THE COLLEGE DROPOUT: ALBUM REVIEW
Since the beginning of quarantine, The College Dropout has been by-far my most revisited album. Up until March, The College Dropout had been one of my least favorite Kanye projects. I always felt like Kanye’s story got old and by halfway through the album we knew way too much about Kanye’s ego. Although this album is his middle finger to all those that doubted him (a theme which has ended up echoing through every single one of Kanye’s works), it had always felt almost excessive to me.
As I’ve been on a Kanye binge these past few months, I’ve grown to love how The College Dropout highlights Kanye’s attitude and evolution. The College Dropout is a story of absolute redemption. Even though the project is essentially a defense of his ego, it’s an effective one. So much of what Kanye hates and complains about on The College Dropout is what he works to fix later in his career. Even the critiques against Kanye and his unabashed embrace of capitalism are clear from the jump on The College Dropout and are part of the intricacies behind what make Kanye one of the most interesting and influential public figures of all time.
Kanye did not suddenly pop out of nowhere in 2004, he had been putting in work since the late 90s. He started making a name for himself as a producer in the Chicago underground and later the New York mainstream for years before his debut album. His road to being a great rapper was filled with potholes, as he constantly describes on this album. From the car crash that broke his jaw and left his mouth wired shut, to the labels who screwed him over, Kanye holds all of these grudges in an almost Michael Jordan-like fashion. He takes shots at his manager at Gap, at anyone not from Chicago, and at various music industry figures. When he calls these people out he never sounds upset, he just sounds happy that he has finally won. In Kanye’s mind, the release of The College Dropout is the ultimate response to any of his haters.
The College Dropout is full of absolute bangers like “All Falls Down,” “Through the Wire,” and “Slow Jamz” but most of the beauty in the album comes from the lower-key reminiscent songs. “Family Business” has always been one of my favorite Kanye tracks. Between the gentle pianos on the beat and the softly sung hook, everything about the song is pure joy and relaxation. My favorite moment in the songs comes when the beat switches for a couple of seconds to something a bit more aggressive and Kanye snarls, “act like you never took a bath with your cousins, fit three in the bed. If it's six of y’all you gotta fit three by the head and three by the leg.” Behind even Kanye’s most upbeat and inspirational songs he still feels the need to let people know what he has overcome. “Family Business” also has one of my favorite, and most hilariously delivered, Kanye lines, “You can still love yo man and be manly dog.”
The College Dropout is also Kanye’s last album that sounds anything like Chicago. Half of the artists featured on the album are from the city and songs like “Spaceship” and “Jesus Walks” retain the same soul-sampling that had become associated with underground Chicago acts like Grav and Do or Die. Ultimately, this album is about escaping Chicago though. Chicago becomes a vehicle that represents everything holding Kanye back. In order to succeed he had to leave the city. There is something both beautiful and depressing about that sentiment. In order for Kanye to become who we knew him to be he had to leave his roots, and since he left he has never really been back. I think Kanye knows this: he knows that he has strayed far from who he used to be. In recent years we have seen Kanye West try to return to Chicago, but after so many years gone he is essentially a visitor in his own city.
When people talk about Kanye’s musical influence it usually centers around his first three albums (and Yeezus to some extent). Without The College Dropout, Chance the Rapper wouldn’t exist, Smino wouldn’t exist, and Common would be nowhere close to the legendary artist we know today. The College Dropout changed the course of hip-hop. Kanye was willing to speak about real life and was willing to tell people that sometimes shit sucks and that’s okay.