On February 10, 2004, a debut project from an unknown producer-turned-rapper was released and the course of hip-hop would be forever changed. Of course, I'm talking about Kanye West's The College Dropout. The album was essentially an overnight success, receiving rave reviews and has been argued to be one of the best debuts in hip-hop since Nas' Illmatic, which was released a decade before Dropout. When West stepped into the spotlight, he confidently told us that rap culture isn't all about the "gangsta" persona and that that style was beginning to phase out. In an era where aggressive East Coast hip-hop (50 Cent, Missy Elliott) and lean-infused, Southern party anthems (Nelly, Ludacris, Chingy) were dominating the airwaves, Kanye single-handedly gave us a little taste of the Midwest.
Nicknamed the "Louis Vuitton Don," West wasn't afraid to rock pink polos from Abercrombie & Fitch and casually walk around with a knapsack. He was telling us that you could still live a rapper lifestyle, come from the middle-class, dress however you want, and still be taken as a serious emcee. At an impressionable 13 years old, I was captivated by this. He was so different and out there, but in his own particular way. I needed to know every single detail about this man's life.
Let me take it back for a moment.
In November of 2003, three months prior to The College Dropout's release, Jay-Z's The Black Album dropped and I remember it being his "retirement" album. (No one retires from hip-hop. No one.) That was the first rap album I remember buying with my own money and it was also the album that secured me as a Jay fan. He had instantly become my favorite rapper at that very moment of my life. It only took me seven years and eight albums into Jay's career to really embrace his music. I was far too young to truly appreciate hip-hop when Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint came out. So, still, at 13 years old, The Black Album made my head explode. At the time, physical CDs were still the biggest way to consume music (MP3s were on the up-and-up) and I distinctly recall that inside of the pitch black, jewel case was a tiny flyer for upcoming projects from other Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam artists. I was just starting to build my personal CD library at the time, so seeing a flyer in a case puzzled me at first, but for all I knew, that was a normal thing to do. One of the projects promoted on that flyer was for none other than West's The College Dropout, which showed that it was expected to be released in February of 2004. I was intrigued.
I remember seeing that name somewhere before and then realized, "Oh. That's that 'Through the Wire' guy!" I remember seeing the music video all over MTV '03 and finding out that he somehow made that song when his jaw was wired shut after a fatal car accident. I thought that was insane and wondered how that was even possible. It was a literal miracle to me. How'd he do that? Have you tried rapping along to that song with your jaw clenched shut? It's incredibly difficult. I quickly understood why Jay-Z was a strong believer in this dude. I was also curious to see what else Kanye was capable of. Going back to The Black Album, I flipped through the pages of the credits/notes booklet that was in the CD case and saw that Kanye West had actually produced two of the 14 tracks. One of them was"Encore", which is easily one of my personal favorite Jay-Z songs of all time.
I had powered my way through "December 4th" and "What More Can I Say", both outstanding songs. And then the horns on "Encore" came on. The sample of John Holt's "I Will" began, Jay thanked the roaring crowd for being "far too kind", the drums kicked in, and then the song blasted off into space. It's key that I mention at this point that I'm a beat-listener before I'm a lyric-listener, but I think it's safe to say that that's the case for many music listeners. Everyone likes a good beat, right? So when I heard the rhythm play on "Encore", I knew Kanye West was on another level and was blessed with a gift. You can instantaneously hear the hard work, craftsmanship, and perfectionism that goes into his production.
Later in the album, on "Lucifer", Jay shouts out West at the very beginning by exclaiming, "Kanyeezy, you did it again! You a genius, n***a!" as another memorable beat commences. Little did we know that "Kanye" and "genius" would always go hand-in-hand. One of the first bars of the song is "I'm from the murder capital, where they murder for capital" (clever) and West would go on to borrow and interpolate this same exact line on "Murder to Excellence" on their joint album, Watch the Throne. Their collaborative effort was released seven years after The Black Album. How that all came full circle was BERSERK.
Flipping it back over to The College Dropout, I was getting impatient as the release date was creeping closer. Now that I did some homework of my own, I now knew who Kanye West was, what's he's previously created for other artists, and I was ready for his solo project where he'd be behind the mic this time, but still maintaining 100% of the production. After discovering he was the mastermind behind monster hits like Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)", Ludacris' "Stand Up", and Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name", it could only go up from there. Those are some of these respective artists' best songs in their entire catalogs. If he let A-listers like them have those beats, what did he save for himself? What was he creating?
A masterpiece. That's what The College Dropout was, and still is, a decade-and-a-half later. It's perfect in every sense and has been named one of the best albums of the early 2000s. Is it his best album ever? That's a debate for another day. (It's not.) (It's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.) I remember my mom taking me to a local Best Buy to pick up my copy on release day, immediately ripping it open, popping it into my CD player, and let it play out. I'm fairly certain that The College Dropout is the first album I listened to where I heard the beat and the lyrics at the same exact time. No more beat-first for me. Kanye changed my entire perspective on music. He changed the way I listen. Who else has that capability? You can always remember when and where you hear something special, and February 10th was one of those days.
For 76 minutes straight, I was in a state of complete euphoria. From children singing the line, "Drug dealin' just to get by / Stack your money 'til it gets sky high" to an epic 13-minute outro, I was sold on the artist known as Kanye West.
From that day forward, I have established myself as a Kanye West stan, as preposterous as that sounds. It was at that point in my adolescence that I had already known that he was destined to become a legend. It's because of him that I have certain perceptions about music and became more open to various genres. It's because of him that I became passionate about music in the first place. It's because of him that I even have this blog. So, to conclude and to honor the 15 year anniversary of The College Dropout, I wanted to share my favorite bars from each individual track. Enjoy.
We Don't Care
"'Cause ain't no tuition for having no ambition
And ain't no loans for sitting your ass at home"
-- A motivating Ye right off the bat is a Ye I immediately got on board with.
All Falls Down
"It seem we livin' the American Dream
But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
For the road to riches and diamond rings"
-- This is some of the realest shit I've ever heard in a rap song.
"Y'all can't match my hustle, you can't catch my hustle
You can't fathom my love, dude, lock yourself in a room
Doing 5 beats a day for 3 summers"
-- Imagine having this much ambition and focus at a young age. Amazing.
"So here go my single, dawg, radio needs this
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, videotape
But if I talk about God my record won't get played, huh?"
-- What's funny is that it did get played and became one of his best singles of all time.
Never Let Me Down
"At the tender age of 6 she was arrested for the sit-ins
And with that in my blood I was born to be different"
-- A true mama's boy, but is quick to point out that he already knew his greatness was inevitable.
Get Em High
"N-n-n-now, my flow
Is in the pocket like wallets, I got the bounce like hydraulics
I can't call it, I got the swerve like alcohol-ics"
-- The way he delivers these opening bars in that particular cadence is too smooth. I thizz face every time I hear it.
The New Workout Plan
"That's right, put in work, move your ass, go berserk
Eat your salad, no dessert, get that man you deserve"
-- Not a lot to choose from on this track (it's my least favorite), but I love the fact that John Legend wrote these lines.
"She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson"
-- Instantly iconic.
Breathe In Breathe Out
"Pullin' up in the Lexuses, one on both hand So I guess them GSes was ambidextrious"
-- The purposeful ignorance and arrogance matched with his swagger and confidence is incredible here
"Told 'em I finished school and I started my own business They say 'Oh, you graduated?' No, I decided I was finished Chasing y'all dreams and what you've got planned Now I spit it so hot, you got tanned"
-- *fire emoji* *fire emoji* *fire emoji*
"One wall twenty plaques, dues paid, gimme that I am limelight, Blueprint five mics"
-- Ye was already a decorated producer before he became an MC and he wants you to know that he isn't messing around.
Through The Wire
"And I still won't grow up, I'm a grown-ass kid"
-- Not only is this still true, but it's a line I grew up to relate to.
"I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind A creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns"
-- Kanye is above all that unneccessary violence and it's admirable.
"I take my chain, my 15 seconds of fame And come back next year with the whole fucking game"
"'Oh my god, is that a black card?' I turned around and replied, 'Why yes But I prefer the term African American Express'"
"Killin y'all niggas on that lyrical shit Mayonnaise-colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips"
-- At nearly 13 minutes long, I had to pick three sets of bars. The first statement came true as Late Registration was the best album of 2005. No sophomore slump for this guy. The second and third sets are just simply hilarious and extremely ingenious.
Here's to another 15 years of music and milestones to the G.O.A.T., Mr. West. Thank you for literally changing my life.