Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
“I’m the funny version of Dead Prez.” That’s Kanye West giving an amazingly succinct and accurate summary of his career during an interview. Without a timestamp on that quote, it could have easily been something he said in the handful of, ahem, “honest” interviews he gave during the lead-up to the June 2013 release of his cathartic, abrasive and game-changing sixth studio album Yeezus. West’s incendiary “New Slaves,” for all intents and purposes, was the best Dead Prez song they never recorded, and it was a fantastic example of the ways in which his sonic and thematic fascinations mirrored those of the Brooklyn duo’s seminal first record Let’s Get Free. But that quote was actually from a Rolling Stone profile that ran in May of 2004, only a few months removed from the release (and subsequent smashing success) of West’s debut The College Dropout, which turns 10 today (February 10).
That made me take a step back. I’ve spent the past eight months lauding Yeezus as not only West’s best album, but one of the most important, innovative hip-hop albums of the last decade. For me, the angry, bass-blaring, Corbusier lamp-inspired, Chicago house-riddled Yeezus made the rest of his back catalog look downright saccharine. I remembering thinking at some point during the fourth minute of “I’m In It” that it would be very hard for me to revisit West’s earlier material — like, say, the day-glo urban working class paean “We Don’t Care” from his debut — and not yearn for what I saw to be his career’s avant-garde zenith in Yeezus.
But I went back, and ended up being astonished at how Ye’s creative vision and philosophical ruminations have stayed consistent and vital throughout a career spanning 10-plus years. The College Dropout is the brilliant foundation of his raging, creative restlessness, as well as his constantly sharpening social mind. With this album, he wasn’t given access to the zeitgeist. He took it.
Make no mistake, The College Dropout is an angry record. On it, Kanye is fed up with, among other things, systemic racism, hip-hop’s vapid materialism, the perceived uselessness of expensive college degrees, the lack of social mobility for black Americans and his own repeated personal failings in life and love. And while that anger is wrapped up in Hot 100 hooks, chipmunk soul samples and lush, limber production, the massive chip on West’s shoulder was a creative force of its own from day one.
It’s no secret West made his biggest professional splash producing the lion’s share of tracks on Jay-Z’s classic fifth album The Blueprint — including the Jackson 5-sampling anthem “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and the lacerating Nas bodyslam “Takeover” — and eventually angled to get his rapping career of the ground. He got passed along by a handful of record labels (including a close pass by Capitol) who didn’t know how to market West’s “First n***a with a Benz and a backpack” style, middle class background and seemingly lack of street edge at a time when MCs like 50 Cent, Chingy and Lil Jon were dominating the charts. A reluctant Damon Dash eventually signed Kanye to a Roc-A-Fella development deal and, as you can guess, West was pretty motivated to prove any gatekeeper of power who denied him access in the record industry wrong. It’s both obvious that record labels would want an unknown MC to fall in line with what is popular in hip-hop, and seriously depressing that Kanye wanted to break the mold of “gangsta” caricature only to be rebuffed at nearly every turn.
As a result, The College Dropout is a classic first record in the sense that Kanye had spent his entire life preparing to put his thoughts and superlative beats down on wax, combining the socially aware, conscious rap introspection of close friends Common and Talib Kweli (who both appear in guest spots) with the club-ready excesses that MTV and radio audiences were hungry for. But it was also an open-ended mission statement providing a fascinating set of ideas and emotions Kanye is still playing around with 10 years later.
And while there are a few dated conventions (specifically, padding the tracklist with no less than seven skits and interludes), the silky progression of gloriously high-minded beats and various philosophical threads is damn near perfectly calibrated, walking listeners through a world where young, black Americans are beset on all sides by a society that seeks to simultaneously limit their strength and exploit their culture.
On the aforementioned De La Soul-lite “We Don’t Care,” West basically places drug dealing and soul-deadening 9-to-5 jobs on the same level, eventually rattling off a list of societal failures that leave impoverished black people with few choices, and concluding “Sometimes, I feel like no one in this world understands us / But we don’t care what people say.”
The middle-class ennui of “Spaceship” has West reminiscing about his (very un-gangsta) time working at a Gap and being unwittingly used as an ambassador for the store’s supposed diversity. And then of course there’s “All Falls Down,” the gorgeously constructed mid-tempo neo-soul hit that puts the materialism of hip-hop in the crosshairs, with West repeatedly pointing out how celebrating and prioritizing wealth is a pretty obvious side effect of crippling insecurity. When Ye says “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it” on the second to last line of the song, it’s a sentiment that still reverberates a decade later.
And yet, on this very same song, he also defends conspicuous consumption by contextualizing it as a means of protesting against our society’s intrinsic racism: “We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us / We’re trying to buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper look how low we stoop / Even if you’re in a Benz, you’re still a n*gga in a coupe.” So already, West was delving into the type of nuanced arguments and cognitive dissonance that makes him so compelling still.
The College Dropout definitely isn’t the best album of Kanye’s catalog, but it’s arguably the most important. And while I could have spent a lot of time dwelling on the hits that everyone knows verbatim by now (“Jesus Walks,” “Slow Jamz,” “Through the Wire” “The New Workout Plan”) or hammering the one or two songs that show some growing pains (“Never Let Me Down,” “Breathe in, Breathe Out”), I’d rather rest on the idea that Kanye has grown since his debut album, but he hasn’t changed. That’s a good thing.
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