This week marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout, a record that few people - perhaps not even Kanye himself - could have predicted would springboard him from unproven emcee to the grandiloquent megastar that he undoubtedly is today. Even now, a decade and six solo albums later, College Dropout remains not only Kanye’s most successful solo release to date but, for me, one of, if not the finest hip-hop album of this millennium.
There are few more polarising figures in modern music than Kanye West. His brazen arrogance is irritating enough to some, but coupled with a long list of ridiculous public incidents he’s an easy person to hate. Whether it’s accusing George Bush of being racist, or interrupting acceptance speeches at award shows, his metamorphosis in to the now enigmatic, delusional braggart, whilst at times incredibly entertaining, has been equally difficult to watch. His interview with Zane Lowe last year, for example, depicted a man whose utterly warped sense of reality suggests that he is not entirely of sound mental health.
But the Kanye West who created College Dropout is an almost completely different persona to the Kanye that made Yeezus. It’s difficult to comprehend now, but the Kanye of old struggled for years to first gain credence as a rapper, and then even secure a record deal - even Jay-Z initially demurred from offering him a deal despite his success as a producer. Despite producing massive hits for the likes of Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Ludacris and Talib Kweli, even when he was finally signed to Roc-A-Fella by Damon Dash in 2001, he was signed to produce a compilation album for the label but secretly worked on his solo record instead.
The resulting record, for me, remains the pinnacle of West’s solo work. How you define a classic record is down to personal interpretation, but College Dropout perfectlycombines the greatest aspects of hip-hop albums: hilarious skits and interludes, incredibly tight production, guest features that complement rather than intrude, and an equal blend of humour and passion. Kanye has made a career of doing the unconventional, and here was a middle-class, art-school dropout who not only broke the mould of the macho gangsta rap that had dominated the early noughties, but eventually redefined it.
By comparison, 50 Cent released his debut album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, a year earlier, one of the highest selling hip-hop albums of all-time, but his career - and that of his G-Unit comrades - turned very stale, very quickly. How can you expect an artists to continue writing about the trials and tribulations of everyday life, or breaking in to the industry when they’ve made millions of dollars and live a lifestyle of excess luxury? It’s a problem that artists of all genres face, and the great separate themselves from the good by continuing to develop their sound rather than keep safe in their comfort zone, and like him or loathe him, this an area where Kanye sets himself apart from most.
Great records always showcase a personality at a particular stage of their careers, and College Dropout showed a surprisingly vulnerable Kanye. Even the single that started it all, “Through The Wire,” was written and recorded with his jaw wired shut whilst he was still recovering from a serious car accident in 2002. Beyond that, the record is laced with ostensible self-deprecating humour and a blunt admission of his own personal failings; it has a visceral rawness that is often at the heart of great hip-hop, whilst still exuding an arrogance that has now become his raison d'être
College Dropout was the platform to showcase his intrepid creativity, as well as his ever-sharpening social mind. Kanye ranted a whole range of topics that were deeply personal: systemic racism, the vanity of modern hip-hop, and whether there’s actually a real advantage to obtaining college degrees in modern day. College Dropout Kanye questioned why songs about faith were not given the same level of exposure as other song topics; Yeezus Kanye declared himself our new lord and saviour. Kanye may not wow you with a mind-blowing cadence, but his wit and unmatched ability to combine the sublime with the ridiculous are like no other.
The strength of the record is in its cohesiveness; it all works and flows together so naturally. The singles sound as fresh today as they did ten years ago, but they are just cogs in a well-produced machine. The likes of “Family Business” and “All Falls Down” are beautifully poignant, whilst “We Don’t Care” and “New Workout Plan” provide a light-hearted look on the perceived ambitions of those on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. “Last Call,” the final song on the record, is basically a 12-minute long fuck you to all those who were foolish enough to doubt him. There’s a great line in it which is his early career in a microcosm: “now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams/I use it as my gas so they say that I'm gassed, but without it I'd be last, so I ought to laugh.”
There always seems to be, at least in Kanye’s mind, a method to all the madness. Ten years ago, his creativity was fuelled by frustration and negative feedback from those who refused to give him a record deal, seeing him as someone who wouldn’t be successful on both sides of the glass. Now he's still fuelled by negativity from those who doubt him, except now it’s not his peers he’s angry at, but the large corporations outside of music who won’t give him the platform to expand his brand as he attempts to not only follow in the footsteps of Diddy, Jay-Z et al, but surpass their success until, presumably, he achieves world domination – and even then he’d probably turn his attempts to conquering the moon.
Whilst Jay-Z was telling us to brush that dirt of our shoulder, the size of the chip that was on Kanye’s was increasing with every hit single. You wonder whether Kanye will ever be satisfied with what he’s achieved in his career, whether he will allow himself to sit and look back over what he’s accomplished over the past decade and be just content with it all instead of constantly pondering what to do next. But that’s something we shouldn’t worry about yet, as there is one thing that has remained constant throughout his prolificness as both an artist and a producer: his unbridled passion to create and innovate in the music world.
Jay-Z’s career over the past decade serves as a warning to what happens when artists lose their passion. I’m a Jay-Z fan, but outside of the American Gangster soundtrack, he’s not made a good – hell, even a decent - solo record since The Black Album, which, coincidentally, was released a few months after The Coellge Dropout. Even the Jay-Z and Kanye collaboration album wasn’t as good as anything they’ve made individually. You can’t really blame Jay, either. If I was worth half a billion dollars and going home to Beyoncé every night my desire to continue making music would probably wane, too. But with each mediocre album he tarnishes his legacy, and fortunately that’s not something Kanye has to worry about…..yet.
Here we are, a decade on, and whilst Kanye may not be the most affable of music artists, he’s undoubtedly one of the most important. Not only has he been instrumental in changing the face of hip-hop, leading the way for other rappers to make big strides in music, too, he has transcended the usual confines of genres, appealing to a wider audience than many of his predecessors. The death of his mother in 2007 seemed to be the trigger for his constant peculiar behaviour, but maybe his impending entrance in to both fatherhood and marriage helps him find more happiness and stability on a personal level. Well, as long as it doesn’t affect his music.