Imagine this: it’s 2004 and the Hip-Hop scene is still thriving off of gangster culture. It’s dominated by do-rags, basketball jerseys and guys with criminal histories that hail from lower-income backgrounds and talk about life in the streets. That is, until an esteemed music producer from middle-class Chicago by the name of Kanye West jumpstarted his mainstream rapping career with the culture-shifting, immortal “The College Dropout” in 2004.
Of course, impossible to talk about West without talking about his status as one of, if not the greatest Hip-Hop producer of all time. And there’s no Hip-Hop album with a better collection of soulful beats, rhythm and blues throwbacks and jazzy interludes than “College Dropout.” Listen to the dynamism of “We Don’t Care,” the album’s first full-on track, or the spacey and chilling beat behind “Spaceship.” Even “I’ll Fly Away,” a cover of Albert Brumley’s original song, is a gorgeous rendition of vocalizations and a faint, but hopeful piano.
His production mostly stands out in terms of how he builds rhythm into his music. This includes the fleeting, but evocative drums that lead into the verses of “Jesus Walks” from its choruses. It also includes the phenomenal and lively drums of “The New Workout Plan” – especially it’s last minute and a half, when West starts a double-time clap that perfectly syncs in with the song’s apex.
My personal favorite song,“Slow Jamz,” involves slick rapping by West and a catchy hook over a chill, romantic and percussion-dominated instrumental. Wait until you hear Twista’s verse.
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when West wasn’t so cocky! Well, actually, that’s not entirely true, as he still showcases his confidence through numerous tracks on the album often talking about his successes, but remember that this is at the beginning of his rapping career. Most of his content is still relatable, Jesus parallels aside.
Take a look at his views on greed and sin in “Jesus Walks,” or consumerism and self-worth in “All Falls Down.” Even “Through the Wire,” an all-time classic track where West recounts a car accident and raps with his jaw literally still wired together (it’s obvious if you hear the song), says something about determination and fighting against the odds.
Sure; his lyrics aren’t exactly Talib Kweli or Lupe Fiasco level, but they’re still effective and worth listening to - and certainly more socially conscious than something that an artist like Ja Rule or 50 Cent might have talked about in their songs.
The only problem I have with the album would be the sketches, which become tiresome after many listens. Yet keep in mind that they provide a sense of fluidity to the album from track to track. Skits are also a mainstay on most rap albums, so I wouldn’t hold this against West too much.
Overall, “The College Dropout” is a hip-hop masterpiece that still retains all of its beauty – if not more – today in an era of rappers who sing and produce their own material, just like West does now. It’s simply a must-listen-to album for both hip-hop fans and music lovers alike. You can definitely doubt West in some other areas – like his proclamation that he was going to run for president – but when it comes to music, he has proven himself to definitely be more than just a college dropout.