Following the release of the three-part Kanye West documentary on Netflix, Jeen-Yuhs, a lot of people have found themselves returning to the album that started it all. The College Dropout is projected to be #11 on the charts this week, selling over 22,000 copies and narrowly beating out Adele’s 30. With kids born around the release of The College Dropout being legally allowed to drink this year, now seems as good a time as any to revisit the album and look at what makes it such a timeless classic.
A lot has been said about Kanye West recently, which we won’t be digging into here. Anyone at all familiar with the timeline of Mr West’s career can tell you how chaotic it’s been. That’s really the first aspect of The College Dropout that is so endearing: it predates the tabloid lifestyle and the public feuds. It is perhaps the most honest realisation of Kanye West as an artist that we have, and likely ever will have.
Growing up immersed in music characterised by its thug personas and violent lyrics, Kanye Omari West was a kid whose mother was an English teacher and whose father was a photographer. He didn’t share the same kind of upbringing as his eventual Big Brother Jay-Z nor many of the other artists for whom hip hop became somewhat of a rags-to-riches story.
Yet he emerged as an endlessly creative force in hip hop with a fresh perspective and personality, shining through over sped-up soul samples and an unquestionably charming sense of humour. Lyrics such as, “she got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson; got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson,” and “couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis” are still genuinely hilarious.
With this album, Ye had everything to prove and nothing to lose. Trying to break free of his reputation in the industry as simply a producer, The College Dropout is essentially his sales pitch on Kanye West as an artist. Listening to this album nearly two decades on, with the added context of hindsight, we get to see the fully-realised potential of a once-in-a-generation artist just before his time.
The moment in the Netflix documentary where he plays ‘All Falls Down’ in the Roc-A-Fella offices and nobody gives a shit is so surreal, given the enduring popularity of the track. Even if the footage was shown out of context.
It was a breath of fresh air to the music industry at large. Ye never pretended to be anything he wasn’t. He was a 25-year-old who entered a scene predominantly filled with street-minded gangsta rap, with a profound appreciation for art and an MPC player in his backpack. At his inception, West was able to give us a brilliant dissection of the kind of everyday life experienced by most people and demonstrated more relatability than anything else he has created since. The College Dropout has a cool concept that is maintained throughout its 21 tracks, touching on themes of feeling let down by the education system and the working world, consumerism, religion, race issues, and of course, family.
With his studio debut, he was able to show us all of the praiseworthy qualities that would eventually define all of his music. Primarily it’s stellar production, with beats that range from emotional to uplifting and are so colourful and full of character. The sample of Chaka Khan’s ‘Through The Fire’ in Kanye’s own ‘Through The Wire’ – a song where Kanye raps through a jaw that is wired shut following a near-fatal car accident – is an example of Kanye displaying his mastery of the fundamentals, which he learned from doing “five beats a day for three summers.” There are 14 samples across 12 songs on the album in total, which seems modest considering how refined and exploratory his sampling is on subsequent albums like Graduation and Yeezus.
Kanye’s masterful fusion of many different styles of music with playful and incredibly witty lyrics remains the blueprint to date. We can clearly see the impact The College Dropout has had on artists such as J. Cole, Drake, Tyler, The Creator, Chance the Rapper, and Kendrick Lamar. It also gave Kanye West more freedom to pursue some of his later, more ambitious projects, given his debut was so well-received.
It’s also fascinating to hear nascent ideas which were then magnified and elaborated on West’s later albums. The powerful gospel breakdowns of highlights like ‘Never Let Me Down’ and ‘Family Business’ would go on to inform Jesus Is King; the screwed-up theatrics and maximal production of ‘Get ‘Em High’ would stretch through to albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Contained within these 21 tracks is many different sketches Kanye has been refining his entire career.
The College Dropout is by no means a perfect album, but that really adds to its overall charm. The skits are funny and don’t detract from the music, which includes some of the best moments of his entire catalogue from the fiery stadium-sized sermon of ‘Jesus Walks’ and the ironic beatdown of consumerism with ‘All Falls Down’ to the soulful coming-of-age of ‘Spaceship’ and the vulnerability of ‘Last Call’. It’s pretty bloody hard to beat what West did here, especially with a tracklist as solid as:
- We Don’t Care
- All Falls Down
- Jesus Walks
- Never Let Me Down
- Get Em High
- The New Workout Plan
- Slow Jamz
- Breathe In Breathe Out
- School Spirit
- Two Words
- Through The Wire
- Family Business
- Last Call
The College Dropout is rightfully heralded as one of the most influential
hip-hop albums of all time and it is as good of a listen now as it ever has been. It makes you consider the impact of Kanye West throughout the years and contemplate what the current state of music would look like without him. To quote the man himself during his iconic 2005 Grammy Awards acceptance speech for this very album…
“I guess we’ll never know.”