The First Time: Remembering Kanye West’s ‘The College Dropout’
Feb. 10 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of Kanye West’s debut album, ‘The College Dropout.’ The 21-track offering was deemed an instant classic when it was released on Feb. 10, 2004, and proved that the Chicago MC was as formidable a rapper as he was a producer.
A truly eclectic offering, ‘The College Dropout’ features tracks that run the gamut from flashy and fun (‘Slow Jamz,’ ‘The New Workout Plan’) to heartfelt and poignant (‘Never Let Me Down,’ ‘Jesus Walks’). The first single, ‘Through the Wire,’ showcases West’s honesty and conviction as a rapper — he performed the song while his mouth was literally wired shut following a car accident — and serves as a fitting testament to his passion on his debut LP and beyond.
To celebrate this seminal release, The Boombox asked hip-hop experts, including West’s DJ A-Trak and Hit-Boy, who produced ‘N—-s in Paris,’ to recall the very first time they heard ‘The College Dropout’ and how the project made an impact.
“I was still living in Montreal when it came out and I got it on release day. My brother [Dave 1 of Chromeo] had already moved to New York and he listened before me, so he called me. I remember he said, ‘You’re going to love the first song.’ We were really into the craftsmanship that went into the album: the strings, the skits, the leitmotifs. It represented a huge paradigm shift in hip-hop and we could sense it right away.
“Of course the album also holds a certain sentimental value for me too, because I met Kanye two or three months after it came out and he brought me out on tour. I ended up touring with him for four years and remember performing those songs — the way ‘We Don’t Care’ was still referred to as ‘Drug Dealin,’ for example.
“In fact, I met Kanye in London as I was about to fly back to Montreal. He asked me to be his DJ and on the flight home I listened to ‘Last Call’ on repeat for the whole flight; listening to HIS story and picturing where I was going to fit in, in the next chapter.”
“The summer of ’03 is when I first started hearing leaks from ‘The College Dropout.’ I vividly remember going to this legendary sneaker-apparel store in Chicago called Tony’s Sports, and buying Kanye’s mixtapes, ‘I’m Good’ and ‘Get Well Soon.’ I was hooked, and at the time was a bit of a Kanye stan.
“When the ‘Through The Wire’ video started popping up on BET’s ‘Rap City’ and on MTV, everything changed. Within the next few weeks, I started seeing ‘College Dropout’ snipes, flyers and ads popping up all over town. I remember walking down Milwaukee Avenue [in Chicago] and seeing those ads everywhere — you know the one where Kanye was leaning over with the Louis Vuitton backpack on? To this day I wonder if he hired his own street team to flood the town with the ads. I’m guessing he did.
“I played ‘Last Call’ over and over and over again. That song really inspired and motivated me to follow my dreams and take a shot at working in music. Fake Shore Drive was still four years away, but it definitely helped plant the seed. This whole album really resonated with me, and is still my favorite Kanye project to date.”
“I actually first heard a lot of ‘The College Dropout’ at Baseline Studios in a listening session, if I’m not mistaken. I wasn’t REALLY able to soak it in ’til I took a drive down to Philly as I was going to check in on my State Property guys. I listened to it twice from beginning to end. I was in awe of how forward it was. Soulful sounds, skits and reinvention of artists like Twista, Jamie Foxx and Mase.
“The tracks were so dope and refreshing. Having artists like Freeway and Mos on the same song over a HARD ass track like ‘Two Words,’ overcoming the huge hurdle of having Lauryn front on him and then replacing her with Selena Johnson. The song never lost its soul or energy.
“‘Last Call’ was the sickest summary of the events from when he started up to the release of that album. Not to mention my sick shout-out on there. Lol.”
“The first time I heard ‘The College Dropout’ in its entirety it was a few weeks before the album’s release. I remember being at the old offices of Complex magazine where I was working as a staff writer and playing it on my computer. The album was a rough, not quite finished version burned onto a gold CD-R with ‘College Dropout’ scrawled on it in black marker. It came, via messenger, in a thin purple jewel case with a Kanye West Chicago cityscape logo sticker on it. It was sent to me by Kanye’s very eager publicist at the time.
“I’d known Kanye for about a year at that point and we collaborated on his column for Complex ‘Kanye’s Fashion Beatdowns.’ (It was like Fashion Police with Joan Rivers in print except with Kanye playing the role of comical critic.)
“While he was working on his debut, he’d play songs for me to get my opinion. I recall sitting in the G-Class truck he had that he hated outside of Complex’s offices in Manhattan’s Garment District while he played ‘Jesus Walks’ for me — nervous about how a song about Jesus Christ would be received: ‘You think the radio gon’ play this? You think people gon’ think I’m a gospel rapper?’ I just thought it was a really dope song from a fresh perspective — plus I was just excited to hear it.
‘Nah, yo this shit’s a hit!’ And it was. That fact doesn’t speak to my ability to recognize a hit record as much as it does the counterintuitive genius of Kanye’s creativity. (Yeah, I said “genius” because I think Kanye’s right about himself on that account.)
“On ‘The College Dropout’ his goal was to be different but simultaneously relatable. He saw that the stereotypes associated with rappers — and Black men for that matter — an realized they excluded an underrepresented but large population of people who grew up in the ‘hood but weren’t hood themselves. His stories weren’t about toiling on corners or in the trap but slaving away at The Gap. ‘The College Dropout’ opened the door for middle class rap and decidedly non-gangsta artists like Kid Cudi, Drake and Childish Gambino. He was also the prototypical producing-rapping underdog that paved the way for guys like J. Cole and Hit-Boy.
“When the album was finally released officially in Feb. ’04 I was pleasantly surprised to find that I got a shout-out in the thank you section. I thought that was cool although he misspelled my name like I was some character from Irish folklore or something.”
“‘The College Dropout’ changed my life and helped me to understand that it was possible for the underdog to come out on top. You could tell there was a lot of care put into every single piece of the album from top to bottom and until this day, I treat that album as a standard when it comes to putting together rap music that doesn’t sound like everything else.”
“It wasn’t until the summer of 2004, following my high school graduation, that I started listening deeply to ‘The College Dropout.’ From that point, it quickly became my favorite hip-hop album. That summer, my mind really connected to songs like ‘Spaceship’ because it was so easy to identify with what he was rapping about (and, of course, the beats were hypnotizing).
“Ten years later, this album still gets better with each listen. It gives me chills because it’s really the first detailed chapter of Kanye’s incredible legacy. His frustration on that album still reverberates today and although so much has changed in his life, listening to it makes me realize that the industry has not destroyed that original hunger and passion in him.”
“I first heard ‘The College Dropout’ at work here at Hot 97 and loved the album. It perfectly blended hip-hop materialism and consciousness, while making great music. It was needed. For hip-hop, ‘The College Dropout’ was the breakout album for one of the best all-around artists of our culture!
“Is it a classic? Almost, not quite. Should have left a few joints off, but almost. I prefer ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,’ ‘Late Registration’ and can we count ‘Watch the Throne’? Hov admitted he just rapped and Kanye did most of the album. Just sayin’!”
“Ten years ago, a few of you probably misunderstood the mission statement behind Kanye West’s landmark album ‘The College Dropout.’ Of course there’s utility and purpose in higher education (stay in school, kids), but Yeezy’s real message was a middle finger at societal norms. Be you. Do it your way. And that timeless sentiment, illuminated by helium-inflated soul samples and brain-rattling bass lines, is why the classic(!) LP is adored by an entire generation of listeners.
“For every posturing moment there’s a self-aware or self-depreciating one to balance it out. The reason ‘Dropout’ has aged like Stacey Dash (star of the album’s ‘All Falls Down’ video) is because it taught many of us that it’s OK to be yourself. Whether you’re a God-fearing man who enjoys threesomes or a Louis Vuitton mannequin with a knack for wholesome spoken word poetry. Kanye was as much of a contradiction in 2004 as he is in 2014. Just like you. And me.”
“I’ll never forget the first time I heard about ‘The College Dropout.’ I was an 18-year-old freshman at Cal State Northridge foraging for food in the student quad. The video for ‘Through the Wire’ came on and my roommate and I just stopped in our tracks thinking, ‘Who IS this?!’ That album spread through campus like wildfire, everyone feeling like he was speaking directly to them.
“It spoke to and was the soundtrack of an entire generation of people. Not just urban people, not just hip-hop people, but 18 to 28-year-olds trying to figure out what the hell to do with their lives while navigating through the webs of self betterment, career aspirations, societal expectations and corporate America.”
“The first time I heard ‘The College Dropout’ was when I was in 8th grade. The album was already out for a few months but I wasn’t allowed to go and buy a CD without a parent, so I had a friend who was older buy one for me.
“The first time I was listening in my basement on some old ass speakers I had. I remember hearing ‘Through the Wire’ and I thought to myself that it was such an amazing song. This album was something brand new at the time [but] people can still relate to it.”
“I’ll never forget when I first heard ‘College Dropout.’ I had applied to grad school at NYU prior to the release, and I was freaking out because my other friends received their acceptance letters before I did (totally different programs with different deadlines, but whatever). So I went to walk around NYU by myself (I’m a masochist) and stopped by the Tower Records on Broadway (#RIP) and bought the album. I raced back to my Volkswagen Golf and popped the CD in the player and proceeded to drive around New York City for the next five hours to take it all in.
“It was the first time I felt like a project didn’t represent what Roc-A-Fella Records was about at the time, yet it was in the best way possible. Certain songs stuck to me like ‘Spaceship,’ since I was in such a limbo over grad school acceptance (Calm down. I got in and have my Masters), and ‘Two Words’ because, well, I love Freeway. Let’s also not get into how much I wished Lauryn Hill was on ‘All Falls Down.’
“From that point on, certain tracks on that album hit my heart and continue to do so. I think it’s because Kanye rhymed and produced his album, so it felt like it was really all his. It was a turning point for artists in a way, introducing hip-hop to the notion of a one-man show. We see it now with guys like Big K.R.I.T. and J. Cole and it’s become consistently more frequent.
“Is it a classic? Hell yeah. And if you disagree then I’ma let you finish, but you ain’t got the answers, ‘kay?”
“I first heard ‘The College Dropout’ in Flatbush [Brooklyn] at my aunt’s house. I listened to it on bootleg with my two cousins through the Playstation 2. Since it was playing through the TV, we had to turn it down kind of low so my aunt wouldn’t hear the profanity on all those amazing songs and skits.
“I loved that album when I first heard it. I wanted to be as poetic and fresh as ‘Ye after listening to it. It definitely motivated people that they could still make it, if school didn’t work. It means a lot to me now because I didn’t finish college and I still feel like there’s hope to be successful in life.”
“On ‘The College Dropout’ we saw a hungry Chicago producer evolve into a trendsetting rapper. This album was my go-to CD in the whip in high school simply because it bangs from start to finish. Ten years later, it deserves to be a hip-hop classic because it allowed many of our favorite rappers (e.g. Drake, Cole) to take his foundation and thrive.”
Chase N. Cashe
“I first heard ‘The College Dropout’ my senior year in high school. I actually think I bootlegged all the songs individually on the Internet through some illegal p2p sharer before I bought the album in the store. My favorite tracks were ‘Last Call and ‘School Spirit’ mainly because of the soul in the beat and the subject matter of the lyrics. I played ‘Last Call’ on repeat so many times. The album definitely gave me confidence as a dreamy rapper-producer at the age of 16.
“The album is definitely a classic because it ushered in a whole new sound and subject matter into the rap game on a commercial level. It also changed the sound of the rap game production-wise. Everyone started picking sampled, soul-esque beats.”