Reflecting on: Kanye West – The College Dropout

kanye_west_the_college_dropout

Throughout 2014, we’re going to be looking back on some of the best albums that were released 10 years ago and discussing their legacy. Feel free to share your thoughts and memories in the replies. Enjoy!

By 2004, I had pretty much given up on hip hop. The College Dropout single-handedly saved me from walking away from genre I loved.

You’re likely thinking, “That’s a bold and emotionally-manipulative way to start a retrospective.” You wouldn’t be wrong about that. But is it possible to have a conversation about the art of Kanye West without references to boldness or emotion?

Regardless of your opinion of Kanye, it’s impossible to deny his impact on the pop culture ethos over the years, but for many of us, the impact runs much deeper. For those that are emotionally invested in hip hop, The College Dropout was the tipping point.

***

In the early 2000s, I was slowly growing weary with the genre I had grown up with. Hip hop was changing and I was bristling. I became frustrated with new hip hop artists who seemed more concerned with formulating a catchy pop sound than storytelling, more determined to make a hit than make an impact.

I became jaded – and probably not even for the right reasons. Hip hop deserved its time in the limelight. I just wasn’t happy with how it was getting its shine. Its new sound seemed foreign to me.

Perhaps ironically, in 2004, I was co-hosting a weekly hip hop radio show called “The Blackout” with three of my college classmates. During one of my many off-air rants about the state of hip hop and how I was ready to throw in the towel, one of them looked at me and said, “You should listen to that new Kanye West album. It sounds like that weird stuff you like.”

“Weird stuff” was referring to the artists that I held in esteem – those that were still creating what I felt was true to the art form (Talib Kweli, Mos Def, The Roots). I was familiar with Kanye as a producer and knew of his presence on the scene, but had largely ignored the recent release of his debut album, The College Dropout. From what I could tell, he was close to crossing over into that mainstream world that I fought so deftly to avoid.

Against my better judgment, I snagged The College Dropout shortly after its release. Upon first spin, I was, for lack of a better word, amazed. I felt hope. The music felt alive on each track – there was a movement that had been absent and a purpose that demanded to be heard in every note.

***

In every reflection on The College Dropout that you’ll likely read, writers are quick to point out and emphasize Kanye’s social awareness and how it bleeds throughout the album – and rightly so. Kanye’s message is an important one and, although he wasn’t the first to be labeled “conscious,” he certainly became the poster boy for a movement that is still growing.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t moved by the album from a content standpoint. But what first caught my attention was what a sonic masterpiece had been created. Listening to The College Dropout for the first time is like being transported to a time when beat-making and thoughtful song structure still carried weight. In short, the production and execution is absolutely stellar.

Take a look at the linear notes of The College Dropout (and any Kanye album to follow, for that matter). The album is truly a labor of love in which many legendary figures played a hand. The influences run deep and the samples are placed with care, allowing each track to maintain the identity of its creators, while still functioning within the whole of the record.

Tracks like “Spaceship” and “Never Let Me Down” have an old school feel even as they demand relevance. You could move to these songs in 1984 just as easily as you can in 2014. “All Falls Down” and “Through the Wire” are perfect examples of thoughtful and complex layering on top of appropriately simple canvases. One listen isn’t enough to nail the song down – each subsequent listen reveals a new and exciting detail.

Even obvious-at-first-glance hits like “Slow Jamz” and “Jesus Walks” are deep cuts that require revisiting. “Slow Jamz” is more than just a radio-ready R&B track. “Jesus Walks” is more than just a gospel-infused rap number with a simple sample. Nothing on The College Dropout is what it seems at first glance. In truth, this is what makes it so hard to listen to the record front to back without hitting the repeat button.

In stark contrast to the pristine production of the album is what lies on the surface. Kanye, although not the most talented rapper on this debut, is certainly the most earnest. He bears his soul on these tracks and his desperation shines through. From the beginning, Kanye’s purpose was to show us his genius, but the way in which he does so is to open himself up to a painful level, spilling his heart onto the tracks.

“Through the Wire” now shows itself to be an appropriate starting place in our descent into Kanye’s madness, now six solo records deep. Certainly, coming through a life-threatening car crash provides perspective, but it also serves as the starting block for Kanye’s story as it’s shared with us. With a wired-shut jaw, he confesses that he must, “look back on my life like the ghost of Christmas past”.

Throughout The College Dropout, Kanye turns back and forth as he perceives the social constructs around him that trouble him, frustrate him and humble him, before turning back inward for digestion. This weaving of his own self-awareness with the society around him paints a beautiful and tragic picture – one that he continues to paint to this day. Delivery techniques and rapping ability aside, Kanye knows how to tell his story and he does so quite well.

The byproduct of all of this is an album that demands attention. The College Dropout excels on all of the levels that should matter, regardless of genre. Not only is it a classic amongst modern hip hop, it’s a blueprint of what an honest piece of art should look like.

***

For the mainstream audience, The College Dropout introduced Kanye West as the socially-conscious spokesman and possible loose cannon that could potentially be the voice for a self-aware generation. For hip hop fans, Kanye helped resuscitate a broken art form and gave hope that the genre wouldn’t sell its soul in its quest to reach the masses.

Recently, many people have referred to The College Dropout as the launching pad that pushed Kanye into the pop culture consciousness. That may be true, but I think the album has a much deeper-rooted purpose and meaning. It’s an integral part of the story that Kanye has been telling. It stands alone well, even a decade later, and gives even more insight into its creator now than it did upon its release. It was a necessary beginning, but it is far more than a means to an end.

When I put the record on now, I’m transported back to my dorm room in 2004. I still feel the excitement and hope that I felt then. Kanye has certainly released more than one classic album in the time since, but for me, The College Dropout will always hold firm as my favorite record of his. It revived my interest in hip hop and emphatically reinforced why I loved the music to begin with.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

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