Playing God
Kanye West: The College Dropout

irst 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

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Posted 04/30/2004 - 12:00:30 PM by TysonT:
 Just so you don't think I'm picking on you, Andrew, I purposely went through the entire article before checking the author, but if I was Playing God on your review, published in the fourth month of 2004, mind you, the very first thing I would strike would be "far and away, the album of 2004. Believe it." This is the kind of bullshit that makes serious music fans and musicians want to poke out critics' eyes and helps account for the ridiculous backlash that inevitably occurs two months after a heralded album is out (and in extreme cases, like The Rapture, before it's even out).
Posted 04/30/2004 - 12:18:14 PM by ddrake:
 Pretty good, although I disagree with a couple things (as should be expected, haha) first..."the way Kathie Lee need Regis, that’s the way I need Jesus" is a great line! Second, I think cutting "Two Words" would be seriously gutting the album - its a great track, Mos Def and Freeway kill their verses, and its got that line - "Two words, fuckyou, payme!" Classic. Also, if you can find it check out the music video for "Two Words" - its quality stuff. "New Workout Plan" is one of my favorite tracks on the album...I don't know why everyone hates it so much. To me, its where his Chicago-ness comes through the most - the house beat, the clapping and vocal call-outs...wonderful.
Posted 04/30/2004 - 01:32:11 PM by NickSouthall:
 In Andrew's defence, TysonT, I think that statement was suggesting that his amended version would be the album of the year, rather than the actual album as it exists. Plus I think tongue may be slightly in cheek.
Posted 04/30/2004 - 04:20:06 PM by MrFred:
 As a life long fan of Hip Hop, and a fan of music in general, I find this album to be THE most overrated album of the year for the following reasons: 1) Kanye is known primarily as a producer right? From a production standpoint, Kanye breaks no new ground. His sample choices are straight from "Lite R&B;" radio and patched together with the SAME DRUM KIT ON EVERY SONG. His sampling choices are poor and as Chuck D said "just because a cat can hit 45 on his turntable, doesnt make him a great producer". Amen. 2) Outkast is EONS past this album in every respect. Outkast's record has pushed the envelope of hip hop, challenged conventional R&B;, and dabbled in funk, all while keeping a toe in the water of pop music. SB/TLB is a truly well executed album. There is nothing on the Kanye West album that is anywhere near Outkast's originality or quality. 3) His skills on the mic are nothing short of mediocre. Sure a few good punchlines are sprinkled throughout, and "Through The Wire" is positive for it's message alone, but overall his skills are nothing compared to even the most average MCs in hip hop now. 4) What are the stand out songs on this album? NONE of them have any longetivity........... Which songs are the "Buck Em Down"'s or the "Microphone Fiend"'s or anything NEAR a song of the year. None. This album, while entertaining, has the shelf life of a comedy album. You hear it once or twice, and you have heard it. 5) A Positive MC? No. Since when does a positive black male advocate dropping out of college. The skits on the record have a slight anti-education slant. HYPE! HYPE! HYPE! HYPE! HYPE! HYPE! HYPE! HYPE! HYPE! Overrated in every respect. Buy Madvillian instead
Posted 04/30/2004 - 09:38:38 PM by DomPassantino:
 Outkast are better than Kanye West because Andre 3000 is cute.
Posted 05/01/2004 - 09:04:27 AM by AUnterberger:
 I dunno, something about that Kathie Lee/Regis line screws up the tone of "Jesus Walks" for me. It's a cheap simile in a much deeper song, I think. And though I love "The New Workout Plan," I do have to admit that the misogyny (something that I think Kanye in general has a slight problem with) is a little much on that one. And I guess I might need to re-evaluate "Two Words". And Tyson, I see no problem with saying things like that--especially because this is a Playing God and not a general review, and thus is (in my opinion) the best possible version of an already great album--of course it would be the best album of the year. And College Dropout is miles above Speakerboxxx/The Love Below--not as diverse perhaps, but not nearly as maddeningly inconsistent and never unbearable.
Posted 05/02/2004 - 12:09:54 PM by samuelbloch:
 Misogyny = bad rapping?
Posted 05/02/2004 - 03:18:24 PM by clockoouut:
 Although I enjoyed Kanye West, it doesn't go in the stereo much anymore. Madvillian and Murs, however, have held up fairly nicely.
Posted 05/03/2004 - 01:13:01 PM by Jank82:
 For clarification about "Never Let Me Down"...the reason Jigga's lyrics might sound misleading is due to the fact that the track was actually recorded a pretty long time ago. About two years, actually. He hadn't even released Blueprint 2 yet, which I think he refers to subtley in one of his lines.
Posted 05/03/2004 - 03:20:03 PM by holystoning:
 I have to agree, Kanye's a slightly above average lyricist with a sloppy, often distracting delivery. Ghostface's Pretty Toney Album would be my choice for hip-hop album of the year, mainstream or no.
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