This week marks the ten year anniversary of the release of Kanye West’s critically acclaimed debut album The College Dropout. Prior to its release, Kanye West had been known only for his production prowess, most notably his production work on Jay Z’s classic 2001 album The Blueprint. Everybody wanted a piece of West albeit just as a producer with A-listers such as Alicia Keys, Brandy and Janet Jackson all lining up to work with the rising producer. The College Dropout changed all that, firmly solidifying Kanye West’s status as not just the producer with the killer soulful beats, but also a true artist in his own right. The album went on to win Best Rap Album at the 2005 Grammy Awards.
In celebration of this seminal body of work, we’ve gathered a few of our friends from Hip-Hop Lovers to revisit The College Dropout with us and share how this record has impacted their lives, impacted Hip-Hop as a genre, community and movement back in 2004 and now in 2014, and why The College Dropout is a classic Hip-Hop record. Many thanks to James Branley, Niyi Ajiboye, Cameron J Williams, Gabe Spiegel, Miles Brown and Matt Tomer for this special installment of ‘WPGM Revisits’.
Kanye West has proudly spent the better part of his career talking about his own greatness. Unnecessary, of course, with a catalog that has always spoken for itself. We definitely don’t have to, and some of us won’t want to, but today (February 10) marks the anniversary of a moment in music history many of us will feel obligated to acknowledge. The College Dropout was the birth of the Kanye phenomenon, the effects of which were immediate. Producers had already been biting his brand of sped-up soul, but it was only after The College Dropout that rapping clones burst through the woodwork. Fast forward a decade later and Wale, Kid Cudi, Drake & Lupe Fiasco can probably thank the album for their entire careers.
But it was much more than that. Finally, a rap album it seemed everyone could relate to. Beyond the merger of backpackers and casual fans, kids who only used to love Indie Rock, Metal and Electronic now had Rap music in their iPods. Kanye proved a remarkable ability to bring people together, and you need look no further than the track list. Who else would (or could) have recruited Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, Jamie Foxx, Mos Def, Ludacris, a slam poet & a childrens’ choir for the same album? The formula was a new take on some of our favorite ideals. A mix of great melodies with honest, self-depreciating lyrics made for an irresistible combination.
This was all before the awards and the millions – the things that turned him into a narcissistic douche. The College Dropout was a glimpse into what lead up to that, the more humbling, often embarrassing memories that normal people can identify with. Taking a bath with your cousin, enduring shitty day jobs. Trying to figure out what to do with your life. It only makes sense, something so good and so refreshing, the perfect balance of fun and introspective, has proved to be one of the most important albums of a generation, and one of the best in hip hop history.
This was definitely the first Album that I instantly connected with. I was on my bed and I had a tape that was dubbed from my sister’s copy of the CD and I remembered hearing those words “if this is your first time hearing this/you are about to experience something so cold man“. I was hooked from that point on. I grew up in the inner-city about two hours from where Kanye grew up and his story was something that I instantly gravitated towards because my mind wasn’t really on the streets and I wasn’t really into albums around that time like Get Rich or Die Trying and Trap Musik. It was finally something a young black ghetto nerd from the Midwest could rock to proudly.
The impact of this album is still being felt to this day, which is quite the accomplishment for an album regardless of genre. But it’s even bigger in a genre such as Hip-Hop where the market is so saturated that bodies of work can be here and forgotten within a matter of days. He shifted the culture, bridged the gap between mainstream and the streets. In my opinion he made gangsta rap an irrelevant sub-genre with his vulnerable, witty and honest rhymes. Most importantly he has opened the door for countless emcees that are in the game today.
Without the college dropout, we probably would have never seen anything like, So Far Gone, Man On The Moon, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City or even something as recent as Acid Rap. This is why his album is on the level of all time classic debuts such as Doggystyle, Slim Shady LP, Ready to Die and dare I say it, ILLMATIC. When all is said and done no matter how ‘self-involved’ or ‘douchey’ Kanye gets, real fans of the culture of Hip-Hop will never forget the vision, pain, sacrifice and courage it took Kanye to create something as dope as The College Dropout.
When The College Dropout came out, it was widely accepted that besides a few missteps, it would go down as a classic and Kanye West was destined for greatness. A socially aware MC that kept things relevant with original delivery, above average lyrics, had thug approved love songs (“Slow Jamz”) and made beats as savage as “2 words”?? It seemed like we had struck gold. Late Registration seemed to re-solidify that idea although some of the missteps became more noticeable. For example I always thought the “Crack Music” chorus was some shit he made up on the fly and never changed it to something appropriate. Songs I didn’t especially care for started getting too many spins, for example “Golddigger” was a hit, so much so to the point I hide when I hear it come on.
BUT, I was willing to accept the eccentricity of those songs, if he continued to make beautiful eccentric songs like “Roses” and “Hey Mama”. Never did I think he would use Daft Punk’s “Stronger, Better, Faster”, throw some shitty lyrics on it and call it a “K.West/G.o.o.d Music production”, but Graduation had it’s fair share of moments of greatness such as “Good Morning” and “I Wonder”. It was much shorter than his last two record and I understood he wanted to separate himself from Hip-Hop and create his own niche, but I also was not about to support something as ridiculous as “Kanye decides to make an auto-tune album“.
I remember joking about it… and then 808s and Heartbreak came out. I can’t say enough about how much I don’t like this album. I would rather just not even talk about it. With all hope lost at the time, loosies off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy like “Runaway” started to jump out of the gym. I enjoyed this album, and I thought Kanye put the days of 808s and Heartbreaks behind him, but he was just taking a break from being Kanye. Enter: “Yeezus” and the “No one knew the name of your clothing line, Sway!” rant. Exit: My interest in Kanye West’s music.
The reason people are still bumping College Dropout in their stereos today is the production. When you hear a beat from that era of Kanye’s production, you know exactly where it fits in his discography. I’d argue that College Dropout is the epitome of Kanye’s production style, with its mix of samples, drums, and strings. Speaking of which, strings! His use of strings is what set him apart from all of the gangster rappers of the time. His production embraced the fact he was not about that life, ran with it, and created a classic album that I still can’t stop listening to.
The thing about Kanye is… he’s not crazy. That ambition you saw in his early interviews, the starvation for attention, for validation, has been filtered through over a decade of good music (no pun intended). As an artist, I respect his work ethic to no end. Who else do you know has reached his heights after being rejected time and again, and being told he can’t do it? In the famous words of Charles Barkley, he’s not a role model. You don’t need to have your kids look up to Kanye’s humility and flawless personal decisions. He doesn’t need your approval. What he needs, what he’s wanted since day one, is for you to get the hell out of his way and let him change the world, one song at a time. Talent like his cannot be captured in TMZ’s headlines, or in excerpts from a leaked song, or in quotes from interviews. Let him do him, and you’ll get the picture.
Cameron J Williams
I didn’t hear College Dropout at its release, “discovering” the album about a year after my introduction to Hip-Hop (c 2007). In comparison to the classics I gorged on, College Dropout’s unique quality was authenticity. Backed by simple yet effective Soul loops, an unknown Kanye West spoke eloquent on social injustice, family and self-consciousness in one moment, only to admit his thirst for bling, kicks, ass and fame in the next. Things I could relate to as a young suburban college student. Still, back then it was just a very good album compared to the Illmatics on my Windows 5 smartphone.
With time came an appreciation of the times and context at College Dropout’s debut. It blazed uncharted territory, ignoring drug toting, gun clapping music in New York, crunk down South, and G-Funk’s dying embers out West. It struck the sweet spot between Rock-a-fella’s materialism and the Soulquarians’ consciousness, two groups that mentored and influenced West. College Dropout’s production was a warm tribute to 70’s soul and the RZA’s production; it’s lyrics and message were ahead of their time and inspiring, both to causal fans and future rappers. Today it’s easy to get lost in the KimYe drama and Kanye’s fashion itch; listening to College Dropout takes me back to a time where Kanye West, then all about the music, and with nothing to lose, crafted a musical classic and kick started a memorable career.
“Ten years ago today we finally released what had been my life’s work up to that point: The College Dropout. I say “finally” because it was a long road, a constant struggle, and a true labor of love, to not only convince my peers and the public that I could be an artist, but to actually get that art out for the world to hear.
I am extremely grateful to each and every person along that road who helped, lent an ear, lent their voice, gave of their heart to that project, and to all the projects that followed, and are to come. I am honored and humbled by my fans, for the unwavering support and love over the past ten years. I wake up every day trying to give something back to you that you can rock to and be proud of.
Ten years later I am still the same kid from Chicago, still dreaming out loud, still banging on the door. The doors may be heavier, but I promise you WE WILL BREAK THEM.” – Kanye West
Kanye West – The College Dropout:
Purchase: Kanye West – The College Dropout (iTunes)