Editor’s Note: It’s been over a month since the last installment of the Kanye West Oeuvre, and what an eventful month it’s been: Kanye made TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, went on an accompanying promotional blitz including interviews with the New York Times and PAPER magazine, received an honorary doctorate from the Art Institute of Chicago, got censored and booed at the Billboard Awards, and apparently changed the title of his upcoming album–previously announced as So Help Me God–to SWISH, a possible reference to those nudes of Kim Kardashian he posted on Twitter back in March. Meanwhile, here we are still back in 2003, with Mr. (not yet Dr.!) West still working on his debut album. So, yeah, we’re probably not going to catch up before SWISH (or whatever it ends up being called) is released. But we’ll soldier on regardless. As always, make sure you read the previous parts in the series if you haven’t already: 1 2 3. And here are the later parts in the series: 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13. – Z.H.
Just a couple of months into 2003–a year before the release of his official debut as a performer–the pieces of Kanye West’s artistic vision had largely fallen into place. He had a new, obsessive drive and focus, the apparent effect of the car crash that had nearly taken his life. He had two mixtapes that finally found him reaching his potential as a rapper with a unique voice. And he had a firm concept for his upcoming album project on Roc-A-Fella Records, the home of some of his biggest heroes in hip-hop. As early as December 2002, Kanye told MTV’s Shaheem Reid, “The name of my album is called The College Dropout… All that’s saying is, make your own decisions. Don’t let society tell you, ‘This is what you have to do.’” The back cover of the second mixtape, I’m Good…, included an early College Dropout logo, with a projected release date of August 2003. It seemed that the momentum West had been slowly building since 1996 had finally hit its peak, and he looked to be damn near unstoppable.
The story of The College Dropout’s making has become the stuff of legend, and has been chronicled in much greater detail than I’m able to afford here. West recorded the album primarily at the Record Plant in Los Angeles while recovering from the accident, as well as in his own Hoboken, New Jersey home studio; he’d carry the demos from his place to the studio and back in a Louis Vuitton backpack, a fact that quickly took its place as an essential element of the Kanye myth. As I noted last time, one of the most striking things about the album when you listen to it now is its sense of musical and thematic cohesion–a major accomplishment, considering the piecemeal way in which it was recorded. As West’s then-manager, John Monopoly, told Reid, there were “beats on the album he’s been literally saving for himself for years.”
But he couldn’t save all the beats for himself; so while Kanye labored over his long-awaited solo project, he continued to produce songs for other artists. A few of these we already went over last time, as they were previewed on West’s own mixtapes. Gravel-voiced Philadelphia rapper Freeway got two tracks for his own Roc-A-Fella debut: “Hear the Song,” driven by an almost baroque sped-up Chic sample with a re-recorded hook by Tarrey Torae, and the Santana-chopping “Turn Out the Lights,” billed to Freeway and Ye jointly as “Freewest.” Lil’ Kim–whose “Don’t Mess with Me” was one of Kanye’s highest-profile early productions–got “Came Back for You,” a typically soulful groove built on an Irene Reid sample that Kanye seemed to have some ulterior motives in producing: as he announced over the same Reid sample on his mixtape freestyle “Half Price,” “I don’t like fake boobies, but I’d do it to Lil’ Kim.”
In general, Kanye’s productions during this period were in keeping with his already established style. “Doin’ My Job” and “Let Me Tell You Something,” two productions for the second album by Atlanta’s T.I., are textbook examples of “chipmunk soul” at its most irresistibly polished: especially the former, plucking an obscure sample from Kansas City lite-funk act Bloodstone and ratcheting up the pitch for maximum drama. Indeed, by this point Kanye was able to integrate a wildly disparate artist’s style convincingly into his own. “Dogs Out” by DMX–the original intended artist, you might recall, for what became Jay-Z’s “Heart of the City”–pairs the sped-up vocals from Stacy Lattisaw’s syrupy Van McCoy-produced version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” with the hoarse shouts and, well, barks of the Ruff Ryders pack leader; the result, frankly, makes a lot more aural sense than it probably should.
Even as he continued to build his brand, however, Kanye still had a few surprises up his sleeve. His beat for “Stand Up,” the hit club single from Ludacris’ Chicken-n-Beer, sounds nothing like the soulful, sample-based style Yeezy made famous on The Blueprint; in fact, with its cavernous drum sound and distorted, echoing horns, it sounds more like the kind of thing he’d come up with a decade later. But there is, at least, one connection to the Kanye of old: the song’s featured guest, Shawnna, is a fellow Chicagoan whose rap duo, Infamous Syndicate, gave West one of his first guest verses way back in 1999.
Meanwhile, as Kanye continued to make hits for other artists, a rough mix of his own album was leaked to the infamous filesharing client Napster, months before its projected August release date. The leaked version of The College Dropout (you can still find on the Internet, if you look hard enough) sounds strikingly bare compared to its meticulously arranged final mix, with a wildly disparate track list that splits the difference between the earlier mixtape and demo tracks and the better-known (not to mention just plain better) album material. Several of the songs, again, were already covered in the last post: “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” and “My Way” from Get Well Soon…; “Heavy Hitters” from I’m Good…; and of course, the now-omnipresent “Two Words,” “Jesus Walks,” and “Through the Wire.” Among the new tracks were a few that ultimately wouldn’t make the final cut. “Home,” a heartfelt tribute to the city of Chicago featuring vocals by John Legend, would show up with an entirely new hook–and singer–on 2007’s Graduation. And “Keep the Receipt,” featuring Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard under his new nom de Roc of Dirt McGirt, was yet another in an ever-lengthening string of diss tracks boasting about Ye’s production prowess; perhaps sensing the redundancy, Kanye would wisely leave it off the final album, instead slipping it onto his third (and least essential) mixtape, Kon the Louis Vuitton Don, later that year.
Those who listened to The College Dropout leak would get a much better indication of the final album’s scope and ambition from its opening track, “All Falls Down,” which drew both its title and its principal hook from Lauryn Hill’s 2002 song “Mystery of Iniquity.” The choice of sampling material couldn’t have been coincidental: from its themes of mainstream education’s relevance in Black America to its lush, nostalgic sound, The College Dropout in its final form would bear more than a passing resemblance to Hill’s 1998 solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Certainly, the lyrics of “All Falls Down” indicate a desire to engage in the kind of “conscious” hip-hop and neo-soul for which Hill had become a major figurehead. West would even perform a spoken-word version on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in 2004 (see Video 9 above), closing with the most politically forthright verse: “I say fuck the police, that’s how I treat ’em / We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom / See, we buy a lot of clothes, but we don’t really need ’em / Things we buy to cover up what’s inside / ‘Cause they made us hate ourself and love they wealth / That’s why shorties hollering, ‘Where the ballers at?’ / Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack / And the white man get paid off’a all’a that.”
But “All Falls Down” is more than just Kanye’s most successful stab at a “conscious” track in the tradition of Ms. Hill or the Native Tongues collective. The Def Poetry Jam version ends with a kicker, the line about “the white man” profiting from Black people’s material pursuits both legitimate and otherwise; but on the recorded version, Kanye continues: “But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou / ‘Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou before I had a house, and I’d do it again / ‘Cause I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin’ a Benz / I wanna act ballerific, like it’s all terrific / I got a couple past due bills, I won’t be specific / I got a problem with spendin’ before I get it / We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” This deliberate introspective shift from an outward-facing political consciousness is the crux on which the whole College Dropout album would turn.
The pitfall of conscious hip-hop has always been that, in attempting to communicate a salient political message, it can come across as, in Kanye’s own words, “holier than thou.” But by shifting the focus to his own complications and insecurities–by presenting himself not simply as a “conscious” rapper, but as a “self-conscious” one–Kanye added a new layer of complexity, avoiding the self-righteous preaching that can infect even the most well-intentioned of social commentary. At its best (which “All Falls Down” undeniably is), The College Dropout would use Kanye’s own experience to paint a sophisticated portrait of Black life at the turn of the millennium: he would purposefully make himself a symbol for his generation, caught between the competing interests of spiritual self-actualization and material gain, middle-class respectability and the approval of the hood. With this guiding theme in place, a song like “Jesus Walks” and its refrain of “God, show me the way, because the Devil’s try’na break me down” takes on a whole new dimension of meaning, using the figurative language of gospel to dramatize Kanye’s (and everybody else’s) warring impulses. And a song like “Two Words” externalizes that conflict right down to its choice of guest artists: pairing the predictably “conscious” Mos Def with the defiantly “street” Freeway as Kanye wavers between the two perspectives, dropping lines about racial profiling and the gold chains around his neck.
It was ultimately for the best, then, that The College Dropout leaked when it did. As close as Kanye was to achieving his masterpiece, the leaked version falls notably short of greatness; its unauthorized early release gave the legendary perfectionist an excuse to tinker with his baby for a few more months and make sure the album lived up to its fullest potential. In the meantime, some of his biggest productions yet would help to fill the void. Kanye was unsurprisingly one of the star producers tapped for Jay-Z’s much-vaunted “retirement” project, The Black Album, and the tracks he produced put his work on Jay’s previous album to shame. With its genteel horns, sampled from John Holt’s 1976 reggae cover of the Beatles’ “I Will,” and a hook sung by the motley crew of John Legend, GLC (formerly of Kanye’s Chicago outfit the Go-Getters), then-manager Don “C” Crawley, and West himself, “Encore” is as slickly-produced as anything on The Blueprint2–all without sacrificing Kanye’s individual personality as a producer.
But the real jewel of Kanye’s work on The Black Album is the late-album burner “Lucifer.” There’s a great scene in Fade to Black, the film documenting the making of the album leading up to Jay-Z’s “farewell” show at Madison Square Garden, that captures Kanye as he enthusiastically demoes several beats–including what would become his own “Last Call”–to a clearly much less enthused Jay, who nods along gamely between eyerolls at his protégé’s antics. Then “Lucifer” comes on, and suddenly Jay sits up and pays attention (see Video 11 on the playlist). It’s easy to understand why: “Lucifer” is Kanye at his early experimental best, built around a choppy piano lick and an arresting sped-up vocal sample from Max Romeo’s “Chase the Devil” (Kanye was apparently listening to a good amount of reggae in 2003). It’s enough to earn the stalwart young producer a shoutout on the record, with Jay coming close to coining his most enduring nickname: “Kanyeezy, you did it again–you a genius, nigga!” Kanye, predictably, was a fan of the line: in a recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, comedian Dave Chappelle recalled listening to the album for the first time with West in attendance; immediately after the affirmation of his genius played, “Kanyeezy” apparently stood up and demanded that they rewind the track so he could hear it again.
On the other side of the musical spectrum in Kanye’s growing portfolio was Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name”: a sweet, soulful ballad that made up for its lack of experimentation with an immaculate perfection of his classic sound. The song’s sweeping sample from the Main Ingredient’s “Let Me Prove My Love to You” meshed perfectly with Keys’ lush, melodic neo-soul style; and the song’s memorable video, directed by Chris Robinson of “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” fame and starring Keys as a lovestruck diner waitress alongside Mos Def as the object of her affection, certainly didn’t hurt its popularity. “You Don’t Know My Name” quickly rose to number one on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart, falling only to be succeeded by another Kanye West production, his own “Slow Jamz,” in February 2004. It was no doubt instrumental, along with his contemporaneous work with John Legend, in introducing Kanye to an audience beyond the confines of pure hip-hop.
Mainstream promotion for The College Dropout finally began in earnest in late September 2003, with the single release of “Through the Wire,” featuring a new, slightly cleaned-up vocal performance and an eyecatching video directed by the film production duo Coodie & Chike. The video’s concept, a series of Polaroid images chronicling Kanye’s rise to fame and his recovery from the car crash, was classic myth-building from a master of the art. Kanye devised the idea in collaboration with Coodie, a fellow Chicagoan born Clarence Simmons, Jr., who shot the video guerrilla-style, using the resources and facilities of his day job at MTV. They didn’t even write a treatment–because if they had, Coodie maintained, Roc-A-Fella “would have shot that down. They had to see it to understand. Otherwise they’d have said, ‘No, Kanye should be rapping at a party, with lots of girls poolside.’” It is perhaps a sign of the changes The College Dropout brought to mainstream hip-hop that the video, despite its unconventional approach, was a major success, taking home Video of the Year at the 2004 Source Hip-Hop Awards.
Curiously, the second College Dropout single wasn’t initially released as a “Kanye West” song at all. “Slow Jamz,” one of three tracks produced by West for Kamikaze by Chicago’s Twista, was released initially as a Twista track–with Twista’s label, Atlantic, footing the bill for the video and the initial promotional push. This oddball scheme was concocted by Gee Roberson and Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua, who had both recently moved to Atlantic A&R from Roc-A-Fella; indeed, it may have been at least partly responsible for The College Dropout’s final delay to February, as according to Roberson “part of the agreement” with Atlantic was that Kamikaze would come out two weeks earlier than Kanye’s album. It almost proved to be a misstep: as Roberson recalled to Complex, Kamikaze was a surprise hit, leading to fears that the Roc had allowed Atlantic to steal their artist’s thunder with his own song.
Somehow, though, the double release of “Slow Jamz” managed to pay off. It helps, of course, that it’s a charming, catchy song–and that the longer mix Kanye saved for his own record is the superior version. A cute spoken cameo by comedienne Aisha Tyler kicks off Twista’s motormouthed recitation of R&B lotharios (one sample line that has always stuck with me, for better or worse: “Let me get your sheets wet, listening to Keith Sweat”). And Kanye’s spoke-sung introductory verse, while nowhere near the lyrical level of a “Through the Wire” or an “All Falls Down,” is among the most playful of his early career: who can forget the immortal couplet, “She got a light-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson?” The song’s proven success also helped legitimize Kanye to his label, who were still on the fence about his potential as a headline artist; according to his mentor No I.D., “When Atlantic began to press that record and it went to No. 1, that gave confidence to Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella to push Kanye all the way. That was the moment we knew the machine was behind him and there was no question it was gonna work.” Somewhat less auspiciously, we have “Slow Jamz” to “thank” for introducing actor-comedian Jamie Foxx as a semi-credible R&B singer. So, uh, how about that Michael Jackson line?
Of the other Kanye-produced songs on Kamikaze, followup single “Overnight Celebrity” is definitely the keeper. It’s a pretty typical song about picking up groupies with the aid of some conspicuous consumption (“Why don’t we play something these hoes’ll like / Drive whips I know they like / Twista, you told her, right / I could make you a celebrity overnight”); Kanye, however, classes it up with a sped-up sample from Lenny Williams’ ” ‘Cause I Love You” and a violin hook by his now-frequent collaborator Miri Ben-Ari. The other track, “One Last Time,” is less interesting on its own merits–though those of you playing along at home should recognize the beat from Kanye’s own 2001 demo track, “Have It Your Way.”
There were a few other tracks produced by Kanye in late 2003 and early 2004; but, in the interest of finally talking about the goddamn College Dropout, I’m just going to skip straight to the main event. Kanye West’s debut album has been widely praised–not least in this very series–as a masterpiece. And for me, at least, one of the main reasons why it qualifies as such is the rigor with which West applies its central theme: in his own words, “make your own decisions. Don’t let society tell you, ‘This is what you have to do.’” This message is clear from the album’s opening moments, as comedian DeRay Davis–in a spot-on impersonation of the much more famous (and, presumably, expensive) comedian Bernie Mac–asks Kanye to write a song for “the kids” to sing at graduation: “Somethin’ beautiful… that’s gon’ make them start jumpin’ up and down an’ sharin’ candy an’ stuff.” “Oh, yeah,” Kanye deadpans, “I got the perfect song for the kids to sing.” The track then launches into a sample of the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “I Just Wanna Stop,” with a hook sung for maximum satirical potential by actual children: “And all my people that’s drug dealin’, just to get by / Stack ya’ money ’til it gets sky high / We wasn’t s’posed to make it past 25 / Joke’s on you, we still alive / So throw your hands up in the sky and say, ‘We don’t care what people say.’”
The arresting opening track was originally titled “Drug Dealer,” a rather on-the-nose reference to those opening lines. Gee Roberson told Complex they changed it because they “wanted to go with a mainstream title,” but “We Don’t Care” is frankly a better title all around. That’s because the song is about more than just drug dealing: it’s a gloriously wholesale rejection of respectability politics, made all the more impactful because it comes from an artist whose middle-class background and crossover appeal created the expectation that he would be less threatening to “mainstream” (i.e., white) audiences. Straight out the gate, Kanye dismisses bourgeois standards of success and aligns himself with the underclass: the drug dealers, the people in the neighborhood claiming “other people kids” on their income taxes, the “dogs workin’ 9 to 5 and still hustlin’ / ‘Cause a nigga can’t shine on $6.55.” It’s a powerful statement, and another example of Kanye’s “self-conscious” rap persona: rather than preaching education and “self-betterment” from on high, he shows empathy and solidarity for everyone in the midst of the struggle. And he does it not with sober self-seriousness, but with a wicked sense of humor: “Kids, sing! Kids, sing!” he eggs on the children during their irony-drenched chorus about the hazards of ghetto life.
The song’s bookending sketch, ironically titled “Graduation Day,” predicts some of the criticisms that would be directed toward Kanye for his refusal to play respectability politics in the coming years. Needless to say, DeRay’s character isn’t impressed by the song: he strips Yeezy of his diploma, cap and gown, shouting, “I told you to do somethin’ uplifting! I’m tryin’ to get you out here with these white people and this is how you do me?” But Kanye–the character and the artist–has made his choice; he doesn’t want to represent the middle-class ideal represented by DeRay’s character, he wants to represent himself–and, in his very self-absorption, he provides a path for others to follow. As John Legend croons over the track’s coda, “I’m no longer confused, but don’t tell anybody / I’m about to break the rules, but don’t tell anybody / I got somethin’ better than school, but don’t tell anybody / My momma would kill me, but don’t tell anybody / She wants me to get a good ass job, just like everybody / She ain’t walked in my shoes, I’m just not everybody.” This may seem like a statement of exceptionalism–and, coming as it does from the most self-proclaimed of self-proclaimed geniuses, it kind of is–but for Kanye, “everybody” is more of an abstract concept, a personification of societal pressures and mores. There’s plenty of room for others to identify with his journey in The College Dropout–to break away from being “just like everybody.” Such is the brilliance of his “self-conscious” rhetoric: for every monolithic “I” he employs, there are just as many all-encompassing “we”s.
Framed by the new context of “We Don’t Care” and the accompanying skits, “All Falls Down”–which would become the album’s third single, with Lauryn Hill’s original vocals replaced by Chicago’s Syleena Johnson–gains in resonance. The opening verse about a “single Black female, addicted to retail” feels an awful lot like a stand-in for Kanye himself: “Man, I promise, she’s so self-conscious / She has no idea what she’s doing in college / The major that she majored in don’t make no money / But she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny.” It’s a striking extension of empathy, especially from an artist who less than two years earlier had been writing vicious put-downs about “crazy bitches” and gold-diggers. Even his mimicry of lower-class Black vernacular (“sophomore three yurrs, ain’t picked a carurr”) isn’t mean-spirited, just a little light-hearted ribbing within the culture. And when he does start talking about himself, he’s explicit in noting that his Blackness keeps him on the same level as anybody else: “We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us / We trying to buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper, look how low we stoop / Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigger in a coupe.” Throughout the song, Kanye mixes up pronouns with abandon, moving back and forth from “she” to “I” to, most powerfully, “we.” Just like on “We Don’t Care,” it’s radical self-actualization through communal connection.
Another new track, “Spaceship,” furthers this theme through arguably the most relatable modern narrative of all: the dead-end retail job. In writing the song, Kanye drew on his own experiences as a youth working at the Gap and making beats in his free time, and he can’t resist pointing out the success that came after he quit his day job: “This fuckin’ job can’t help him / So I quit, y’all welcome.” Mostly, though, the song is self-consciously universal. The guest verses by GLC and Consequence provide radically different takes on the theme: GLC “didn’t even try to take a job,” but turned to crime while still dreaming of rap stardom; Consequence faced the humbling experience of tasting success as a rapper, then working a straight job and being recognized by his coworkers from “an old Busta Rhymes video.” And, once again, West connects it all back to the mainline of the African American experience: the song’s intro, “I’ll Fly Away,” is an arrangement of the gospel standard by Albert E. Brumley, with suitably church-y vocals by Kanye’s first cousin, Tony Williams.
The gospel influence is, of course, even more prominent in the album’s seventh track and fourth single, “Jesus Walks.” As a personal aside, this track was always kind of a tough pill to swallow for a confirmed non-believer like myself; especially the final verse, which reads a bit like one of those “90% of people won’t share this” messages your auntie likes to post on Facebook: “Radio needs this / They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That mean guns, sex, lies, videotape”–videotape?–“But if I talk about God, my record won’t get played–huh?!” Shameless pandering aside, however, “Jesus Walks” is another powerful example of Kanye aligning his personal experience with the political struggles of the Black underclass in America: the first verse in particular is as relevant today as it was ten years ago, with its lines about “getting choked by detectives” and harassed by police predicting the police-brutality cases of Michael Brown and, especially, Eric Garner.
Of course, not every track on The College Dropout is as lofty as the ones mentioned so far. “Never Let Me Down” is a relative dud: an admittedly epic-sounding beat–featuring a sample from none other than Michael Bolton’s early band, Blackjack–bogged down by a Jay-Z guest verse recycled from his own “Hovi Baby” remix and some run-of-the mill Def Poetry from Chicago spoken-word artist J. Ivy. The most interesting thing about the track, as with “Two Words,” is that Kanye even thought to put these two wildly disparate guests together in the first place. Less ambitious, but more successful on its own terms, is “Get ‘Em High”: a party track originally intended for Talib Kweli’s The Beautiful Struggle, in which Ye calls up Kweli to help him seal the deal with a “dime” he met on Black Planet, voiced by his own girlfriend at the time, Sumeke Rainey. It’s a fun song, mostly because it recalls a more innocent time, when the idea of Kanye having to use his backpacker connections to pull women was feasible. The extra guest verse by Common–soon to be the second most famous M.C. from Chicago–is welcome, but remarkable mainly for prefiguring his more fruitful collaborations with Yeezy the following year.
Arguably the album’s two guiltiest pleasures come right in the middle: “The New Workout Plan” and “Breathe In Breathe Out.” No one would ever claim “The New Workout Plan” as a serious lyrical accomplishment: my own most gracious evaluation is that it’s a parody of sexism in fitness culture and the quid-pro-quo approach of women working on their bodies so they can get men to buy them things, with a comedic portrayal of Black and lower-class white women that isn’t really offensive only because it’s so obviously tongue-in-cheek. It wasn’t even a favorite among Kanye’s camp: Patrick “Plain Pat” Reynolds, an A&R rep for Def Jam at the time, told Complex, “I hated that song, man. Like every Kanye album, there’s the one song that drives me crazy. Then he flew to Miami to do that stupid-ass video (see Video 28 above). It was just so goofy. It’s like he likes something about it and he would just go with it. He wants to make it work so bad, it’s like he wants to prove everybody wrong.” In this case, though, he kind of did. Kanye pulled out all the stops for the beat: from the opening skit, which uses an incessant shaker noise to simulate the sound of nails being buffed, to Miri Ben-Ari’s exotic-sounding violin hook, to what Kanye calls “that old Michael Jackson shit” at the end, a lengthy ’80s-style funk breakdown with John Legend on the talkbox. That he would put so much effort into what, for any other artist, would have been a throwaway filler track, is a testament to the quirky tenacity Plain Pat describes.
“Breathe In Breathe Out” is less remarkable for its beat, which feels like a lesser-returns retread of “Stand Up”–possibly by design, as Ludacris also comes along to bellow the hook. But it does contain a classic verse Kanye had been kicking around since at least his days on tour with Kweli, one that again embodies his self-consciousness as an up-and-coming rapper caught between the mainstream and underground hip-hop traditions: “Golly, more of that bullshit ice rap / I gotta ‘pologize to Mos and Kweli / But is it cool to rap about gold if I told the world I copped it from Ghana and Mali? / First nigga with a Benz and a backpack / Ice chain, Carti’ lens, and a knapsack / Always said if I rapped I’d say somethin’ significant / But now I’m rappin’ ’bout money, hoes, and rims again.” It’s easy to accuse Kanye of having his cake and eating it too with lines like these, but his simultaneous guilt and glee at squandering his “conscious” cred to wallow in materialism also shows that he’s human, just like the rest of us. It’s fitting that after confessing to blowing his money on frivolities–“I mean, twelve platinum chains, was I on that?”–he then turns to the audience for commiseration and support: “What the hell was wrong with me, dog? Sing along with me, y’all.”
Coming as it did toward the end of the compact disc era in popular music, The College Dropout was pegged a bit on its initial release for being overstuffed with skits and guest features. And while that’s a justifiable complaint, what tends to be overlooked is that this is one of the rare albums on which the skits actually add to the overall experience. In particular, the skits that bookend “School Spirit”–again featuring DeRay Davis, but using his own voice this time–are some of the sharpest and funniest indictments of higher education I’ve heard anywhere, let alone on a hip-hop album. My favorite is “Lil Jimmy,” in which Davis plays a character whose father died and left him nothing but his college degrees. “My mom would always say, ‘Dad, why don’t you work?'” Davis deadpans. “But he just kept learning.”
It’s little wonder that these tracks–along with “School Spirit” itself, an infectious gospel groove riding high on a sample from Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark”–stuck in so many reviewers’ craws, as their perceived anti-intellectualism didn’t make much sense to the mostly white, upper-middle-class, college-educated pop-crit community: Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum, for example, criticized the “strange logic of the album’s anti-college stance” and snarked, “someone should tell West that not everyone on the street has the ability and/or luck to make a living in the music biz,” before admitting, “Your reviewer may be biased by the fact that he’ll probably be spending his lifetime in the Ivory Tower.” Ten years later, however, with an entire generation of Americans graduating college to find a paucity of career opportunities both inside and outside the “Ivory Tower,” Kanye’s logic is looking a lot less “strange.” Besides, his point was less that we should all drop out of school and become hip-hop stars, and more that college isn’t a catch-all solution to improve all of our lives: as he notes on “School Spirit,” you can graduate at the top of your class and still end up working as a waiter at the Cheesecake Factory.
The final stretch of The College Dropout contains some of the album’s most well-regarded tracks. I feel like I’ve discussed “Two Words” enough in passing that I’ve already said most of what I have to say about it; I will add, however, that it just may be the best beat on the album: blending high-drama samples from the “Peace and Love” suite by Brooklyn prog-funk band Mandrill and 5th Dimension’s “The Rainmaker” with more Ben-Ari violin and a rousing chorus by the Boys Choir of Harlem. The whole thing knocks so hard, it’s easy to forget that most of what the song has to say lyrically has been better said elsewhere–either on the rest of the album or, in the case of the classic hook, on the Kanye-produced State Property song “Got Nowhere.”
Penultimate track “Family Business,” meanwhile, is another Yeezy-as-everyman cut, with a soulful a capella sample from the Dells’ “Fonky Thang,” nostalgic lyrics about soul food with monkey bread on the side and sleeping six kids to a bed, and more church-inspired vocals by John Legend and Tarrey Torae. It’s telling of Kanye’s ambition to be a spokesman for others that the “family” at the center of “Family Business” isn’t his own, but Torae’s: she told Complex, “When he was writing the song, he kept saying, ‘Man, I don’t know how to write this. I’m trying to figure it out.’ He wanted it to be as close to other people’s experiences as possible. He was like, ‘I need this to be about real-life family.’ I’m the oldest of 48 grandkids and that’s just on my mom’s side. I’m in the middle of 36 grandkids on my father’s side. So when he said, ‘I need material,’ I was like, ‘I got plenty of material.'” Knowing this story, what’s striking about the final song is how well Kanye sells it; the experiences seem as real to him as they would to Torae. It is, perhaps, the album’s strongest example of Kanye’s ability to make the personal universal, and vice versa.
It was a month and a half ago (!) when I wrote that “The College Dropout was a masterpiece, made all the more impressive by its status as a 26-year-old artist’s debut.” The album’s ambition–especially coming from someone who, less than five years back, had been making beats for hire out of his mom’s house–is matched only by the striking consistency with which that ambition is fulfilled. It is, at once, a starmaking monument to its creator’s own vision and drive; a passionate advocacy of Black identity in the face of White American cultural conformity; and a deliberate aesthetic shift for the genre of hip-hop, away from the tribalist divisions of “street” vs. “conscious” and toward a new, idiosyncratic, self-conscious eclecticism. It’s the first chapter in an entire discography eccentrically devoted to speaking shared realities through the monomaniacal filter of the artist’s ego; and, in a way, it’s the most successful at achieving that goal. In his later career, Kanye would be more artistically daring, more earnestly confessional, but for much of his audience, he would never be quite as relatable; it’s little wonder that, when fans today talk about wanting “the old Kanye” back, the album they have in mind is almost always The College Dropout.
But it’s a fallacy, I think, to talk about “old Kanye” and “new Kanye” as if they are two different people. If Kanye’s pointedly self-conscious persona allows us anything, it’s the ability to see his flaws–or, less judgmentally, his quirks–laid bare. Whatever we might find objectionable about Kanye West today–his arrogance, his sense of entitlement, his sometimes crass commercialism–was never hidden; it was right out there from the start, for all to see. Indeed, these “negative” aspects of West are, by his own admission, an essential component of his success: as he raps on “Last Call,” the final track of The College Dropout, “I could let these dream-killers kill my self-esteem / Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams / I use it as my gas, so they say that I’m gassed / But without it I’d be last, so I ought to laugh.” The ensuing decade would require a lot more “steam” from Kanye, and the results would occasionally test even his loyal fans. But when the results are this impressive, really, why be bothered?
And with that, it’s time to take a little sabbatical from the Kanye West Oeuvre. Next month is Jheri Curl June, so it’s basically a month-long national holiday, and the rest of the site’s recurring features will be shut down. I’ll be back in July with our regularly scheduled programming, including the followup to The College Dropout, 2005’s Late Registration. I don’t know about you all, but I need the break. In the meantime, here’s that Spotify list: