It’s been almost ten years since Kanye West’s debut The College Dropout hit stores (and Kazaa Lite), and that's long enough to comfortably confirm its cementation, as not only a bona-fide hip hop classic, but a cornerstone for modern rap music.
I’m not going to front and pretend that I heard The College Dropout when it came out, because I didn’t. I was twelve years old and too busy picking my nose and making love to my PlayStation. But, to the majority that did, The College Dropout was a sensationally produced breath of fresh air, free from the constraints of gangster rap and ready to tackle real life problems, like college degrees and family dynamics.
Roll around to the present day and Kanye is not only the closest thing that hip-hop has to a physical deity but also a 10.0 Pitchfork scoring artist who, if black and white photographs still existed, would be blu-tacked up to future generation’s bedrooms with all the fierce iconography of pop culture figures of past.
As part of a new series for You Need To Hear This we’re going to be delving into the DNA of life-changing records by artists who continue to push the boundaries of modern music. So, with that said, let’s delve back into the album that lit the match to the rocket of the Louis Vuitton Don’s success.
The DNA of The College Dropout
It seems almost absurd to think that Yeezy’s debut abum was rejected from a hoard of A&Rs before it was finally given the Roc-A-Fella stamp of approval. But, despite producing a bunch of hits for the likes of Talib Kweli, Cam’Ron and Jay’s opus, The Blueprint, it’s true. Frequently, while cashing his production cheques, he’d pop into the Def Jam offices and play demos of his hip hop material to then A&R man Chris Anotuke, begging him to sign him and bemoaning the fact that no one was taking him seriously as a rapper. Unfortunately, he was seen as a producer first, and, really, nothing else. Stupidly, a bunch of people neglected to sign Kanye even after he played them one of his best songs of all time.
“So, I’ll play them these post-Blueprint beats or whatever and then I’ll play my shit. I’ll be like, “Yo, but I rap too.”… I played them “Jesus Walks” and they didn’t sign me.”
See kids? If Kanye can’t get signed after playing “Jesus Walks,” don’t weep too hard when your bedroom-pop procrastination project doesn’t get a re-blog on your friend’s Tumblr. It might just be that now isn’t your time.
Eventually, after playing around with a bunch of A&Rs, Kanye secured a deal with Capitol Records. Ultimately, though, it fell through. If you listen to the lyrics of "Last Call", it’s quite sad, because Yeezy had everything planned out.
“Man, I had picked out clothes, I already started booking studio sessions, I started arranging my album, thinking of marketing schemes. Man, I was ready to go.”
In the end, Damon Dash, being full of selfishness, reluctantly signed Kanye to Def Jam, as a result of not wanting him to defect to other labels.
A bunch of execs didn’t want to sign Kanye because he wasn’t street enough, or, in his words “I guess they was lookin’ at me crazy ‘cause you know, ‘cause I ain’t have a jersey on or whatever”. But, those people were blinded by stale conceptions of hip-hop. The College Dropout wasn’t street music. It wasn’t fight music. It was life music. In Kanye’s own words, The College Dropout was themed around “[thinking] about whatever you’ve been through in the past week”. It’s a statement that, unlike many of Yeezy’s ball-breakers (“I have, like, a nuclear power, like a superhero, like Cyclops when he puts his glasses on”) sounded honest and true. I guess he really did wake up early one morning with a new state of mind and a creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns, because, The College Dropout skipped across subjects as far flung as religion (“Jesus Walks”), America's broken education system (“School Spirit”), misplaced materialism in Black America (“All Falls Down”), the modern family (“Family Business”), and appearances (“New Workout Plan”). It sounded different and it sounded amazing.
While the thematics behind The College Dropout can be pinpointed to its success, the record wouldn’t sound half as brilliant without its luscious production. Solely produced by Kanye – using the techniques he’d spent the last few years honing for Jigga – The College Dropout not only sounded different lyrically, but sonically, too.
In between digging on his boss at the Gap (“School Spirit”) and critiquing the working world (“Spaceship”) Kanye meticulously weaved old soul samples - Chaka Khan on “Through The Wire” and Jamie Foxx on “Slow Jamz” – with layers of gospel (“I’ll Fly Away”).
I’m sure that a bunch of rappers before Kanye have probably sampled both gospel and soul records, but it’s irrelevant. On a debut record by a new hip-hop artist, ditching the formulaic structure of hip-hop for something a little organic is an extremely brave move and it paid off. For a kid, like myself, who only owned one other hip hop record at the time – Nellyville – it sounded refreshingly different. Now, almost ten years on and with a record collection reaching far into the thousands, The College Dropout is STILL one of the freshest records that I own. Somehow, Kanye managed to make music sound religious. If you don’t believe me, listen to “Never Let Me Down” after dousing a bad week with a bottle of cheap vodka, and it’ll probably be the most cathartic thing you’ll ever experience.
The Mesh Of Underground And Hip Hop Heavyweights
Because Kanye had just about forced himself into the world of hip-hop on his own, he gave a leg-up to a bunch of other artists. On “Never Let Me Down” he meshed together the poetical underground of J.Ivy with the all-illuminati-everything elite of Jay-Z. Other tracks saw conscious raps collective partnership of Talib Kweli & Common battling together “Get ‘Em High” while “Spaceship” featured both GLC and Consequence.
Unlike other rap albums of the past, the features on The College Dropout added, rather than detracted to the record, seemingly planned with precision rather than tacked on as a last minute grab for some extra sales.