If there’s any hip-hop album more surprising, complicated and life-affirming than Kanye West’s “The College Dropout,” I haven’t heard it. The lyrical range is broad enough to contemplate everything from sex to school, from money to mortality, from guns to God. The album was not so much a turning point in hip-hop as it was an example of how innovative mainstream music could be: “The College Dropout” helped introduce West as a new voice in hip-hop that defied standards with schoolboy vigor, and dismissed the blunts-and-bling lifestyle as an illusion.
“The College Dropout” was a refreshing alternative to the material we usually associate with hip-hop: Radio jams mixed with poorly conceived album cuts. Already well-known as a producer for Roc-A-Fella Records, “All Falls Down” proved West’s wordplay was as impressive as his beats: “She’s so precious with the peer pressure/Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexus (a Lexus).”
Equally playful were the segues from dark humor to aggressive commentary: “We shine because they hate us, floss ‘cause they degrade us/We trying to buy back our 40 acres/And for that paper, look how low we stoop/Even if you in a Benz, you still a n—a in a coop.” Although the song samples Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity,” her label refused permission to reuse it on “All Falls Down,” and it was actually Syleena Johnson’s voice that made it onto the hit.
Instead of representing the evolution of hip-hop, “The College Dropout” brings the genre back to its roots with rich R&B samples: The voices of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Michael Bolton (?!) are less recognizable when played at eccentric speeds on “Spaceship,” “School Spirit” and “Never Let Me Down.”
Even mentioning an artist in the lyrics does little good: You’d never guess Luther Vandross was crooning on “Slow Jamz,” even as his name is used in the chorus. Although “Slow Jamz” includes appearances from Twista and Jamie Foxx, it was West’s lyrics (“She got a light skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/Got a dark skinned friend look like Michael Jackson”) that helped make it a number-one smash.
“Ain’t nobody expected Kanye to end up on top/They expected that ‘College Dropout’ to drop and then flop” says West on “Last Call,” the 12-minute centerpiece where the rapper considers his past, present and future. Indeed, there were cuts that fared unsuccessfully as singles – the emasculated radio edit of “The New Workout Plan” didn’t even make Billboard’s Hot 100. Even less commercial were “Graduation Day” and “I’ll Fly Away,” each barely clocking in at a little over a minute. It doesn’t seem to bother him, though: “I don’t listen to the suits behind the desk no more/You n—-s wear suits ‘cause you can’t dress no more/You can’t say s–t to Kanye West no more/I rocked 20,000 people I was just on tour!” he boasts.
“The College Dropout” is more sharp, daring and clever than it gets credit for. We feel West’s pain, but relish the poetry of tracks like “Through the Wire,” easily the greatest rap hit ever mumbled through a wired jaw – it was recorded during West’s recovery from a car accident. Even through the spiritual unrest of “Jesus Walks,” West’s wit shines: “They be asking us questions, harass and arrest us/Saying ‘we eat pieces of s–t like you for breakfast’/Huh? Y’all eat pieces of s–t?” And later: “The way Kathy Lee needed Regis, that’s the way I need Jesus.” God even gets a credit in the liner notes: “You spared my life and I still be on b——t! AMEN!”
West’s music survives because it intersects old and new sounds for a result that’s modern but memorable. In spite of all the acclaim (including two Grammys), the highest praise is yet to come – “The College Dropout” may be remembered as one of the best albums of the decade. Play it again if you don’t believe me.