When it's all said and done, College Dropout will be the defining album of Kanye West's catalog
The party line seems to be that Kanye West has grown by leaps and bounds since The College Dropout, his darling but amateurish 2004 debut. At 26, Kanye had yet to grow into himself, or so says the hip-hop press: His dorky, emasculated air and Leno-like innocuousness were more befitting of a young techie than an MC. The drums didn’t slap, the skits were D.O.A. and inexperienced Kanye couldn’t flow with the worst of them, the detractors scoffed. Sure, the Aretha loops and string sections were a good look, but ’Ye didn’t sprout angel wings until 2005’s Late Registration, when he gothicized his chipmunk soul sound with help from chamber-pop visionary Jon Brion. Dropout was at most a promising rough sketch.
This argument is infinitely discreditable. The College Dropout remains Kanye’s finest and funniest work, a gumbo of affectionate soul samples, belly laughs and religiously tinged self-disclosure. Late Registration, for all its focus and intensity, just can’t compete.
Prior to Dropout’s release, Kanye had been a freelance producer for hire first and foremost; by his own admission, he spent three summers of his 20s locked in a secluded recording space. There was a confrontational restlessness to some of his work from this period: the mud-streaked Doors flip that animates Jay-Z’s “Takeover” is one example. When he started rapping on the reg, though, that confrontational quality fell by the wayside. Early mixtapes like Get Well Soon and Freshman Adjustment were hilarious, but Kanye never laughed at another’s expense, preferring neutral or self-deprecating humor. On “Dreams of Fucking Lil Kim,” he pokes fun at his own bashfulness (over an instrumental he crafted for the Queen Bee). “Apologize,” a lost-love lament similar in tone to Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By,” is also good-natured. The Kanye who barks, “You will not control the threesome!” on 2011’s agro circus Watch the Throne was still years away from rearing his filter-free mouthpiece.
At a time when alternative hip-hop in the lineage of Pharcyde had nearly gone extinct, Kanye’s sunny disposition was a nourishing aphrodisiac. Heads were hungry for a full-length LP, and Dropout more than satisfied their appetite. Time flew listening to the 76-minute album: every track sparkled like a potential single, from “Two Words” (featuring bearded Roc-A-Fella steward Freeway) to the children’s-choir-backed “We Don’t Care.” “Slow Jamz,” “All Falls Down” and “Through the Wire” never seemed to wear out their welcome, even after more than a year of TRL rotation.
Dropout covers so much ground topically that one wondered how Kanye could savage enough material for a follow-up. “All Falls Down” is a civil rights hymn that spoke truth to institutionalized white power. On “Family Business,” Kanye breaks down at the Thanksgiving table from which his newly deceased grandmother was absent. “School Spirit” and “Spaceship” revisit the emotional lows he plunged as an undergrad floundering at Chicago State. “Jesus Walks” argues for Christianity as a healthy, grounding influence in one’s life; “Get ’Em High,” featuring Common and Talib Kweli, argues the same for weed. It's a lot to digest, but cramming had never been so much fun—the Guy Called West was on some other other shit.
Kanye had lyrics for days, but lolz and attention to detail do not a classic album make. In order to earn that coveted delegation, a record must be expertly produced. To that end, the music on Dropout is light years ahead of everything else on retail shelves in 2004. Kanye has always been an agent of discipline, even in experimental mode: Every coda is where it should be. That is true of Dropout, too. “Breathe In, Breathe Out” struts like the horn section of a HBCU marching band; and “Never Let Me Down” was soulful enough to get an enthusiastic “amen” from Sam Cooke. Sorry, but the James Bond theatrics of Late Registration’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” are not seeing “Through the Wire,” a tender and easeful tribute to Chicago disco queen Chaka Khan.
As is the case with most albums of distinction, there are a couple of timeless heaters on Dropout that stand out: “Get ’Em High” has hard, persistent xylophones and is one of the first Kweli songs to truly go off. “Jesus Walks” still tingles spines in 2014. But Kanye melded these disparate sounds into a beautiful whole. 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak is cohesive, but boringly so, stuck in a polar vortex with its yawning synths, endless reverb and artificial fog. Although quite gluttonous in length, Dropout is an attention keeper and recognized as such. People forget, but in the spring of ’04, this record was heralded as an international treasure, wooing dilettantish rock critics and hip-hop lifers alike. It won three Grammys. It beat out Beck, Arcade Fire and a Beach Boy in winning Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll.
Reviewing Yeezus last year, many critics effectively said good riddance to the dovish Kanye of old. Yeezus is fantastic, an NC-17 rated orgy of grease, static and pornified house music. “I’m In It” and “Hold My Liquor” are among his most gut-wrenching songs ever, but lack the grace and wit of a panoramic character study like “All Falls Down.” Compared to ’Ye’s violent, caps-locked later work—to quote 21 Jump Street, Heartbreak suffers from an over-falsity of confidence—Dropout is humble and even tentative, which leads music pundits to dismiss it out of hand.
Now, history has been unkind to certain other Kanye albums. Very few people still talk about 2007’s Graduation, a fun and at times meaningful record that critics have nonetheless come to regard as an underwritten step down from the monolith that was Late Registration. Dropout, though, is much less deserving of revisionist disapproval. Yeezy’s debut changed hip-hop for the better, spawning more and worthier imitators than any rap record since. (Quippy, celebrated Chicagoan Chance the Rapper would not exist without Dropout.) It taught underground heads that plainspoken, simplistic rapping could be a valuable substitute for show-offy technicality. It was the first significant hip-hop album to prominently display a bear graphic on its cover and helped the genre become tolerant to bountiful self-deprecation.
’Ye has had a fire under his ass in recent years. Both Yeezus and 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are unselfconscious, minutely researched and fearless in their exploration of sounds foreign to their maker: coke-rock, reggae, electro sleaze, even Gary Glitter. Today he is a denizen of the avant-garde. Yet Dropout remains the only album of his so resonant—so immutably true—its lessons can never stray far from the recesses of one’s mind and conscience. We would humbly submit that it’s the quintessential coming-of-age hip-hop album. All those weepy, excitable, sped-up soul samples sum up Kanye’s gamut-running emotional state perfectly. On “Family Business” and elsewhere, he’s shedding tears of confusion and frustration and exhilaration and gratitude. It’s the only appropriate action for a hungry novice in his mid ’20s, simultaneously afraid of everything and nothing. —M.T. Richards