The following is the first in an eight-part series documenting the discography of Kanye West. Each week, Arts will feature a piece detailing the merits of one of West’s albums, in chronological order.
In the contemporary moment, the mere name Kanye West prompts contention. Depending on the audience, perceptions of the generational talent could land anywhere between genius and unhinged egotist; he evokes emotions ranging from devotion to distaste. However, in early 2004, before Yeezy ever felt the pressure of scrutiny, the unproven producer-turned-rapper was on the brink of releasing his magnum opus.
Today “The College Dropout” is widely regarded by fans and critics as one of the best rap albums ever made. At its release, however, it was the much-hyped freshman effort of one of hip-hop’s most lauded beatmakers. Suffice to say, it delivered. A young Kanye released “The College Dropout” in February of 2004 and cemented his name in the rap game. In his debut album, Kanye is at his most authentic. Across its approximately 73-minute runtime, the perfectionism which has come to typify West’s illustrious career is at the forefront of each track.
While recording for “The College Dropout” formally began in 1999, friends of the storied producer approximate that the aspiring rapper had been polishing and saving beats for his freshman effort years before any record deal was secured. Flexing his unique talents as a producer, Kanye seamlessly blends gospel, soul, R&B and hip hop into a deeply-layered story of his tenacious ascendance to the limelight. Insistent on utilizing his unique skill set, Kanye single-handedly controlled the album’s production, resulting in a masterfully soulful sound. Featuring samples ranging from the funky tones of the Dells to the theatrical stylings of Bette Midler, Kanye trademarked the tuned up “soul on 45” sound that propelled him to stardom and paved the way for the future fusion of gospel and rap. Beyond its critically acclaimed production, “The College Dropout” embodied a profound challenge to the norms of the rap industry.
Substantively, “The College Dropout” is far more than a musical tour de force; it is defined by its nuanced ruminations on the materialism of pop culture, racism, family, higher education, youth, self-consciousness and the difficulty of succeeding while challenging the status quo. The record starts with a school administrator asking Kanye to “do somethin’, for the kids, for graduation to sing.” Kanye responds with the rebellious anthem “We Don’t Care,” a bar-by-bar glamorization of marginalized peoples’ daily hustles. Emphasizing the unequal treatment of many in contemporary society, “We Don’t Care” issues a critique of privilege disparity in America and shows the motivation behind circumventing these disadvantages through any means available or, in Kanye’s words, “drug dealing just to get by.”
Racial inequity is a driving theme of the masterpiece in songs like “Spaceship,” in which Kanye reminisces on his time working as a greeter for the GAP where, when “some black people walk in, I bet you they show off their token blackie.” This bleak racial commentary is masterfully underscored with the mellow sampling of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover.” Speaking from his experiences as an aspiring artist, Kanye’s nuanced quest to shine contrasts social inequity with stories of unfaltering determination, all in order to create his most inspirationally substantive body of work.
Challenging the glitz and glamor which had come to typify the rap industry, Kanye uses “The College Dropout” to dissect the pressures of materialism through witty barbs and personal reflection. Preceding the album’s release in 2004, rap charts were largely dominated by deeply consumerist themes in tracks like Nelly’s billboard topping “Air Force Ones” or 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.”
From this musical context, it cannot be understated how refreshing Kanye’s freshman effort was to the rap landscape. Headlining his meditation on materialism is the critically acclaimed track “All Falls Down” featuring the uplifting vocals of Syleena Johnson. With a hook sampled from Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity,” the song is a musical and thematic triumph that contemplates how consumerism serves as a form of hollow escapism in a capitalist hierarchy. In his own words, Kanye spits, “It seem we livin’ the American Dream/But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem.”
This societal critique continues into “Breathe in Breathe Out” which features a hook from Ludacris. The song’s melody repeats the gaudy refrain “If ya iced up, pull your sleeves out, push a big truck, pull your keys out” while Kanye’s bars rebut this flashy theme. In his first rhymes, Kanye exclaims “Golly, more of that bullshit ice rap/I got to ‘pologize to Mos and Kweli (probably)” and questions if it’s “cool to rap about gold/if I told the world I copped it from Ghana and Mali?” Kanye’s willingness to self-criticize and reveal vulnerability across the album make the debut sound and feel as authentic as its creator. His conscious commentary on the tropes that built early 2000s rap inspire revered lines but, more notably, distinguish the producer-turned-rapper as his own brand.
Despite his esteemed reputation as a producer for industry icons like Jay-Z and Nas, many doubted Kanye’s ability to succeed as a rapper. Before signing onto Roc-A-Fella records, the name Kanye West was entirely alien to the title of rap superstar. To executives working at major labels like Capital and Roc-A-Fella, Kanye’s pink polos and Louis Vuitton backpacks were irreconcilable with their notions of what a rapper should look like. It was only when Roc-A-Fella caught wind that Ye might be leaving for Capital Records (a deal which would eventually fall through), that they offered Kanye a record deal—mostly to retain his services as a producer. His stylistic departure from the tropes of the rap industry is embraced and documented throughout the album, most notably on classic tracks like “Jesus Walks,” “Through the Wire” and “Last Call.”
Ye’s emergence as a rapper almost ended as soon as it began. On Oct. 23, 2002, Kanye crashed his car in a nearly fatal accident— constructing his debut album became his medicine. While in recovery, Kanye started penning “Through the Wire,” the ingenious ballad of perseverance that ignited the producer’s legend. Driven by a tuned-up sample of Chaka Khan’s symbolic “Through the Fire,” Kanye famously raps his debut single with his jaw still wired shut from reconstructive surgery. His verse kicks off with a joke about how “they can’t stop me from rappin’, can they?” and then proceeds to demonstrate his unconquerable spirit in a masterful 3 minutes and 41 seconds that have been immortalized in hip-hop history. While “The College Dropout” was a commercial, lyrical and productive feat, its smashing success ascended Kanye’s eccentric persona to the spotlight and, in doing so, dismantled the expectations of the modern rap star.
Essentially, Kanye West’s “The College Dropout” is both an unrivaled musical master-stroke and a conceptually profound dismissal of all who doubted him. After “Every motherfucker told [Kanye] that [he] couldn’t rhyme,” Kanye’s freshman album silences the haters with hours of technically refined and substance-packed bars. The magnificent fusion of the soulful production that put Ye on the map and the profound lyrical nuance used to tell his legendary story of ascendance cement “The College Dropout” as Kanye’s crowning achievement. While Kanye claims one of, if not the, best discography of any rapper today, the self-proclaimed “savior of Chicago” had a peerless debut that remains as timeless and inspiring as ever.