Flicking through the booklet that comes with The College Dropout, Kanye West’s influential debut album, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this week, you can’t help but be reminded of how far he has come.
In addition to the lyrics, credits and exuberant, hand-written thank-you notes, there’s a brilliant series of high school yearbook-style pictures of the album’s contributors, who are listed under their real names. Sean [sic] Carter (Jay Z) is “Mr. Popular”, John Stephens (John Legend) is “Most Talented”, Christopher Bridges (Ludacris) is “Mr. Loudmouth”, Eric Bishop (Jamie Foxx) is “Class Clown”, and so on. Kanye himself is named both “Best Dressed” (this guy…) and “Most Unlikely to Succeed”.
He might be a superstar now, but he represented the underdog in the beginning. Back in early 2004, when 50 Cent was hip-hop’s undisputed king, street credibility was a prerequisite to success. The son of a photojournalist and an English professor, Kanye had a middle-class upbringing and didn’t fit into that mould. Sure, people loved his production work, but no one was convinced about him as a rapper. Where would this goofy dude fit in? What did he have to rap about?
The first line of Kanye’s very first single, “Through the Wire” is: “Yo G, they can’t stop me from rapping, can they?” He’s asking the question in a very literal sense – his jaw was wired shut after being fractured in a near-fatal car accident – but the line also serves as a mission statement for his whole career.
He got his record deal at Roc-A-Fella, Jay Z’s label, because co-founder Dame Dash wanted to use his beats for a compilation, not because they believed in him as a rapper. Unbeknownst to anyone at the company, he instead worked on College Dropout, an album that would transform the genre and dispense with those narrow preconceptions about rappers entirely.
Listening to it now, knowing what follows, the most striking thing is how normal he seems. When he raps about working at Gap on “Spaceship”, it’s with the weariness and pent-up frustration of everyone stuck in a soul-crushing job (R.I.P. HMV Trocadero). “Family Business”, still my favourite Kanye song, takes very specific, personal family memories and makes them feel universal. Long before he claimed, “I Am a God”, “Jesus Walks” examined his relationship with the delicate subject of religion.This content wasn’t just a refreshing change from the norm; it was a revolutionary act.
Amidst the goons dominating TV and radio airwaves, the album’s fusion of soul, gospel and East Coast boom-bap with warmth and humanity provided a much-needed haven. It really was “a new state of mind, a creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns”. Obviously, hip-hop didn’t exclusively focus on violence, but no one had managed to mine normality for material so adeptly. Much of hip-hop in the last decade can be traced right back to College Dropout opening the door for the everyman.
He took rap clichés and subverted them, whether it was drugs (“We Don’t Care”) or materialism (“All Falls Down”), breathing new life into tired subjects. The trademark chipmunk soul samples - sped-up, pitch-shifted and utterly gorgeous - set the albumapart sonically as well.
Importantly, it also helped to bridge the gap between conscious (underground) and street (mainstream) hip-hop. Kanye might have thoughtfully addressed issues from race to religion, but he also says: "Always said if I rapped I'd say something significant / But now I'm rappin' about money, hoes, and rims again." He showed that hip-hop was more than bravado, but significantly, that it could still be that too. In his own words, he was “the first ni--a with a Benz and a backpack”. To further the point, he united Roc-A-Fella henchman Freeway and backpack favourite Mos Def on “Two Words”.
As much as I love College Dropout, it’s not Kanye’s best album. “Breathe In Breathe Out” still sounds out of place and the satire of “The New Workout Plan” doesn’t mean it’s not one of his weakest songs. His rapping improves greatly on subsequent projects and the production becomes ever more ambitious. Despite that, it’s easy to see why it’s remained so many people’s favourite Kanye album.
There’s a charm that's absent from his recent releases. He’s still able to laugh at himself here and his sharp wit is on display throughout, with lines like “Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis,” and “She got a light-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson / She got a dark-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson,” always raising a smile. For once, the skits are genuinely funny as well.
The album’s inspiring final track, the 13-minute “Last Call”, takes the listener on a guided tour of Kanye’s rise from small-time producer to major label rapper. He recalls every disappointment along the way - "I played them ‘Jesus Walks’ and they didn't sign me!" - and it’s compelling for the entire duration.
That closing song makes it clear that, for all of his success, some things haven’t really changed at all. It’s not hard to draw parallels between his recent struggles to break into the fashion industry with his early attempts to transition from producing to rapping. People still don’t believe that Kanye can do what he’s insisting he can. The circumstances are similar, but his reaction now is completely different. He laughed off those early setbacks on College Dropout; last year’sYeezus was the sound of someone repeatedly hitting a glass ceiling.
That isn’t to say his infamous arrogance hasn’t been there from the very start – when he was just another struggling artist trying to get a record deal, he would climb on tables in meetings and declare himself “the next Michael Jackson” – and it’s a crucial part of the artist and person that he is. He’s habitually turned dreams into reality, often as a result of his unwavering conviction in himself.
He dropped out of college to focus on music, just look at him now. Jay Z was initially reluctant to sign Kanye, years later the duo made a joint album as equals. He rapped about Kim Kardashian in 2007, now he’s engaged to her.
Sadly, his more childish antics seem to generate more attention than his extraordinary talents nowadays.Every now and then, “All Falls Down” or “Slow Jamz” or “School Spirit” will come on shuffle and I’ll remember College Dropout-era Kanye – the pastel polo shirts, the endearingly clunky punch lines, the self-satisfied grin – and realise how much I miss that guy.
He still flips a soul sample occasionally, and still does it better than anyone else (see: “Otis”, “White Dress”, “Bound 2”), but it’s not got the same feeling. That time has passed.
And really, that’s fine. He’s no longer one of us and his art has changed accordingly. His debut album would be the pinnacle of most artists’ whole careers, but his growth since then has been remarkable. He’s become one of the most exciting, important figures in all of music. His six solo albums are all incredible, and none of them sound remotely alike.
On “Through the Wire,” which began everything, he said: “I swear this right here, history in the making, man.”Even Kanye himself probably didn’t realise quite how prophetic that would prove to be.