Kanye West - The College Dropout

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.

Comments (54)
  1. 10 years ago, I didn’t know how to pronounce “Kanye.” (I’d call him “that Kain West guy.”)

  2. Great piece. After reading about that run, you just feel like the man is due to make a bad album, but I’ve spent every single album wondering, “How the hell is he going to follow this?” and he never disappoints.


    Brilliant, spotless album that I will share with my children when they are of age. I listened to it extensively in junior high and it absolutely changed the way I viewed the world and prepared me for the awkward years to come. Hearing a rapper, nonetheless a superstar say “we all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it” was deeply liberating and made growing up much easier.

    I think the second verse of Jesus Walks is one the best rap verses of all time and call me crazy, but I still think this is his best work. You could make a strong case for MBDTF (sorry Yeezus), but this album hits home in a way few other albums from any genre can.

    • Took the words right out of my mouth. I was in the 8th grade when this came out, and was blown away by all the qualities you mention. I can think of only one other artist/band that has ever had a similar effect on me: Radiohead.

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    • So… you’re saying The Beatles never reached new levels of creativity and never strove to one-up themselves album after album? I’m curious what you do see as a defining mark for The Beatles.

      • oh i think they did, and, in a similar timeline as kanye- however- i don’t think their creativity took as sharp an artistic turn as west’s did. the issues that yeezus tackles compared to the college dropout are incredibly darker, deeper, and more involved, whereas you don’t really get that distinction between beatles records like please please me and abbey road, for instance. i guess i’m talking less strictly musically, and more content+music.

        • “I Saw Her Standing There” to “Because” isn’t that much of a darker, deeper, more involved, sharp creative and artistic turn? Yeeeah…

        • Comparing Please Please Me and Abbey Road is an AWFUL choice for the argument you’re trying to make.

        • Homework for t.rex: Listen to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” then listen to “Tomorrow Never Knows” then read the book “The Beatles as Musicians”, then let’s talk. I suspect your knowledge of The Beatles as well as the context of the era surrounding their music is somewhat limited.

          You said that comparing Kanye to the Beatles cheapens the artistic integrity of Kanye’s records because he’s pushed himself more creatively on each subsequent album, but the opposite is almost true. I think it’s a fair comparison, their respective careers have similar arcs, but really the Beatles did more to push themselves (and music as a whole) on each successive album than Kanye ever did. No disrespect to Ye.

    • Don’t disrespect Ringo, either.

        • …aaaaaand once again one of most influential drummers in the history of popular music gets no respect (Lennon was joking, but the way – he was known to do that from time to time).

        • George Harrison on Ringo:

          “Ringo’s got the best back beat I’ve ever heard and he can play great 24-hours a day.”

          “Ringo could be the best rock ”n” roll drummer — or at least one of the best rock and roll drummers … He does fills which crack up people like Jim Keltner. He’s just amazed because Ringo starts them in the wrong place and all of that, but that is brilliance, that’s pure feel.”

          John Lennon on Ringo:

          “Ringo’s a damn good drummer. He was always a good drummer. He’s not technically good, but I think Ringo’s drumming is underrated the same way Paul’s base-playing is underrated. Paul and Ringo stand up anywhere with any of the rock musicians.”

          Paul McCartney on Ringo:

          “Ringo is right down the center, never overplays.”

          Don’t diss Ringo.

        • no one’s dissing ringo, gents. all in good fun- i thought it was a funny interview snippet

    • This is what happens when you drink too much Kany-aid

    • I like kanye’s tunes, but comparing him in any way shape or form to the Beatles is just…uh…yeah…

  5. my favorite part of this album is that guest verse by j ivy on “never let you down”. take ‘em to church.

  6. From the time I first heard it in 2004, “Get ‘Em High” has and always will be my favorite Kanye West song.

    I also think “Jesus Walks” can’t be praised enough. “Next time I’m in the club, everybody screaming out…” IN A CLUB? Hahahaha. Remember when that made sense? That the only time you would sing-a-long with Kanye to this song would be in a small venue any up-and-coming rapper would perform in? Ho boy.

    Moreso, I never thought this song was controversial, but I do recall the reaction one of my friends made when he walked in on me listening to it. He was a devout atheist (joke intended) and was put-off by the song. He didn’t say much, but you know he was thinking, “I will NOT be saying ‘Jesus Walks’ in the club or anywhere for that matter Mr. West!” I cite that as my very first example of “The People vs. Kanye West”. Back then it was only this friend of mine I grew up with not liking Kanye. Now, everybody has a friend they grew up with that doesn’t like Kanye.

    Anyway, I’m incredibly glad I got to hear “The College Dropout” when that’s all there was to know about Kanye. Because of who he is now, I don’t think anybody could listen to “The College Dropout” now and have the reaction most all of us felt when we first heard it.

    So here’s some questions:

    What’s your favorite track on “The College Dropout” ?
    What’s your favorite line?

    I got my fave track at the time, but I think my favorite line is from “We Don’t Care” because I love me a good joke line in a rap song, and this was one of the first Kanye West jokes I heard and still love to this day:

    “And they DCFS, some of ‘em dyslexic/ They favorite 50-Cent song 12 Questions”

    (Almost foreshadowing considering 50 v. Kanye album release war when Graduation dropped)

    • Back when I listened to this record EVERY SINGLE DAY on the bus to 9th grade my favorite tracks were We Don’t Care and Spaceship, for sure. Those two still hold up but I don’t think it gets any better than Through the Wire. Favorite line is probably Hov’s favorite line from Last Call: ‘Killin’ ya’ll niggas on this lyrical shit, mayonnaise colored Benz, I push miracle whips” DAAAAMN.

    • I always loved Kanye’s delivery of this line in Get Em High: “Now, my flow is in the pocket like Wallace / I got the bounce like hydraulics / I can’t call it, I got the swerve like alcoholics.” It’s like, damn alright, this guy can play. I also found the chorus to be kinda funny (like a lot of the lines in College Dropout), like in the way he says “Now I never told you to put down your hands!” Ye may have been a college dropout, but he almost sounds like a teacher reprimanding his students there. Looking back at his career, Kanye’s STILL the teacher and we’re all his students.

    • real rappers hard to find

      like the remote

    • Favorite track is always changing, but for now it’s Last Call. The punchlines, the long ass story, everything about it is brilliant.

      Favorite line’s gotta be from Through the Wire:

      Unbreakable, what you thought, they’d call me Mr. Glass?
      Look back on my life like the Ghost of Christmas Past
      Toys “R” Us where I used to spend that Christmas cash

      There’s not really a punch through all of it but I always like that part.

    • “She got a light-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson
      Got a dark-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson.”
      Dat shit funnay

      Favorite track is probably All Falls Down or Hit’em High tough…

    • Great point about the privilege of hearing College Dropout at the time of it’s release. I feel like a lot of my friends that started listening to and exploring Kanye’s back catalog post MBDTF and especially post-Yeezus that are hearing College Dropout for the first time now just are not hearing the same thing I heard in 2004. They seem to think it’s good, but don’t consider it a classic which is just appalling to me.

      Also, I could list AT LEAST 5 lines form any song on the album (skits included) but the last few bars from Kanye’s verse in Never Let Me Down always get me especially amped before J. Ivy comes in and just does unimaginable work to my soul: I can’t complain what the accident to my left eye, cuz look what a accident did to Left Eye. First Aaliyah, now Romeo must die? I know I got angels watching me from the other side.”

    • “free 99?!?!?!”

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  8. Monogenre Yeezus.

  9. My parents bought me the Wal-Mart clean version of this album for my birthday that year. I’ve been a Kanye West fan since I was 11.

    That’s really fucking weird.

    • I also got the clean version for my birthday, and that’s the one that’s on my computer so I still listen to it that way. I like it better for some reason, maybe because of the whole innocence thing, but just in a whole different way.

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  11. this album is aces and this article is aces

  12. Let’s get real here for a minute, cause if you’re gonna bring the Beatles in comparison, you have to measure sheer “hugeness” rather than just cult influence. The facts are that his first 3 albums were high selling, big, as well as influential to how rap has progressed. His next 3 sold singificantly less. Their influence, atleast around these parts, are still significant within a specific scope of the music scene that is not the entire mainstream (very different from the Beatles), but if you look at the scope of the entire music industry, his last 2 albums are basically commercial underachievers and yeezus is a disappoinment. If you start bringing the Beatleas into this conversation, you have to bring that up. You have to not only be regarded great artistically, but you have to be commercially huge. Kanye was a huge commercial artist and now he has a sizeable cult following and he will continue to do well and be influential for years to come. Start big and then have a devoted cult following whilst carving out a niche of influence, that is more like the career trajectory of a pearl jam rather than the Beatles (and that’s not a knock cause I love me some PJ). The nucleaus? You have got to be kidding me.

  13. As a total dork that spent MONTHS anticipating this album my freshman year of college, I’ve always thought the final product came out more than a little compromised. I mean, the great songs are always going to be great songs, but there was some purity in the advance version that was completely turned upside down when “Slow Jamz” (a song designed for the Twista album, that was initially debated for inclusion) blew up. Suddenly, the really unique version that was getting a lot of good reviews in places like Spin was thrown back into the Music Industry processor, and focus-grouped half-to-death. New songs like “Get ‘Em High” and “Breathe In, Breathe Out” paled in comparison to a track like “Home”. Hearing those lyrics reappear on that Coldplay-drenched abortion on “Graduation” was infuriating.

    Additionally, Kanye is a tinkerer, almost to a fault. I personally think the half-baked lyrics on “Yeezus” are a necessity, because if he kept working on those, he also would’ve kept playing with the production. A song like “Never Let Me Down” had a really fascinating structure on the original version, but sitting on the album for six months after the original release date led to a piggy-backed second verse from Hov, and another layer of over-production drenched on the whole thing. It undermined what made the OG version such a triumph.

    I don’t mean to be overly-critical, because even in the final form (one that never makes my iPod over the advance, granted), it’s still a landmark record. However, I think that the celebration of this album is actually rooted in the fact that it was new and novel and interesting, which is well and good, but overlooks a number of warts that were COMPLETELY AVOIDABLE.

    /End rant, I still love Yeezy

  14. Greatest hip hop albums of all time.

    1. Illmatic
    2. College Dropout

  15. Fuck Ringo! Keith Fucking Moon!

  16. Kanye’s career resembles that of the Beatles’ the way a drawing made by a six year old resembles a Picasso masterpiece

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