Today marks 10 years since the release of Kanye West’s 2004 juggernaut debut, The College Dropout. At the time, the landmark album proved to his critics, fans, and peers that the Chicago producer not only had a rare voice, but an intricate agenda for the rap game, as well. Of course, given all the hoopla, controversy, and debatable musical genius that has followed over the past decade, it’s difficult to recall an industry without Yeezy. In an effort to remember, staff writer Brian Josephs and the remarkable staff of Dead End Hip-Hop celebrate the occasion by sharing their own thoughts on how the Dropout affected hip-hop in addition to their own lives.
Staff Writer, Consequence Of Sound
I was a seventh grader during the College Dropout era, and I was paranoid when it came to Kanye West. I remember thinking that I was seriously missing out on a moment in time if I wasn’t baring witness as West referenced Chaka Khan, the Jamie Foxx hooks became a consistent source of junior high school humor, and the other three singles became instant quotables. It wasn’t because it marked the switch from gangsta rap to backpacker birthing. There was a serious urgency you can sense that made every West appearance feel like an event. One of the main reasons behind West’s rise in both the hip-hop community and mainstream audience was his ability to provide the conscious viewpoint with common pop youth tropes. It was rebellion, it was thrilling, and it was confident. You weren’t telling a 12-year-old that “Airs” wasn’t the thing otherwise.
It wasn’t like West was totally left field in his ideas. He still was very aware that he shared some of gangsta rap’s ethos. West did want some of the cars and jewelry, and does refer to the common drug rap narrative on opener “We Don’t Care”. The College Dropout takes away the hubris, however. Everyone has been where “Spaceship” details, but West isn’t sorry assed; he’s a passionate, self-entitled man who represents the kid slaving away at Cold Stone for a summer: “The kid that made that deserves that Maybach!” He even starts off his verse on “Breathe In, Breathe Out” by quipping, “Golly, more of that bullshit ice rap.” Even through these braggadocios moments, — everything from the religious talk to the short autobiography at the end of “Last Call” — is purposeful. Inspiring a generation of rappers is one thing, but what resonates at the core of College Dropout — at least to me — is how the star connects with the everyman’s innate desire to strive for better. Before he was a “creative genius,” West was a representative.
Managing Editor, Dead End Hip Hop
I still remember the first time I heard Kanye West. I wasn’t listening to much radio at the time, so if it hadn’t been for coworkers walking around singing “She got a dark-skinned friend, looks like Michael Jackson; got a light-skinned friend, looks like Michael Jackson,” I would have totally missed the whole craze. The constant sonic bombardment of this line made me decide I needed to check this guy out. When I heard the song “Slow Jamz”, my immediate reaction was “this is horrible.” (To this day, I still don’t care for that song.) Being a pigheaded asshole, I completely dismissed Kanye after one song. There was way too much music floating through the world for me to concern myself with someone so boring and uninteresting. At the time, radio was still being ruled by songs like 50 Cent’s “Magic Stick”, Lil Jon’s “Get Low”, and Three Stack’s “Hey Ya”. So this “Slow Jamz” shit went in one ear and right out the other. It took almost a year (and a Kanye-obsessed white chick I was dating) before I would go back and actually listen to the entire College Dropout album. And, needless to say, I felt like the biggest dipshit walking the streets of Atlanta.
When College Dropout hit the scene, hip-hop was pretty much dominated by the Southern crunk sound. I won’t say that Kanye was rebelling against that, but I felt like he was definitely not trying to blend in in any way. He wasn’t interested in rocking the XXXL white tees or the huge Phat Farm jeans that, if Precious wore them, would think, “damn, a bitch losin’ weight, doe.” Instead, he opted for the fitting jeans, the polos, and the matching backpack. An odd look for the time, but years later we would look back and recognize how this style shift would influence generations to come. Obviously, fashion trends wouldn’t be Kanye’s only contribution. He was already known for being a monstrous producer, but not so much as an MC. Since I typically pay closer attention to an MC than to a beat, when I first listened to College Dropout, I immediately noticed how unique of an MC Kanye was.
No one really sounded like Kanye, and you couldn’t really nail down a direct or obvious influence. From his smooth flow on “We Don’t Care” to his off-kilter-almost-talked rap style on “Spaceship” (still my favorite jam on this album) to his overly cocky style on “Two Words”, Kanye was showing that he was not to be messed with on the mic. He showed that he could spit alongside heavyweights like Freeway, Mos Def, Common, and Talib Kweli and easily hold his own (and, in some cases, like “Two Words”, steal the show) .We already knew his production skills, but I’d be a fool to not mention how varied and crazy the production is on this album. He could easily bounce from a soulful smooth track to a banging head-knocker without missing a step. Call it cliché if you want to, but the beat for “Jesus Walks” is just plain undeniable. To this day, even a self-proclaimed heathen like myself finds myself singing “God show me the way, because the Devil’s trying to break me down” when this jam comes on.
Looking back on College Dropout, I can honestly say that I regard this as one of the best albums to drop in the early part of the 2000s. Kanye showed me that first impressions can, a lot of times, be completely incorrect. He also changed my opinion of mainstream rap. At the time, I thought the majority of it was incoherent, unimportant, derivative bullshit that was all about the beat, disregarding the lyrics. Kanye walked in and smacked the shit out of the game (and myself), providing the mainstream rap world with incredibly creative beats as well as incontestable lyrics and style. Too bad he’s not still doing this. Sorry ‘Ye stans.
Ken “Kendred Spirit” Palmer
Staff Writer, Dead End Hip Hop
Being from Chicago, as well as being a part of the Chicago hip-hop scene, I had heard Kanye West’s name a lot earlier than most. I heard it when most of us weren’t really sure how to pronounce it. But when I got a taste of his rhymes and his overall personality, I absolutely loved his beats. I had the initial Dame Dash opinion of him, and I still do. Aside from Late Registration, I don’t care for any of his albums. But to deny that The College Dropout had any impact on the infrastructure of hip-hop would be unfair to say the least.
Although Kanye was not the first to do what he did production-wise, the instant notoriety he brought upon himself serendipitously garnered much-needed attention to why sampling truly is an art form despite what any detractor may say. And although I don’t like the overall personality of Kanye West, I greatly appreciated that serendipity because the production on College Dropout is indicative to that of Wu-Tang’s RZA, not to mention the master of that particular style, the late J Dilla, a man who Kanye himself proclaimed a “drum god” and who, unlike Kanye, shunned the spotlight and chose not to chase credit. In that sense, Kanye West is the Agent Smith to Dilla’s Neo.
What Dilla made look impossible, Kanye made look simple — regardless of the fact that it wasn’t. Vinyl sales of classic soul records increased, thanks to people who never touched a drum machine in their lives thinking they could speed up a soul sample, tap a keyboard a couple times, and create a “Through the Wire” or a “Slow Jamz”. With all of that being said, if I were Dame Dash, I would have NEVER released The College Dropout. Would I have been wrong? Well, 21 million album sales, 21 million Grammys, and $100 million later says…maybe.
Staff Writer, Dead End Hip Hop
Many things can change in 10 years. The president of the U.S.A. was still white, a certain social media site, called Facebook, was in its nascent stages of popularity, Janet Jackson was showing off her hooters at the halftime show at the Super Bowl, and the infamous Kanye West was still a rapper you actually rooted for. The now outspoken Chicago rapper dropped his debut album, The College Dropout¸ in 2004 and sparked the roller coaster ride that it took to be a fan of Kanye West. Not only did he passionately rap throughout the project, but he also provided the soulful canvas that acted as a backdrop for the popular debut LP, as he was one of the executive producers of the album as well.
With guest appearances from the likes of Common, Jay-Z, Mos Def, Ludacris and many more, the album took listeners through a mixture of 21 socially relevant, boisterously ignorant and down-to-earth, relatable tracks. The album’s quirky nature pushed the boundaries of what hip-hop was at the time. West provided non-gangster hip hop listeners something to relate to as he was honest, sincere, and most importantly, human (please refer to his last album title). The album’s influence is very much alive today as it helped accelerate the growth of hip hop and rap by extending its reach to untapped demographics.
Many things can change in 10 years, but a lot of things remain the same. College Dropout is a certified hip hop classic and will remain to be in the future.
Editor-in-Chief, Dead End Hip Hop
In 2003, “gangster rap” dominated hip-hop with chart-topping albums like 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying and T.I.’s Trap Musik. When 2004 arrived and Kanye debuted The College Dropout, it was apparent to the world that mainstream hip-hop was evolving. Kanye infiltrated hip-hop the only way he knows how – he kicked in the front door and changed all the rules. In his first single, “Through the Wire”, we got a taste of the what was to come, but it was “Jesus Walks” that showed the blending of spiritual consciousness in a non-secular world. In other words, Jesus hit the club strolling and infecting sinners with sounds of revelry.
I was a fresh 28 when it dropped. For me, College Dropout was a breath of fresh air to the mainstream hip-hop world. MCs such as Talib Kweli, Common, and Mos Def were vets in the game but often labeled “conscious rappers” with verses about uplifting and improving ourselves. Their inclusion in the Dropout still provided that same messaging but appealed to a mainstream audience. This new sound was just what we needed to hear.
College Dropout was about nonconformity, the title itself serving as a middle finger to the social construct expected of us: education, family, charity, and retirement. The music didn’t conform; it was conscientious and stirring without being overly moralistic. Subject matters of materialism, religion, gold digging, and social ills were addressed. Kanye West took frowned-upon-topics and shed light on them to the mainstream world. He ushered in a soulful and light sound to a genre that was living off aggression.
Kanye dared to be different at a time when being different wasn’t cool. His soulful samples, loops, and sped-up vocal samples created an offspring of producers hip-hop would see over the next 10 years. More so, he gave us a glimpse into Kanye the artist that we know now, as heard in 808s & Heartbreak and Yeezus. College Dropout was Kanye’s proclamation to the world that he was here and he has plenty to say. Ten years later, he still remains true to form.
It’s clear that, whether you like it or not, Kanye’s College Dropout was a definitive contribution to music. What did you think about it? How do you feel about it now? Love it or hate it, let us know below.