on ‘The College Dropout’. Kanye also missed a great hook opportunity in that Auto-Tune outro (one that J. Cole would claim seven years later). But even on his worst efforts, Mr. West offered necessary social commentary. Despite the overwhelming irony that chicks probably gave this major burn at the gym, ‘The New Workout Plan’ was a brilliant satirical take on women whose life goal is to get in shape, attract an athlete boyfriend and enjoy the fruits of their labor. You know, the sort you see all over Instagram. #GymFlow
‘Slow Jamz’ Feat. Twista & Jamie Foxx
For all his forward thinking, Kanye West took it back in style on ‘Slow Jamz.’ Interpolating Luther Vandross’s 1981 cover, ‘A House is not a Home,’ and name dropping Marvin Gaye and Anita Baker, this baby-making anthem reintroduced old black soul into the mainstream mix in a year when Usher’s ‘Burn’ and Ciara’s “Goodies” represented the direction of modern R&B. Best of all, he did so with self-aware jest: “I’ma play this Vandross, you gon’ take yo pants off.” The release of ‘The College Dropout’ propelled ‘Slow Jamz’ to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in a few short weeks – earning Kanye, Twista and Jamie Foxx their first No. 1 – and, in turn, adding real weight to the Kanye West movement.
‘Breathe In Breathe Out’ Feat. Ludacris
When you think of classics, you think of cohesive projects. Although ‘The College Dropout’ had been an engaging and enlightening experience thus far, ‘Breathe In Breathe Out’ just didn’t really seem to fit. There wasn’t a prevailing message, and Ludacris’ feature disappointingly lacked an actual verse. It was more of just a window into Kanye’s conflicted soul: “Always said if I rapped I’d say something significant/But now I’m rappin’ bout money, hoes and rims again.” Not for nothing, it offered some legitimate laugh-out-loud moments, too: “While he trickin’ off, don’t get no rich ni–a/Give ME some head, that’ll really piss him off.”
It took a minute, but “School Spirit” was the first time on ‘The College Dropout’ Kanye really went into detail about why he dropped out of college. “They say, ‘Oh you graduated?’ No, I decided I was finished/Chasing y’all dreams and what you’ve got planned” was the simple explanation, but he really felt vindication when the dude who graduated at the top of his class “was a motherfucking waiter” at Cheesecake. “School Spirit” is a record that will speak to generation after generation of kids because college will always be a huge life decision. More importantly, it provides a real-life example of someone who opted out of higher education and still made something of himself.
‘Two Words’ Feat. Mos Def, Freeway & the Boys Choir of Harlem
By this point, there wasn’t much left in society that Kanye hadn’t critiqued. But he really adopted that street militancy on ‘Two Words,’ the next grittiest cut after ‘Jesus Walks’ on The College Dropout. With the help of the fiercely outspoken Mos Def and gruff Roc-A-Fella label mate Freeway, “Malcolm Wes”t channeled the anger and anguish of the streets into a modest modern day version of N.W.A’s ‘Fuck the Police.’ Here you’ll also find one of Kanye’s most intricate rhyme schemes (“Most imitated, Grammy-nominated/Hotel-accommodated, cheerleader prom-dated/Barber shop playa-hated, mom and pop-bootlegged-ed”) and exquisite production.
‘Through the Wire’
‘Through the Wire’ is where it really all began for The College Dropout. Kanye recorded the song in October 2002, just two weeks after being involved in a car accident that left his jaw wired shut. The crash not only fuelled Ye’s drive, but sparked the conscious direction of the album. The chintzy, Chaka Khan-sampling track was released as the first single from the album almost a year later, in September 2003, and got what turned out to be a f–king ginormous snowball rolling. But Kanye already knew that, didn’t he?: ‘I swear this is history in the making, man.’
Although ‘Family Business’ isn’t one of the first song fans usually gravitate to on ‘The College Dropout,’ it’s secretly one of the best. It blended the vivid storytelling of ‘All Falls Down’ with the warming soul of ‘Never Let Me Down’ into a song everyone can relate to. Peeling back whatever layers of his personality were still left, Kanye recounted personal childhood memories, like taking a bath with your cousins and peeing the bed, to once again challenge hip-hop’s alpha male culture. The brilliant thing about ‘Family Business’ is how it sounds nostalgic; those sprinkling keys alone play with your heartstrings in the same way flipping through an old family photo album does.
“Last Call” was more of a steady credit-roller than an epic finale. For a little under 13 minutes, Kanye proposed a toast to himself (who else?), reflecting on his rollercoaster ride from college dropout to struggling producer to rap star. Ye didn’t sugarcoat his story and make it sound like a fairytale, though; he recounted every setback and sobering moment (“He said, ‘man, that was tight.’ That was it. You know, I ain’t get no deal or nothing, hehe”). “Last Call” may have felt like an anti-climatic way to end of the best albums of its era, but Kanye’s life experiences are so crucial to his music. Plus, who else but Kanye West can babble about his life story and still keep you completely engrossed?
It’s hard to quantify what makes a classic album; there’s no definitive measure and revisionist history can skew the status of a record. In fact, classic by definition means judging something over a period of time to be of the highest quality. So maybe today, on its 10th anniversary, is the first time we can properly decide whether ‘The College Dropout’ is a classic or not. What would our answer be? Abso-fucking-lutely.
Aside from being a really great record, ‘The College Dropout’ opened – no, kicked down – doors for a generation of MCs who didn’t want to be confined to hip-hop stereotypes, and paved the way for Kanye to continue to change the game for years to come. The breadcrumbs of polarizing releases like Yeezus can be traced back to ‘The College Dropout,’ and Drake, rap’s biggest current star, has been nibbling on them for the last 10 years.
What has made ‘The College Dropout’ so durable for the last decade is that it’ll always be relevant. The record makes a deep emotional connection that’s stronger than any sales figure or academy award. ‘The College Dropout’ is a timeless album, even if Kanye’s time as the lovable a–hole in the pink polo is gone.