On February 10, 2004, the old Kanye West released his debut album, “The College Dropout.” In a world where the term “game changer” is severely overused in music, “The College Dropout” is just that, an album that shifted Hip Hop culture by championing the underdog MC and fusing rhymes with blues tunes that impact the soul.
I’ll Fly Away
Kanye West’s early entry into the Hip Hop scene in the late 1990s was as a ghost producer under Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, head of the Bad Boy Records production team called The Hitmen. After leaving D-Dot, West planned to make noise as a rapper and producer, but he struggled to receive attention as a rapper who could get signed to a major record deal. A front-row witness to Kanye’s journey was No ID, who mentored and co-managed West during that period. As he [No ID] said in Complex, “It was an interesting process with Kanye because there was so much opposition for his sh!t.” The main difficulty was that Kanye didn’t fit the stereotypical gangsta rapper image.
We Don’t Care
From the start, Kanye West walked to the beat of his drum machine. He wore pink polo shirts and pants that fit instead of oversized jeans and extra-large, ankle-length white tees. His raps were not about street life, so critics labeled him a backpack rapper whose audience hung out at open-mic coffee shops. Yet, Kanye’s most significant obstacle was his ego. “You had a guy who jumped on tables in meetings,” co-founder of Roc-A-Fella records Dame Dash says in Billboard Magazine’s Oral History of West’s The College Dropout. “You had a guy who went to a meeting at Columbia to meet with Mike Mauldin, and he told Mike Mauldin that he’s going to be bigger than Jermaine Dupri and Jermaine Dupri is like Mike Mauldin’s son.”
Kanye West’s persistence paid off when he signed a deal with Roc-A-Fella Records. But still he struggled to be taken seriously as a rapper. Kanye’s production work overshadowed interest in his rhymes on songs such as Jay-Z’s “Takeover”, Scarface’s “Guess Who’s Back”, and Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth.” John Legend told Complex,“Dame Dash and Roc-A-Fella signed him, but I don’t think they took him seriously. They just signed him because he was such an important producer for them, and they wanted to keep him in-house.”
The New Workout Plan
When he suffered a car crash that resulted in having his mouth wired shut, a tragic twist of fate created an opportunity for Kanye West, the rapper, to be recognized. West used the traumatic experience to create “Through the Wire,” where he painfully raps through the metal. The song which featured Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” sped-up on the track with personal lyrics became a hit record, forcing all doubters to take notice.
The success of “Through the Wire” anchored the development of “College Dropout”, an album West had worked on his entire life. “I used ‘Through the Wire’ and this entire album as my rehabilitation,”West said in a Charlie Rose interview.“I made songs that inspire me, songs that gave me life.”
Get’ Em High
“The College Dropout” was not a gangsta-rap album, but it was gangsta in what it represented. Kanye’s use of Chipmunk soul, a style of production that uses sped-up vocals, best heard on “Slow Jamz,” was innovative and rich. The use of Luther Vandross’s “Are you gonna be?” in the chorus gave it a last-song-in-the-club feeling. “Spaceship” is the blue-collar-worker anthem; “I’ve been working this grave shift./ And I ain’t made sh!t,” is a painfully relatable line—truth told in rhythm.
The song “Two Words” is Kanye being a cousin-link between himself, street rapper Freeway, and backpack rapper Yasiin Bey (Mos Def). The musical blend of the Harlem Boys Choir and guitar riffs sounds chaotic yet natural. The track “All Falls Down” proves that coffee shop sessions can also jam. “Never Let Me Down” is a symphony of faith led by Jay-Z and backed by Kanye as they speak on overcoming past obstacles.
Songs on “The College Dropout” are masterful, but “Jesus Walks” leads by miles. The idea of Christian rap in the early 2000s carried a corny taboo. Artists like 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., and DMX had all mentioned their struggles with faith, but not an entire song-in-praise. “Jesus Walks” broke through every closed stereotypical door that said a rapper can’t have a successful faith song celebrated and accepted by the mainstream. The song’s genius is West’s ability to approach the track with the same aggressive fury as a gangsta rap record.
Kanye West’s “The College Dropout” is not simply a great Hip Hop album; it’s a classic amongst all musical genres. The sound represents everyday people’s challenges as they work low-paying, unfavorable jobs to provide a steady life for themselves and their families. The skits provide humor and pre-intros to songs that strengthen the album’s cohesiveness. Not to mention this debut impacted the next generation of artists like J. Cole, Drake, Tyler the Creator, and many more. Twenty years into its existence, “The College Dropout” remains ageless because its themes of hardship, love, struggle, and joy live throughout generations.