The College Dropout Turns Fifteen

Image Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

Image Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

By Jordan Pytosh

It is hard to imagine that there was a time, 15 years ago, when Kanye West was not a contentious figure in the mainstream, constantly attracting attention to himself via strange statements. But 15 years ago, Mr. West was just another producer trying to make it as a rapper, hoping to prove himself and build an established reputation atop his burgeoning brand. This aspirational attitude serves as the backdrop for West’s debut album, The College Dropout, the singular result of a five-year period of work, and a statement that changed rap forever.

 

Part 1: What Made the Album

For Kanye, the album’s title was also a self-description; he had dropped out of college in 1997 and had since devoted his time to cranking out hip-hop beats in mass quantities. Fueled by a love for 60s and 70s soul music, West’s production during the late 1990s and into the early 2000s was largely built upon samples from this era and targeted at rappers in the local scene. His musical talent and artistic energy garnered him production opportunities with Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella records. The Harold Melvin-sampling “This Can’t Be Life” off Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia is still considered the beat that put him on the map, as mentioned on the The College Dropout’s autobiographical closer, “Last Call.” Not only was the track a big success for him personally, but it also brought him attention in the industry. His style of production, which had the distinct trait of raising the pitch of soul samples, became known as “chipmunk soul,” and this approach to beat-making informed many of his early hits.

 Kanye’s early success streak was briefly, but violently, interrupted by a near fatal auto accident. His jaw was shattered, procedures were done to fix it, and then he went right back to making music, focusing on both his production work as well as developing his rapping ability. While he was recording The College Dropout, he drew upon this traumatic experience, along with his pent up frustration with Roc-A-Fella labelmateswho chastised his decision to rap, to create the iconic single “Through the Wire.” Though just an early single, the track is masterful and its perfect storm of tight production and thought-provoking lyrics made it a compelling introduction to Kanye’s capabilities. It also serves as a portal into West’s psyche at the time: self-aware, self-reflective, and unafraid of confronting his personal struggles and insecurities. “Through the Wire” may have excelled at introspection, but other singles highlighted other aspects of Kanye’s artistry: “Slow Jamz” showed that Kanye could rock a party, while “Jesus Walks” and “All Falls Down” delivered powerful lyrical messages without sacrificing their musicality. These diverse singles paved the way for the album’s release and were many listeners’ first introduction to Kanye West. 

 

Part 2: The Album Itself

The iconic “bear on the bench” cover of The College Dropout appeared in stores on February 10th, 2004. With chunks of the LP leaked months before, Kanye completely reworked the album before its official release, altering the tracklist repeatedly in a manner reminiscent of The Life of Pablo’s rollout. In retrospect, this rework was a blessing, as the final version of The College Dropout offers up a holistic vision, a cohesive album that reflects West’s distinct authorial voice. Of course, the brazen Kanye we know today appears throughout the album, but his persona here is much more humorous, humble and self-aware. Though likely a product of Kanye’s lower standing in the rap community at this time, it is nonetheless a voice that sounds refreshing today. And while his musicality was not entirely perfected at this point (see the busy production that underpins Jay-Z’s verse on “Never Let Me Down,” for example), his ability to express his ideas through music with astounding attention to detail helped set him apart. 

 “We Don’t Care,” smoothly introduces the album. Over a Jimmy Castor Bunch sample, Kanye satirizes mainstream conceptions of the “hood,” contrasting the bragging of “gangstas” with the realities of urban life. It’s a clever way to introduce the LP’s socially conscious messages without being too overt, delivering them with humor and nuance. The same goes for “Spaceship,” a song that documents the escapist longing West experienced while working thankless retail jobs, this time over a chopped Marvin Gaye sample. Guest rapper GLC discusses his own experiences of loss and struggles with his family, while other guest MC Consequence echoes Kanye thematically. The lyrical commonalities of these two tracks and their similarly lush arrangements add to the cohesion of the album’s first few tracks, and together with the skits interspersed between them, help draw the listener in. 

 They also stand in stark contrast to the album’s more humorous moments. “The New Workout Plan,” which shows up on the tracklist a little later, is hilarious, taking a satirical look at the unrealistic societal expectations faced by women. Its comedic success is sealed halfway through the song, when two women “Jill” and “Lasandra” cut off the hook to present their own “customer testimonials.” Immediately afterwards, the track morphs into a Zapp & Roger, country-inflected vocoder breakdown that almost sounds like Outkast’s “Rosa Parks.” The song is a tonal palette cleanser for the album, a playful contrast to some of the more serious material on the first half of the album, with Kanye having some fun with his lyrics and arrangement. 

 The aforementioned “Slow Jamz” proved to be one of the album’s megahits. The sample flip of Luther Vandross’s “A House Is Not a Home” perfectly complements Jamie Foxx’s soulful hook and the song’s clever verses also help bring it to life; memorable lines like “She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson,” showed West’s promise as a witty MC. “Breath In Breathe Out,” which immediately follows “Slow Jamz” on the tracklist further exemplifies Kanye’s lyrical talent, offering a balance of self-parody and braggadocio. Its simultaneous critique of “brag rap” and embrace of egoism makes the track fascinating, and Ludacris’s hook renders it extremely catchy as well.

 This track leads into “Schools Spirit” and its two surrounding skits. The skits offer a story about a man obsessed with obtaining more and more educational degrees, treating them as status symbols and flaunting them in front of others; when he dies, his son is left only these pieces of paper, with not much else to survive on. The actual track, wedged between these two skits, samples an Aretha Franklin song (whose use was only permitted after Kanye removed all expletives from his rapping) and it provides a venue for West to reflect upon his individuality and repeated rejection of expectation. “Two Words” follows, with guest verses from Mos Def and Freeway that explore a diverse range of themes. The three rappers feed off of each other’s energy as they each present their own spin on the song’s titular phrase.

 Meanwhile, “Family Business” focuses on the impact of fame on family dynamics, with the realization that, even with his newfound fame, he doesn’t want the quality of his interpersonal interactions to change. The song’s musical simplicity is powerful, with its piano beat and sparse vocal sample giving way to Kanye’s thoughts on family and his refusal to promote violence through music. Rather than flaunt his wealth, he takes this moment on the album to share formative real life experiences that influenced his development as a person and informed the creation of The College Dropout.

 The album ends with the nearly 13-minute long, “Last Call,” likely the most intimate song on the entire album. It’s a “Kanye talks about Kanye” track where he discusses his past, present, and future. In an amusing twist, Kanye built the song upon a beat originally intended for Jay-Z, recreateing it using session musicians and using it as a platform for his own tale as “Mr. Roc A Fella,” a title usually reserved for Jay-Z. After about five minutes of rapping, the song’s last seven minutes contain the story of West’s ascension as a rapper over the break from Love’s “Doggone.” He leaves listeners with a thesis of sorts, a final message that ties the whole LP together: carve your own path and pursue your passion, even if it means dropping out of college to pursue a musical career.

 

Part 3: How the World Saw It

The College Dropout has since earned an esteemed position in modern pop music. Like many musical relics of yesteryear, the album continues to seep its way back into the limelight every so often, even amidst the immense amount of new music being released every day. Hip hop stations rarely neglect a spin of “Jesus Walks” or “Slow Jamz” in the rotation for a “throwback” moment, and rap publications continue to praise the album and place it on “greatest of all time” lists. Kanye’s debut has enjoyed this sustained acclaim and continues to influence modern rap largely because of its openness and self-awareness. Though somewhat estranged from the public now, on The College Dropout, we saw an early Kanye peel back layers of himself amidst massive hit-making, and this album is full of personal stories and moments of self-awareness that have rarely been matched on the rapper’s successive releases. Though introspective and emotional in their own ways, later albums 808’s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy do not feature a Kanye that acknowledges his own egoism; on The College Dropout, Kanye’s inner struggles are as apparent as his triumphs. With his debut LP, West managed to both acknowledge his flaws while asserting his own abilities and the result is a compelling portrait of an artist coming into his own. Though known as a seasoned producer by this time, The College Dropout’s release and subsequent successestablished Kanye as the most prominent rapper-producer of the 2000s, and hinted at the countless barriers that he would proceed to break over the course of the decade. As he states on “Through the Wire,” West intended to “make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire,” and on The College Dropout, he did just that. 

Steven Norwalk