The College Dropout Turns 20

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The College Dropout Turns 20


Twenty years is an impossibly long time, and it’s also the blink of an eye. Twenty years is now how long it’s been since Kanye West released his debut album The College Dropout; the album’s birthday is Saturday. I can see that 2004 release date in my head like it’s playing on TV. I remember exactly which shelf of the now-shuttered record store had the CD on display, and I can remember practically sprinting to the counter to pay for it, then back to my apartment to throw it on. I’m still the person who bought that CD, and Kanye West is still the person who made it, but we are also very different people. In the case of Kanye West, most of the changes have not been good.

Once upon a time, Kanye West was a lovable underdog. From the very moment that he arrived in the public consciousness — even when he was just a name in the production credits of Jay-Z albums — West understood the power of his own backstory, and the mere existence of The College Dropout was vindication of that power. The College Dropout, like every Kanye West album that followed, is all about Kanye West. At the time, most major-label rap albums had plenty of autobiographical elements, but they were not auteurist works. Every song had an objective to accomplish, a master to serve. That was not The College Dropout, which is why The College Dropout was such a breath of fresh air when it came out. This new guy had come along and involved the world in his personal hero’s journey. In the moment, that felt inspiring.

I miss the old Kanye. If you’re reading this, you probably do, too. Kanye knows this. That’s why he made “I Love Kanye” in 2016. He knew that we missed the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye, chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye. He knew that plenty of people preferred that Kanye to the wildly delusional, high-on-his-own-supply Kanye who stood before us then. But eight years can be an impossibly long time, too. Now, I miss the Kanye who made “I Love Kanye.” I’ll take that one over this one anyday. I’ll take any Kanye over this Kanye.

But the new Kanye is also the old Kanye, and you can trace plenty of the present-day Ye’s DNA on The College Dropout. If Kanye were to jump on Instagram tomorrow and splutter, “I deserve to do these numbers!,” it wouldn’t sound remotely out of character. Kanye’s constant need to ignore advice and defy conventional wisdom also makes a certain sense in light of The College Dropout. After all, that album had a hard road to even come into existence, and look what happened.

What happened was: Kanye West harbored dreams of rap stardom since childhood, and those dreams appeared preposterous until the very moment in which they came true. Plenty of people have told stories about overachieving teenage Kanye running around on the Chicago rap circuit, trying to convince people of his own greatness. Despite multiple attempts, rap didn’t work out for West. What did work out was production. In the late ’90s, West dropped out of college, moved into a Newark apartment, and started ghost-producing for D-Dot, himself one of Puffy Combs’ old ghost-producers. Through D-Dot, young Mr. West got beats on some Y2K-era landfill rap albums: Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown, Mase’s Harlem World crew, the album that D-Dot himself made under his Madd Rapper alias. Then West got in with Roc-A-Fella.

Kanye West’s timing was impeccable. Right around 2000, Roc-A-Fella was in the middle of one of the all-time great rap-crew runs. Jay-Z ran the world, or at least he had me convinced that he ran the world. When Jay wanted to turn toward more soulful and introspective music, the world turned with him. West quietly started alongside his fellow soul-sample specialist Just Blaze, making beats for Beanie Sigel and Jay’s own The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. When Jay released the 2001 masterpiece The Blueprint, Just Blaze and Kanye West ascended to production-auteur status. From there, Kanye became an in-demand name, producing actual hits for Scarface and Talib Kweli and Ludacris. Kanye West and Just Blaze didn’t invent the production trick of sped-up helium-soul samples — RZA and Pete Rock had already done it — but they brought it into an era of big, widescreen production. They had something that everyone wanted.

That whole time, West wanted to rap. He put his own voice on his demo CDs. He rapped to record-label receptionists and functionaries. I’ve heard so many stories of Kanye barging into magazine offices, standing on chairs, and rapping at top volume to anyone within the sound of his voice. The 2022 Netflix documentary jeen-yuhs captures Kanye in that moment, and he frankly looks exhausting to be around. He’s nervous, occasionally sullen, sometimes manic. He wears on people. He’s given to making an ass of himself. We watch as West raps “Family Business” for Scarface, and Scarface’s reaction is to verbally brutalize West for leaving his retainer — like, the retainer from his teeth — on a studio table: “Man, that shit don’t go out there, man! That shit been all in your mouth and shit!”

And yet some people saw the vision. Tons of record-label A&R guys attempted to sign Kanye West as a solo artist, but the higher-ups always shot the idea down. Not even Rawkus Records, the Murdoch-funded NYC backpack bastion that was nearing the end of its short but hot run, would get the deal done. (In retrospect, that’s a lot like Sugar Hill passing on LL Cool J in 1984.) West only got his Roc-A-Fella deal because Dame Dash thought West was going to make a compilation for the other Roc rappers. Jay-Z brought West onstage in Chicago and gave him the mythic Roc chain, and West got to spit an uncredited guest verse on the Blueprint 2 track “The Bounce,” which he didn’t even produce. (I remember rifling through the CD booklet, trying to figure out who that was doing the Shrek Gingerbread Man impression mid-verse.) But even as a member of the storied Roc-A-Fella roster — arguably the best ever assembled — Kanye West couldn’t get an album release date. He had to make things happen for himself.

The way that Kanye West made it happen was: He almost died in a car accident, and then he made a song about it. West built the track on a pitched-up Chaka Khan sample, and he and his partners got the sample cleared by leaning on Khan’s son, who had his own rap-stardom dreams. Hey, maybe Chaka Khan’s son could get a verse on the album! Chaka Khan’s son did not get a verse on the album. West paid out of his own pocket to record the “Through The Wire” song and video, but Roc-A-Fella agreed to release the single, and it became an out-of-nowhere crossover smash. West’s rapping was rushed and overeager and slurry from the actual wire keeping his jaw shut, but he brought fire and passion and emotion to his delivery. Along with the sentimental sweep of the beat, the song was powerful enough to turn people’s attention toward the myth that West was already building for himself.

“I swear, this right here, history in the making, man.” That sounded absurd when Kanye first spit it. I remember being like, “Relax, buddy.” West was more fired-up about his car accident and his broken jaw than 50 Cent, the new star on the scene that year, was about his nine bullet holes. At the time, though, it was the charming kind of absurd. That song and Kanye’s production credits were enough to capture people’s imaginations. At Def Jam, Dame Dash still didn’t take West seriously as a rapper. Why would he? Cam’ron was right there. But out there in the world, some us noticed that West was putting together a body of work that represented an actual viewpoint.

For me, it was the I’m Good mixtape, from 2003; I still have the slimline CD case somewhere. For others, it was the Get Well Soon tape, from 2002, or Kon The Louis Vuitton Don, from 2004. I couldn’t believe the I’m Good mixtape. That shit blew my mind. West was making connections that seemed impossible. “Two Words” had Mos Def, Freeway, and the Harlem Boys Choir on it. Was that allowed? Who let that happen? Now, it’s clear that Yasiin Bey and Philly Freezer’s similarities far outnumber their differences. At the time, though, it felt somehow wrong to love Rawkus and Roc-A-Fella. It felt like you were betraying one to love the other. But here, Kanye had a Talib Kweli “Get By” remix with Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes on it. It sounds trite today to hear West call himself “the first n***a with a Benz and a backpack.” In that place and at that time, though, that meant something. That bridged a divide.

So Kanye West had one hit, and he had a buzz bigger than insects in Texas. But he still needed an even bigger out-of-nowhere crossover smash. He got it, though he sort of gave it away. “Slow Jamz” was halfway to being a novelty song, but the novelty worked, and the song took off. Technically, Kanye West was not the lead artist on “Slow Jamz.” That was Twista, the Chicago speed-rap specialist who hadn’t yet broken through beyond regional stardom. West and his managers gave the song away to Twista so that Twista’s label would pay for the video. “Slow Jamz” did big things for Twista. It gave him a platinum album, and it’s still his biggest song. But Kanye West was the clear star of “Slow Jamz,” and everyone who heard the song knew it.

I remember seeing Kanye West drop by 106 & Park during that “Slow Jamz” moment. He was just arriving for most of us, but the hosts seemed to know him well; he’d probably rapped at them in some office-building hallway god knows how many times. He crowed that “Slow Jamz” was about to go to #1, and then he clarified that he meant the R&B chart, since “‘Hey Ya!’ ain’t going nowhere on the pop charts.” But “Hey Ya!” eventually did slide down the pop charts, and “Slow Jamz” went all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Twista had already put “Slow Jamz” on his album, but it showed up on The College Dropout, too, and it made perfect sense there.

Kanye West went way, way over-budget when making The College Dropout. He kept adding things to every track — gospel choirs, pianos, guitars. His backup singer John Legend added melodic sweetening to eight different songs. Rap violinist Miri Ben-Ari got a lot of work, too. The samples couldn’t have come cheap: not just Chaka Khan on “Through The Wire” and Luther Vandross on “Slow Jamz” but also Marvin Gaye, the Dells, Mandrill, Bette Midler, Michael Bolton’s old band Blackjack. The cusses on “School Spirit” are edited out because Aretha Franklin wouldn’t clear the release otherwise. Lauryn Hill agreed to the Unplugged sample on “All Falls Down,” but then she changed her mind at the last minute, and West had to get R&B singer Syleena Johnson to re-record those parts.

Kanye West pulled in lots of favors to make College Dropoout. He got guest appearances from Talib Kweli, Common, Ludacris. Def Jam boss Lyor Cohen agreed to a bigger budget when he heard Luda’s slightly listless “Breathe In, Breathe Out” hook, and it must’ve been a real temptation to release that one as a single. Jay-Z recorded his “Never Let Me Down” verse at the 11th hour, the same night that he played his Madison Square Garden farewell show. Since The College Dropout came out during Jay’s fake retirement, every new verse from him felt like an event. On the day of the album’s release, people knew who Kanye West was. In the first week that The College Dropout was in stores, 400,000 of us bought the album. That’s an unfathomable number today. At the time, it was a lot, but it wasn’t quite enough to knock Norah Jones out of the #1 spot.

Even when The College Dropout came out, Kanye West faced resistance. In an otherwise-complimentary Rolling Stone review, Jon Caramanica wrote that West wasn’t “quite MC enough to hold down the entire disc,” and that was not a fringe opinion. Plenty of other rap nerds complained about West’s thin drum sound, and West took radical steps to fix that flaw on later records. I remember getting exhausted with West’s constant media appearances, thinking maybe I was sick of the guy, and then listening to The College Dropout again and realizing that no, I was still on board.

The record simply couldn’t be denied. It was energetic and soulful and goofy and overstuffed. It was often ridiculous. In a time when the rap-album skit was being phased out, West crammed in so many skits that he put two of them back-to-back. West was so fixated on the futility of college that it was immediately clear he was still trying to justify his life decisions to his college-professor mother. (My parents were college professors, too, so I know how that shit goes. And anyway, Kanye was at least right that college is a scam.) West was so excited about his own story that he spent 13 damn minutes telling it on “Last Call,” and he was talented enough that even that was entertaining. And even when West was trying to deliver big and annoying messages, as on “Jesus Walks,” he still told jokes. They sounded like jokes, anyway.

Today, I find The College Dropout to be slightly rough going — not really because of Kanye West’s total drag of a present-day self but more because I’ve just heard the damn thing too many times. It’s like Nevermind or Pulp Fiction — cultural touchstones so omnipresent that they become slightly boring. I could probably rap “Get ‘Em High” or “Never Let Me Down” in my sleep, and I could live the rest of my life happily without hearing “Jesus Walks” or “All Falls Down” or any of those fucking skits ever again. But even with those songs, I remember how alive I felt when I first heard them. And with some of those songs, I still get the feeling. “School Spirit” and “Family Business” are still perfect songs. “The New Workout Plan,” which everyone pretended to hate when it was new, is more fun than many people still want to admit.

When The College Dropout came out, Kanye West started playing arenas for the first time — just him, A-Trak, and John Legend together as the opening act for the spectacle of Usher’s Confessions tour. I bet it wasn’t fun to get blown off the stage every night, but this was Usher’s imperial year, and Kanye West attached himself to another cultural juggernaut. When you’re in the right place at the right time often enough, those moments stop looking like coincidences. It starts to look like elite-level skill, or maybe divine intervention.

Soon, the barriers crumbled before Kanye West’s eyes. The early hiccups in his career fueled his fire, and people rooted for him. Within a month, people were trying to dress like him. West lost all the big general-interest Grammys to the usual chaotic jumble of prestige crap — John Mayer, Maroon 5, a Ray Charles duets album — but it was a big deal that he was even nominated in his rookie year. Critics fell in love with West. The College Dropout won the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, dunking on Brian Wilson’s Smile and Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose and the self-titled Franz Ferdinand album. (West liked Franz Ferdinand. He said their sound was “white crunk.”) Robert Christgau wrote that West “proved as deft and surprising a recalibrator of African American crossover as young Barack Obama.” At the time, Obama was just about to be elected to the Senate. Maybe that was good timing on West’s part, too.

People have a hard time letting go of The College Dropout. I get it. The College Dropout is a time-and-place album, but in that time and place, it was a revelation. You could be dorky and awkward and self-consciously brainy and vaguely off-putting, and you could still find A-list rap stardom. You didn’t have to be an invulnerable superhero like 50 Cent. You could be a freaky little freak. To freaky little freaks around the world, that was inspiring. Many of us forged emotional connections to this guy, or to the version of this guy that existed in our heads.

We have to let it go. The College Dropout still exists, but that version of this guy does not. To this day, Kanye can’t do anything to alienate certain segments of the public. The brands have walked away, and so have many of the fans, but his fellow performers haven’t. West still has great, acclaimed artists lining up to work with him. According to its latest tracklist teaser thing, his new album, if it ever comes out, will have appearances from Future, Playboi Carti, Freddie Gibbs, Kid Cudi, Lil Durk, Leon Bridges, James Blake. It’ll probably do pretty well, too. Kanye West built up so much goodwill that he can’t even set it all on fire when he tries really, really hard.

West’s new thing is running around in T-shirts for Nazi black metal bands. At this point, after all the shit he’s said and done, people can’t even be bothered to get too outraged about that. Yes, Kanye West knows what that means. Yes, he wants you to get upset about it. These days, any reaction at all feels like taking the bait. Best to just walk away and pay attention to other things instead.

When The College Dropout celebrated its 10th anniversary, my friend Ryan Leas wrote the Anniversary piece for this website, and he ended it like this: “Reflecting on his debut on its tenth birthday accentuates how Kanye has consistently demanded, earned, and had our attention from the moment his debut arrived. It’s been a strange trip from The College Dropout to nucleus. Look forward to the next ten years.” Oh, buddy. Oh, no. I can tell you right now: I do not look forward to the next 20 years.

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