Storytime with Sten: An album, a sweatshirt, a paradox


The album that inspired the sweatshirt: The College Dropout by Kanye West. (Charles Laine/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Someone I’m close with gifted me a sweatshirt for Christmas. There is a cartoon teddy bear in the center of three words, written in bold gold letters: The College Dropout. This has quickly become my favorite article of clothing.

I had wanted this sweatshirt for a while. Its words refer to a seminal work of music by a one Kanye West; his debut project, and in the minds of many critics, his magnum opus. Whenever people question the legitimacy of Kanye’s claims of genius, I point them to The College Dropout, every song telling a story, a young Kanye brash with his sense of greatness but humbled under the weight of a black American musical legacy, and Jay-Z’s cosign. It’s unadulterated soul, it’s relatable, it’s witty and biting. It is without comparison musically, and it is a part of the man I am today.

But at the grocery store, the cashier, an old woman, cautions me against this brand of delinquency.

“Don’t do it,” she says, pointing to my sweatshirt. “Trust me, I would know.”

I assure her it’s only the name of an album I like.

The bemused looks I receive from passerby are understandable. You’re obviously one of us, they probably think. Why the need to differentiate yourself? What are you, ironic?

Perhaps. But maybe it’s true. Maybe I will drop out. I go through my days so certain of graduation, but how could I ever know the universe’s plan for me? Some of our most noteworthy intellectuals and artists have avoided college. Is being here a mistake?

Sure, I’ll admit I like the irony of an active college student sporting the sweatshirt, but I also like reppin’ Kanye and this particular release of his. I can think with nostalgia about when he wasn’t supporting Donald Trump, or dissing Jay-Z or doing other outrageous things. Back to when he was a pure beatmaker, a producer of depth, not only from himself, but in other musicians, always highlighting their most flattering characteristics in their features on his songs (he has made Rick Ross sound good, found the perfect niche for Rihanna, and brought out one of J. Cole’s hardest verses, to name a few examples); before Kim Kardashian, when he’d challenge Mos Def to freestyles, when his raps resembled spoken word poetry. It was simpler, then.

Of course I miss the old Ye’. Except people probably say that about me too.

My best friend from growing up and I would bump this album in his mom’s car back in the day. She’d even rap along. “School Spirit” was a favorite (if you don’t play that on your first week at college, you’re doing it wrong). As was “Jesus Walks,” “Two Words,” “Slow Jamz,” “Breathe In Breathe Out,” “Spaceship,” “All Falls Down,” “Through The Wire,” “Family Business,” “Never Let Me Down,” “Last Call,” “Get Em High,” “We Don’t Care,” oh, wait, that’s the whole album.

And so when I saw that friend for the first time in a year a couple weeks back, I had to wear the sweatshirt. He dapped me up immediately, saying only, “Nice.”

We are an ornamental society, so my father took me to a tailor last week for a suit fitting, as I’ll be having interviews for internships and jobs and grad schools coming up, with me graduating and maturing and all.

I walked into Nordstrom’s with the sweatshirt on, only taking it off to put the navy blue suit jacket and pants on. Admiring myself in the mirror, a woman behind me, the wife of a man adjacent to me, quipped, “You look nice. Much better than the sweatshirt.” I grinned at my reflection.

“I like the sweatshirt.”

Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at

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