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 411mania » Music » Columns

This Week In Music History 2.14.14: Kanye West Releases The College Dropout
Posted by David Hayter on 02.14.2014

Disclaimer: Each week I (David Hayter) will be delving into the pop culture history books to reassess a classic album released "this week in music history". I hope you enjoy the first edition.

Before he was an introspective egomaniac, before he pioneered baroque maximalism and psychotic minimalism, and yes, before he invented leather jogging pants, Kanye West was simply the latest hot producer attempting to step out from behind the booth and become a superstar in his own right.

Breaking the golden rule that producers shouldn't rap (see Timbaland), 10 years ago this week Kanye West unleashed The College Dropout. Greeted with a host of a five star reviews (and one 7/10 that Chris Ryan admits he greatly regrets), the album was a game changer; setting the tone for a million gospel sampling, unashamedly buoyant and quirkily distorted imitators.

The College Dropout proved such fertile ground for innovation that rappers as self-confident and talented as J. Cole are still mining its nuanced sound to top the charts. It's a credit to Kanye West commitment to progression (whether you love or hate his subsequent releases) that the rapper was so quick to move on. Kanye could have lived off his initial sound for lifetime, instead he branched out to such an extreme extent that The College Dropout feels alien - like the work of an entirely different human being.

No Turning Back: Kanye Would Never Be The Same Again

The College Dropout is a surreal artifact. The album's otherworldly success (four million units sold worldwide) changed Kanye West beyond all recognition. The luxury brand paranoia of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the panic attack masquerading as the bachelor-party-from-hell that is Yeezus could not have existed without his debut, and yet, they could not have less in common.

Kanye West currently exists in surrealist fantasy world. He took off in the spaceship he craved on The College Dropout and his feet haven't touched the ground since. Yeezy's lives in such a grotesque world of both sexual and material excess that he is now terrified of any kind of normalcy – to the point where he finds the idea of sitting down to thanksgiving dinner with his soon be in-laws horrifying ("Bound 2").

So how on earth did such a strange human being create hip hop's definitive ode to the aspirational struggle? Well for starters, Kanye West was an entirely different person in 2004.

The College Dropout is a distinctly working class (as opposed to ghetto) record – infact, it might be the nearest rap has ever come to suburban (middle class?) introspection. Sure, there are allusions to the drug game and gangsta style violence, but The College Dropout is primarily directed at the aimless wage slaves and struggling dreamers of this world. This isn't a 16-year-old Nas stuck in the living nightmare of the projects , no this is the tale of a college dropout stuck in traffic on the way home from work, decrying injustice and imagining superstardom. Less dramatic, but equally valid experience.

A Distinctly Mundane Struggle

Educational failures, Gap employees, state subsidized poverty prisoners and twenty-something's drifting into oblivion; Kanye West channeled indie rock's desire to speak for the repressed visionaries and created an album that glorified the mundane day-to-day struggle. It might not sound exciting on paper, but in a genre overrun with preposterous images of wealth and disturbing tales of macabre violence: The College Dropout was damn near revolutionary.

It helped that Kanye had a selection of stone cold killer cuts and, fittingly, The College Dropout came flying out of the gate with "We Don't Care". Driven by a bubbling sun kissed beat, the track is designed to shock. Kanye's decision to have a child's choir sing "we weren't supposed to make it passed 25, jokes on you we're still alive" was inspired. It is about as brazen as opening statement get and is proof that Kanye has a social conscience (as well as antagonistic bent).

It's a theme that West develops over the sublime ode to the 9-to-5 grind "Spaceships", the testament to the resilience of ordinary folk "Never Let Me Down" and the magnificent dissection of the wealth obsessed American Dream "All Falls Down". Kanye's grand vision culminates on sensationally jerky saunter of "School Spirit"; a deep album cut for the ages, that transforms Kanye's narrative from the abstract to the deeply personal. The message is unmistakable: ignore and overcome societal pressure, whether it's deemed positive (get your degree) or negative (be a hip hop hard man) and follow your own path.

It could be characterized as an exercise in impatience, but there is something deeply satisfying about Kanye West's resilient dialogue with the voice of societal expectation:

"Told ‘em I finished school and I started my own business,
They say: Oh you graduated?
No I decided I was finished chasing y'all dreams and what you got planned

Once a Solipsist, Always A Solipsist

Kanye never had a filter. Ten years ago he was running his mouth and mocking the "college is the gateway to your future" narrative, but back then his vision chimed with the reality of millions of frustrated failures and insecure dreamers.

Today, Kanye exists in a different world. He puts every bad idea, horrible instinct and disgusting thought into his music. 2013's Yeezus functions as psychotic therapy. He has no boundaries. Kanye deals in the unpleasant and grotesque side of his own character – he wants to understand his subconscious and the culture that could create such a fucked up and unfulfilled individual.

The topics and circumstances have changed radically, but that instinct to speak his mind, no matter what, was born and bred on The College Dropout. In short, his debut album created a monster.

The most divisive rapper of the 21st Century has, believe it or not, always stayed true to himself. "All Falls Down" set the template by balancing a critique of the systemic causes of poverty and the perverted morality of modern capitalist excess with an admission of personal guilt. Kanye can see the ills of the world, but he's not immune to them, in fact: he's greedy, he has poor judgment and he can't (and doesn't) claim to be holier than thou.

Who could have predicted just where The College Dropout's cocktail of bitterness, introspection and shamelessness would take him.

Hit Glorious Hits

So enough of that introspective stuff, who cares about social commentary, where are the hits Kanye?

Well how about (deep breath): "Jesus Walks", "The New Work Out Plan", "Slow Jamz", "Breathe In, Breathe Out", "All Falls Down" and "Through The Wire". Not bad huh? In fact, that selection wouldn't be bad on a greatest hits collection, let alone a debut album.

It really is stunning to think that, in the build up to The College Dropout's release, Kanye West was essentially famous for being the guy who created the "Takeover" and "The Truth" beats. Within a decade he be one of the most instantly recognizable and hatred figures on the planet; a walking PR nightmare and a hip hop institution with a back catalogue of stainless steel hits (as well as a list of sonic reinventions to rival Bowie in his pomp).

Last Call: Final Thoughts

Even the most ardent Kanye detractor would struggle to deny the impact and influence of his 10 year, 6 album, run. Yeezy would take his sound into a series of seemingly unpredictable and utterly batshit directions, but it is fascinating listening back to The College Dropout and seeing just how many connecting strands can be found. The distorted to dog whistle vocals, the crunching slabs of noise, the blasphemous use of soul music, the spoken word onslaughts, the African drums and the underlying sense of grandeur; it can all be found right here (yep, even the Jesus complex).

For many Kanye West's career is a monument to great style and bad taste, but it began with a delivery of unquestionable substance. Love him or hate him, there a few jump off points in music history more dramatic than The College Dropout.

So let's have a toast to the self-diagnosed douche bag!

Three cheers for Kanye West and his game changing debut!

Do I feel a whoop coming on?

Okay just me.

I'll be back next week to look at another classic album released "this week in music history". Feel free to drop some suggestions below the line.


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