Before he was the nucleus. Before he said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on a nationally-broadcast telethon. Before a 2006 Rolling Stone cover depicted him as Christ, crown of thorns and blood and all, and a 2013 album christened him as Yeezus. Before he stormed the stage and let Taylor Swift know that “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time” and before, in the fallout, he dove deep enough to give us My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Before he admitted he “fell in love with Kim/ Around the same time she had fell in love with him.” Before Watch The Throne made Kanye and Jay the most fully realized 21st century answer to the old trope of the Rock God, and before he went ahead and said as much, telling Zane Lowe: “I’m the No. 1 rock star on the planet.” Before all that, there was a young producer-turned-MC named Kanye West with a lot to prove and who delivered with a debut called The College Dropout. Back then, he had a teddy bear mascot.
The College Dropout turns 10 years old today. Last year, Kanye released Yeezus, and every now and then you had to remind yourself this was still the same artist we’d met back in ’04 with “Slow Jamz.” But thinking about the last ten years, with all of Kanye’s twists and turns and artistic leaps and controversies, risks not only overshadowing the strength of his earlier work, but also everything that had already happened preceding 2004. Kanye has now reached that rarefied position of being considered — at least by a lot of critics — as an artistic genius while also basically being a living, functioning bit of Pop Art in the way of only a very specific subset of massive celebrities. When The College Dropout arrived in 2004, we had an already-respected producer thwarting expectations and creating what would go on to be regarded as one of those all-time great debuts (in rap, or in anything else). Alongside his early success in the producer’s chair, he had also had the near-death experience of his 2002 car crash. Before the pop culture ascendency to the Kanye we now know, he was already a man who had lived a lot and could craft a solo debut that held all that in there, that showed just how fully formed an artist he already was.
Which isn’t to say he wasn’t a pop cultural force from the get-go in ’04. The College Dropout started West’s career off with a hit. It actually remains his highest-selling album. (Though you could get into a whole thing of ’04 vs. ’14 with regards to people actually buying music, I suppose.) He has won plenty of Grammys, but The College Dropout was his first; after ten nominations, the record won Best Rap Album and “Jesus Walks” won Best Rap Song. Building on the production style he’d already popularized with, among other things, the tracks he’d contributed to Jay Z’s The Blueprint, The College Dropout also had a sharp artistic focus. It has all the soul samples, orchestral flourishes, and super high pitch-altered vocal cues that everyone associates with that original Kanye sound. Kanye had already been influential, helping usher back in the idea of rap music built around soul samples, and with The College Dropout he offered up his own perfectly crystallized take on it, now as rapper instead of just producer.
In the wake of the blistering Yeezus, I’ve had some friends yearn for the supposedly more innocent days of The College Dropout and Late Registration. And, fair enough, those albums were more innocent. Kanye still makes plenty of jokes (one more time: “Hurry up with my damn croissants!”), but they’re usually a darker brand of humor now. On The College Dropout, the music was fun and infectious and Kanye flashed grins throughout. Its catchy soul-inflected music was fresh when compared to the mainstream gangsta rap that had dominated the rap radio in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but it was new in an immediately likable way and not in the challenging way of something like, say, “New Slaves.” There was a good deal more idealism in Kanye’s early work, too. If you see him live, he’ll still go on these epic tears where he might get around to some sort of “follow your dreams” message, but it’s framed within various anecdotes of Kanye as the aggrieved and embattled artist/celebrity. The College Dropout isn’t wide-eyed, but its sense of triumph has sunnier-hued than the unhinged and blood-stained sense of ambition on Dark Fantasy and Yeezus. There’s a looseness to it, whether it’s the kicking back vibe of him sharing verses with Talib Kweli and Common on “Get ’Em High” or the tongue-in-cheek “The New Workout Plan” or the prevalence of goofy skits, including the three stacked up around “School Spirit.”
But even if there’s more innocence on The College Dropout stylistically, it’s a major oversight to assume that means it didn’t have its own set of big, thorny ideas to tackle, or that Kanye wasn’t already in possession of the fractured, complex ego that would go on to dominate his aura as an artist. This is a record where the first song, “We Don’t Care,” is built around a hook that goes “Drug dealin’ just to get by.” Throughout, Kanye was in touch with the sort of issues that conscious rap had mulled over in the underground in the late ’90s, but was enough in touch with mainstream rap to quote its style, too. The mix allowed him to take on these issues in a very mainstream language. In the context of Kanye, that meant that he didn’t shy away from his middle class background or from couching his social insights in middle class language and signifiers. Kanye pursued music after dropping out of Chicago State University, and the framework of The College Dropout — the way it critiques the system, as it were — is of a conflicted relationship to the opportunity/exploitative nature of higher education. Some of those ideas were clunky, some were smart, but they were woven into Kanye’s worldview enough so at the time that this original thesis played out over the course of a trilogy (completed by its successors Late Registration and Graduation, but originally planned as a tetralogy to be concluded with an album called Good Ass Job). Compared to tracks equating alimony to lynchings, using college as an overarching theme does give Kanye’s debut a more youthful feeling — even as he was already 26 himself — which could translate as a young artist’s relative innocence.
While all that can make The College Dropout (and, frankly, Late Registration and maybe Graduation, too) feel like the work of another artist altogether, the album is actually lined with the ideas and behaviors that Kanye would continue to fixate on. There’s the oft-cited moment in “All Falls Down” where he raps “I can’t even pronounce nothin’/ Pass that Ver-say-see,” exhibiting both an interest in and anxiety with the wealthy worlds of luxury fashion that plays out on a much larger scale now when Kanye argues that he struggles to be accepted in the fashion world because he is a black man and a rapper. There were already hints of Kanye’s penchant for effective self-aggrandizement on the dual origin stories of “Through The Wire” and the detailed spoken word that ends closer “Last Call.” Taken alone, they can seem like the sort of branding and bragging not uncommon in rap. Looked at through the prism of Kanye’s career and and ever-more-extreme opinions of himself and his career, they are clearly a test run at mythologizing himself. They were the stories of Kanye the man and aspiring musician. Later on, they’d mature and mutate into legends of Yeezus The Genius.
By the time of last year’s Yeezus tour, very little of The College Dropout remained in his live set. He played just “Through The Wire” and “Jesus Walks” at the Brooklyn show I attended. That old Kanye has little place in the narrative and aesthetic of the Yeezus show, or this point in his career as a whole. How can “Slow Jamz” fit anywhere near “Blood on the Leaves” or “I’m In It”? When he does sprinkle in the older hits, it’s a careful selection towards the end — the uplifting conclusion of the Yeezus show. When he plays “Jesus Walks” it has a monolithic sense of power. His early meditations on faith are now filtered through the warped religious imagery of his more recent work, and the chants of “Jesus Walks” fill an arena in ways exhilarating (everyone still loves the hits) but also in ways more foreboding than in the past.
Of course, the power of this arc exists only because of the sort of journey it’s been. Yeezus and Dark Fantasy and 808s & Heartbreaks are as hard-hitting and emotive and impressive artistically as they are precisely because they can be compared back to music like The College Dropout and Late Registration.
He started out as the normal guy with big dreams and big frustrations. He wore polo shirts and talked about everyday struggles. Ten years later he mixes high fashion and high camp freely. He lets his id and ego run loose together, and winds up offering some of the most incisive dissections of America’s own id and ego. When you’re living through it, it’s easy to forget how persistent he has been in releasing music and pushing himself as an artist. After The College Dropout arrived in 2004, Late Registration quickly followed in 2005. Then Graduation in ’07, 808s in ’08, Dark Fantasy in ’10, Watch the Throne in ’11, Cruel Summer in ’12, Yeezus in ’13, and perhaps another record this year. I mean, just look at that run. If those albums in that span of time don’t make him one of the greats, I don’t know what will. He hasn’t ever really stopped growing while also almost always dominating the conversation in the media, whether through his critical acclaim or his mainstream hits or the Events he causes. In hindsight, The College Dropout began the work of eroding boundaries. Kanye was one of (several, to be fair) artistic forces that prefigured and sped along the process of dissolving the barriers in the way we thought we had to listen to pop music in the 21st century.
Kanye knows all of this, and he says it. Sometimes brilliantly, sometimes awkwardly. A lot of people laughed when he called himself the nucleus. And sure, that is the sort of comment that makes you say “What is this guy on, exactly?” But can you really argue with him? Kanye West is the closest thing my generation has to the Beatles. The College Dropout was the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” moment — the more innocent beginnings that kicked down the door. What followed was a decade of Kanye never ceasing to be a fearless and fallible celebrity and artistic force, pushing musical boundaries while somehow always becoming a larger figure in the pop landscape. He manages to make universal moments in the diffuseness of the internet era. We knew we had someone special with The College Dropout, but we didn’t know the extent yet. Reflecting on his debut on its tenth birthday accentuates how Kanye has consistently demanded, earned, and had our attention from the moment his debut arrived. It’s been a strange trip from college dropout to nucleus. Look forward to the next ten years.