The College Dropout
s the low-profile beat genius behind high-profile hits from the likes of Jay-Z, Ludacris, Alicia Keys, and Talib Kweli, Kanye West turned 2003 into his personal coronation as the most in-demand producer in mainstream hip-hop.
Of course, no amount of platinum hardware could change the fact that Kanye’s first dream was to be an emcee. However, when it came time for his own close-up, the Chi-town native faced an uphill battle in convincing heads he could triumph on the mic where other rhyme-challenged beatmakers had met with mixed success at best (what, you think I’d forget about Dre?).
To make his star turn sound more palatable, Kanye put together a series of mixtapes in 2003 that blended tracks he had produced with some of his own nascent solo shots, which included the excellent Windy City shout-out ‘Home’ and the gospel-graced rocker ‘Two Words’, as well as the first single-to-be, ‘Through the Wire’, a poignant, pop-culture-packed account of Kanye’s near-fatal run-in with Chaka Khan and crystal meth.
‘Through the Wire’ caught fire and became a hit, but Kanye’s debut album kept getting pushed back, even as half-right versions started flooding P2P services, a telltale sign that rabid public interest demanded an immediate street date.
Last quarter feeding frenzies gave way to the retail doldrums of early ‘04, and finally The College Dropout saw its release. Could the interminable delay be solely the result of Kanye’s status as an unproven emcee commodity, or is it possible that the industry couldn’t figure out how to sell Kanye in the first place?
Kanye himself lays it out in the simplest terms: he’s the first rapper ‘with a Benz and a backpack’, and while the veracity of that statement might be questionable at best, the fact remains that The College Dropout can’t be readily pigeonholed as eggheaded underground proselytizing or myopic mainstream bling.
That said, it’s inevitable Kanye will be accused of playing to both sides here, selling out his street allegiances for a soapbox, then failing to deliver the uncompromising pedantry that’s become the undie’s stock and trade.
Well, if those are the parameters Kanye’s forced to inhabit, then perhaps he’s a fence-straddler after all. But if the idea of a hip-hop artist who actually struggles with his social-climbing convictions, who doesn’t seem to have it all figured out, sounds infinitely more fascinating to you than just another self-insulated platinum-rap puppet or self-righteous indie-rap killjoy, then maybe Kanye’s onto something more than the white picket middle ground.
Throughout The College Dropout, Kanye subverts cliches from both sides of the hip-hop divide, which again isn’t unprecedented, but still refreshing and revelatory coming from someone who could have just as easily stood pat on his massive Midas-producer stacks. Instead, you get drug dealers less concerned with flossin’ than just getting by (‘We Don’t Care’), and college students who realize that a degree doesn’t guarantee you’ll be better off than the dopeman either (‘All Falls Down’, ‘Get ‘Em High’). You find institutional prejudice in the Gap, not just in the ghetto (‘Spaceship’). You find African-Americans trying to orient themselves in a wider, white world and finding out, as Kanye proclaims on the album’s transcendent centerpiece, ‘Never Let You Down,’ that “racism’s still alive / They just be concealing it”.
Most importantly, you find Kanye trying to reflect the entire spectrum of hip-hop and black experience, looking for solace and salvation in the traditional safehouses of church and family, with the domestic utopia of ‘Family Business’ communicating the same kind of yearning as the heavenly pleas of ‘Jesus Walks’.
But wait a minute, wasn’t it Kanye’s beats that got him this gig in the first place? Yet another revelation of The College Dropout is that Kanye doesn’t in fact have to fall back on sped-up soul samples to deliver pure fire behind the boards. Sure, there’s trademark K. West on the Twista scene-stealer ‘Slow Jamz’ and the expected nostalgia bids ‘School Spirit’ and ‘Family Business’, but check the closer-to-the-Neptunes synths of ‘We Don’t Care’, the ice-cold steel drum shiver of ‘Get ‘Em High’ or the outrageous hi-NRG violins of ‘New Workout Plan’. Best of all is ‘Jesus Walks’, where Kanye makes his spiritual toil sound like triumph thanks to marital drums and a little gospel choir fervor, sounding a clarion call of salvation to all would-be doubters and haters. He swears that he's not trying to "convert atheists into believers”, but listening to The College Dropout might just convince you that Kanye West is the Second City's Second Coming.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK - FEBRUARY 15 - FEBRUARY 21, 2004