Yes, Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout is proof that you can be one of hip-hop’s hottest producers and still be proficient at writing and delivering rhymes, that not all producers sink a track when they get on the mic. Yes, The College Dropout is an example of a much-hyped, long-delayed, heavily bootlegged album that is worth every second of the wait, that is just as good as you expected it to be. Yes, the track that so much of that attention has been focused on — “Through the Wire”, Kanye’s confessional rap about his horrific car accident, capably rhymed while his jaw was still wired shut — is as riveting and moving as everyone says it is. Yes, the beats on this album are at least as hot as those he’s grown famous for. And yes, as a link between Jay-Z and Talib Kweli (or the “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack”, as he puts it on one song) he is likely to win over hip-hop fans of all stripes; when critics refer to him as “hip-hop’s savior”, you understand what they’re getting at, even as you think “Does hip-hop need to be saved?” But all of that is only half the story. That’s just the beginning of what The College Dropout is all about, only the first in the long list of reasons why the album is so unique, and so powerful.
A college dropout himself, West uses the cover art and a serious of skits to frame the album as a commentary on the educational system, a criticism of what people expect to gain from school and of the tenuous connection which that often has to what is taught and learned. That idea holds the album together as an extended look at the choices people make in life, and the reasons behind them. On song after song he uses his own life to rap about growing up and trying to survive in a harsh world, about the things we do just to get by. “Through the Wire” may be the album’s most startling personal horror story (though it’s also a song of hope and gratitude), but many of the other songs use autobiography in a more fluid and casual way. It’s like you’re listening to one of your neighbors tell you about his life — not because Kanye’s talents as an MC are pedestrian (by no means), but because he crosses subjects and contradicts himself in a very real way. His style of rapping is both self-boosting and self-deprecating; he expresses from-the-heart feelings about the world and where it’s gone wrong, then makes fun of himself for feeling like he has any right to judge others. He rhymes with conviction, and then steps back and laughs at himself… but instead of cutting against what he’s saying, that style makes the songs feel more honest. Kanye’s a Whitmanesque everyman figure who stands out in a genre where even the most “complicated” MCs — the sensitive gangstas — still all too often feel like they’ve built themselves personas to sell. On The College Dropout, Kanye West feels not like a persona but a person, and one who’s remarkably gifted at putting his worldview into a song, even when it’s messy and contradictory.
The more you listen to The College Dropout the harder Kanye becomes to define. In one moment he’s a street journalist who dissects the low expectations America has for young black teenagers and who understands the mechanics behind crime and the criminal justice system all too well; on the first track “We Don’t Care” he offers this wry chorus as a graduation anthem, and gets a kid’s choir to joyously sing it: “All you people that’s drug dealing just to get by/ Stack your money till it gets sky high/ We wasnt supposed to make it past 25/ Jokes on you we still alive.” Then in another moment all he cares about is shiny car and womens bra sizes. But lest you think that scholar/player is the only dichotomy here, check out the variety of ideas and complexities displayed across even just three of the albums tracks:
Add to those the over-the-top “New Workout Plan”, both a hilarious parody of an aerobics routine and a platform for Kanye to wrap his words around weird shifts in tempo and style; “Never Let Me Down”, where Jay-Z rhymes about attaining status and power, Kanye one-ups him with a show-stopping attack on racism and meditation on death, and J Ivy offers words of spiritual upliftment; “Slow Jamz”, both an ode to quiet-storm R&B and a goof on it; “Two Words”, a deafening mix of social critique and bragging with Mos Def, Freeway and the Harlem Boys Choir; “Family Business”, a sweet, soulful tribute to family; and a few tracks with him boasting and goofing over slamming funk-n-soul tracks, and you have an album that’s complicated in exactly the right ways.
Call The College Dropout over-ambitious, if you will, but every single one of these songs comes off like a genuine extension of Kanye’s personality and experiences. And all of them are musically engaging — an instrumental version of this album would rock the house. The album’s focus on old-school soul, gospel and funk sounds, with classic R&B hooks often processed and looped at a song’s center, fits thematically with the album’s look at survival, struggle, and community. Kanye uses samples and beats in a highly emotional way that feels entirely authentic even in the album’s most heart-on-sleeve moments, like “Family Business”. Here what would be hokey in another musician’s hands makes you feel real shivers, maybe even cry real tears. That level of “realness”, the way that the songs ring true whether he’s bragging or self-criticizing, joking or praying, is what makes The College Dropout more than worthy of all of the attention that it’s getting. Even the 12-minute autobiographical monologue that closes the album is off-the-cuff and honest, against the odds.