3. The College Dropout (2004)
The self-proclaimed "true hip-hop heads" are probably fuming at the thought of The College Dropout ranked this low. Those with allegiance to hip-hop's fundamentals, traditions, and craft have a special fondness for this record, possibly because it's Kanye at his least art-damaged and most rooted in the soul samples that double as rap production's meat and potatoes. Or because it presents a hungry young underdog rather than a megalomaniac party monster. Or because it's a classic debut in a genre that famously fetishizes classic debuts. In the heads' defense, The College Dropout is unquestionably the most influential rap album of the past decade -- much more of a blueprint than The Blueprint. It rewrote the rulebook, not just by obliterating the wall between the mainstream and the underground but by redefining what constitutes a good rapper. (In case you haven't noticed, Kanye isn't exactly Rakim when it comes to technical proficiency.) It also introduced so many of the threads that run throughout Kanye's career: his social-media-style oversharing ("Last Call"), his deep appreciation for black icons (the Lauryn Hill interpolation on "All Fall Down," the name-checking "Slow Jamz"), his spiritual turmoil ("Jesus Walks"), his cornball streak (lyrics too numerous to cite), his willingness to speak his mind to poke holes in polite society's approved narrative (the education-skewering skits), his uneasy balance between black liberation ("Spaceship") and female objectification ("The New Workout Plan"). He wasn't wrong when, on "Through The Wire," he declared, "I swear, this right here? History in the making, man." And though we could spend all day discussing why it's important, let's not undersell just how much fun it is to listen to. For most artists, such a master stroke would be an easy No. 1, but in hindsight, The College Dropout feels more like a warmup for future glories than the pinnacle of Mr. West's creative output.
Hip-hop wasn’t exactly bereft of do-it-all visionary control freaks before Kanye West showed up — just ask Chuck D, the RZA, or DJ Quik — but nobody took the auteur approach to Yeezy’s extremes. Of all the ways Mr. West has contributed to rap’s evolution over the past decade, to me the most exciting is the way he has maintained and escalated the concept of album as art project, and rarely at the expense of enjoyment. Kanye is an expert curator, and his records are painstaking monuments to his inspiration. Each one is designed to be nothing short of an event and a new addition to the canon — short-term smash, long-term masterpiece. In the former respect he always comes through; the latter, more often than not.
Thom Yorke famously sang, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” and sure enough, all the self-important fanfare has accumulated Kanye heaps of derision to go along with the money and acclaim. (In one of his goofiest lyrics, he laments, “People talk so much shit about me in barber shops, they forget to get their hair cut.”) But in Kanye’s case it’s just as accurate to say transparency is what makes him look ugly. He is an ideal rapper for the social media era, churning out solipsistic hip-hop treatises the way some people write awkwardly confessional Facebook updates or pour their hearts out on YouTube. In “Runaway,” he let his pathos hang out to the extent that he might as well have sent us all a picture of his dick. (It’s remarkable that it took him this long to end up on reality TV.) What’s revealed through our collective window into Kanye’s life is often obnoxious, even grotesque, but it’s presented with an artfulness that elevates it beyond mere narcissistic blather. He blasts the tensions that drive him to mythic proportions and puts them on a museum pedestal. His records work because those tensions are a compelling splatter of humanity — and because he’s a musical genius.
But the tensions! The most prominent is the battle between Kanye’s massive ego and his deep self-doubt, a conflict whose communication has escalated from something like diary entries to something more like Star Wars intro text over the course of his catalog. A psychology class could spend days dissecting a line like “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it,” and that’s a relatively subtle example of the Kanye self-esteem ouroboros. By the time My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy rolled around, he might as well have been projecting his neuroses on the moon.
There’s also the whole “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack” thing — the tension between the expectations of clashing cultures and the demands of his muse. Kanye detonated the boundaries between rap’s flossy, hedonistic mainstream and its grimy, ideologue underground with The College Dropout. It was a ballsy move; I sometimes forget just how revolutionary it was because the distinction is all but moot in the hip-hop landscape Kanye helped create, one where T.I. lends his platinum drawl to a skronking El-P beat and nobody blinks. Yeezy’s tendency toward flouting genre taboos and redrawing the map didn’t stop after his debut; the AutoTuned wailing of 808s & Heartbreak was even ballsier, and it basically invented Drake.
Those and Kanye’s other left turns (dalliances with symphonic tropes, club music, prog rock) were conscious artistic decisions, even as they functioned as vehicles for the impulsive mind that gave us “Taylor, I’m a let you finish” and “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He’s a loose cannon, but in the studio he finds a way to funnel those outbursts into meticulously crafted tours de force. The wide-eyed kid from Chicago (no need to fill in his pre-fame backstory, just listen to “Last Call”) has accumulated an astonishing wealth of music over the course of less than a decade in the public eye. His body of work is well worth poking and prodding in order to fully appreciate the scope of what he’s accomplished. Let’s do it.
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