Playing God
Kanye West: The College Dropout

first time through the first song on my first listen to College Dropout, I fully believed every single positive word ever written about the album. That it deserves the “OutKast triple crown” for dominance over the mainstream, the underground and the critics, that this album would signal the rise of the rapper/producer, hell, even that this album, like so many others in the last few years alone, “will save hip-hop.” That’s the power of one single solitary song on this album. That song happened to be “We Don’t Care,” but listening through the rest of the album, it could’ve been almost anything—“All Falls Down,” “Jesus Walks,” “Through the Wire,” “Family Business,” “Slow Jamz” and “Last Call” all would’ve had a similar effect.

The album was even fairly brilliantly structured, and though it ran a gratuitous 76 minutes, it didn’t feel stuffed with filler like so many wonderful albums of its ilk. And Kanye West’s message on College Dropout—not to play the hand that you’re dealt, not to do what people expect of you if it isn’t what you know you’re meant for—was actually fairly inspirational. Though it’s a tried and true lesson, he plays it with such conviction and takes it from so many angles on College Dropout that it truly feels like the first time.

But still—there was a problem. That inspiring message was clouded by a group of skits that come damn close to ruining the entire album with their myopic, closed-minded and downright dumb take on college education. Though his overall message is excellent, Kanye’s use of these skits to seemingly try to prove that going to college will always be wrong for everyone forever is nauseating in its one-sidedness. And what’s more—he puts them all in a row, wrapped around “School Spirit,” probably the weakest song on the album. These skits—and one or two silly songs near the middle of the album—obliterate College Dropout’s chances to ever be the masterpiece it so deserves to be. What were you thinking, Kanye?

Here, I rectify that by exorcising the entire block of skits, keeping only two introductory skits. I also shuffle the still-excellent running order a bit, add one or two tracks from the dozens of songs he left off Dropout, and come up with the 10.0 that is, far and away, the album of 2004. Believe it.

01. “Intro”

Short intro track, works as an OK lead in to “We Don’t Care”—harmless, no real reason to cut it.

02. “We Don’t Care”

Certainly one of the best songs of 2004 so far. And it works perfectly as an opener, setting the tone for the rest of the album with the whole affirmative-in-the-face-of-adversity, yet sad-in-the-moment-of-triumph thing. And having the kids on the chorus is a fucking stroke of genius. “Kids, sing! Kids, sing!” It’s gorgeous and devastating and life-affirming and wonderful.

03. “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” (from Get Well Soon)

Over the last couple years, Kanye had been building up hype for College Dropout through a series of mixtapes that have been circulating around the internet, containing at least 10 or so Kanye tracks that he didn’t think were good enough to fit on the debut proper. He was right most of the time, but he was wrong once or twice, this being the most glaring omission. Not much here that he doesn’t do elsewhere, but it’s certainly better than “Get ‘em High,” isn’t it?

04. “All Falls Down”

The gutsy second single in which Kanye admits—hilariously—that he and his fellow rappers are really a bunch of insecure softies behind the rocks, ice and whatnot. He somehow manages to be boastful about his insecurity (“we all self conscious/I’m just the first to admit it!”) he also shows his playfully vulnerable side, which makes for some classic lines—“she couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis,” “I can’t even pronounce nothing—pass that versacey!” and others. Plus, with that choice Lauryn Hill sample, it’s a classic.

05. “Jesus Walks “

Kanye once said something like “If “Jesus Walks” was the only song on College Dropout, it’d still be a four-mic album.” Uh, maybe—it’s not my personal favorite on the album but it’s still an incredibly moving quest for religious meaning in a world of sin and so forth. Loses points for the line “the way Kathie Lee need Regis, that’s the way I need Jesus,” gains ‘em back with the “we eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!” Happy Gilmore reference.

06. “Spaceship”

This one’s all about the sample—Marvin Gaye, I think. The lyrics are great and all—account of Kanye’s horrible experiences working the grave shift before blowing up—and that Consequence guy’s voice is awesome, but really, it’s the sample that makes this one. “Heaven knows!” Another early highlight.

07. “Never Let Me Down”

A drop from that incredible early run, but a strong one nonetheless. Helped by Jay-Z’s boost appearance (although he confuses me when he says he has more #1 albums on the way—what the fuck was that whole Black Album finale business about then?) and some powerful lyrics, but it goes on way too long.

08. “Slow Jamz” (from the “Slow Jams” CD single)

Oh wow. One of the best singles of our early year, for certain. I really don’t give a damn what this song is about—the sample is his best yet, absolutely fucking stunning. Turns out it’s a funny and strange ode to the most sickeningly smooth sex music of the last four decades, but who cares? They could be reading a recipe for Matzoh Ball Soup over that sample and it’d still be the best thing ever. I chose the version of this song that appears on the Twista single because it has Twista’s fine outro rap and is much tighter than the far inferior version on CD.

09/10. “Workout Plan”/”The New Workout Plan”

Slightly funny skit, which runs into the true throwaway on College Dropout, “The New Workout Plan.” I like it, though—it’s got those “Lucky Star” strings, it’s kind of funny when it’s not being too overtly mean, and it’s got that great vocoder part near the end. A keeper, I suppose.

11. “Breathe in, Breathe Out”

To make a proper, socially conscious, clutter-free Kanye West album, this’d have to be one of the first to go. But I don’t think the “first nigga with a benz and a backpack” would appreciate that too much, and plus, we’d have to miss a classic Ludacris cameo and such lines as “when I pull my piece out/niggaz like ‘peace out!’” and “yeah, I got a PhD—a Pretty Huge Dick!”

12. “My Way” (from Get Well Soon)

I’m not such a fan of “Two Words”—the b-side to Kanye’s lead single and the song that appeared around here in the regular College Dropout--so I chose this one instead. Like “Good, Bad, Ugly,” it doesn’t add too much, except just to make it a more solid album.

13. “Family Business”

Leave it to Kanye to make a typical family/childhood nostalgia track that’s one of the most heartbreaking things you’ve ever heard. He does the memories of the family eating and bickering thing, but he hints at a real undercurrent of tension and strife underneath the surface that makes the “all that glitters is not gold/all that is gold is not reality” sample that rides the song all the more poignant.

14. “Last Call”

This is tricky—the song itself is one of College Dropout’s best, a story of his final triumph over all he’s faced over the course of the album, with one of his finest beats, but the long monologue that follows—seven minutes of Kanye telling the story of his long, arduous trek on the road to Rockafella—probably won’t hold up so well to repeat listens down the road. Still, I can guess you could always just skip that part if you’re sick of story time with Kanye. And it’s a really fine song apart from that.

15. “Through the Wire “

The song that really broke Kanye as a rapper, and for damn good reason. There are too many classic lines in this song to possibly hope to recount—hilarious references to Unbreakable, Michael Jackson, Emmit Till, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, GEICO and Vanilla Sky are abound in the definitive Kanye epic—the story of his near-death experience and his narrow escape. It concludes with the line that exemplifies the whole album—“but I’m a champion/so I turn tragedy to triumph/make music that’s fire/spit my soul through the wire”. It’s the only song on the album to match “We Don’t Care,” and the two make for beautiful bookends. The album really couldn’t end any other way.

By: Andrew Unterberger
Published on: 2004-04-30
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