God’s Freshman Year: Kanye West’s ‘The College Dropout’ Turns 10
Try to recall just how embattled hip-hop was just a decade ago. Starting at the end of the '90s and hitting a fever pitch by the mid-2000s, the story was that Puff Daddy and his shiny-suit shenanigans had made a mockery of real rap, while a then-burgeoning underground scene savvy enough to market itself as the stalwart alternative — never forget that king-making backpack-rap label Rawkus Records was started by Rupert Murdoch's son! — was fighting the good fight for lyricism and social responsibility and all that good stuff.
But when Kanye West's debut album, The College Dropout, arrived on February 11, 2004, it loudly announced what plenty of rap heads who preferred neither faction were already whispering to one another: Neither side's got it right! The record revealed that hip-hop's culture wars were fueled by the narcissism of small differences: It just took a true narcissist to call everybody out and bridge the gap. His production style? The over-the-top Michael Bay boom-bap of Puff himself mixed with the crate-digging classicism of Pete Rock-informed classicist beat-makers like J. Dilla. Declaring himself the “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack,” the visionary producer — and incredibly clever and charmingly clunky MC — seemed to get a sick thrill out of pairing, say, Mos Def with Freeway. (Because they sounded great together, but also because they secretly weren't all that different.) He also got a then fairly impervious-on-record Jay-Z to do a goofy guffaw on the final track, threw a downright goofy AutoTune breakdown (in '04, mind you) onto a track about female body image that took plenty of cheap shots at women's bodies itself, and rapped about Jesus and middle-class struggles and blowjobs with equal aplomb.
To mark the 10th anniversary of The College Dropout, SPIN has asked a different writer to take on each track (grouped together with the skits where appropriate), affording this knotty record — one famous for skirting easy answers — the multifaceted, often contradictory celebration it deserves. Enjoy. BRANDON SODERBERG
1.God's Freshman Year: Kanye West's 'The College Dropout' Turns 10
2."Intro" / "We Don't Care" / "Graduation Day"
The Louis Vuitton backpack was paired meticulously with the fusty brown-wool blazer, itself layered immaculately against the chunky-knit Ralph Lauren Polo sweater with the oversized bear logo; this was anchored by self-consciously just-baggy-enough jeans and limited-edition Nike kicks. It was a "first day back at school" outfit hailed as a remarkable act of balance — a juggling of the jiggy with the scholarly, a steady equilibrium of aspirational glamour and underground ethics. Kanye West's 2004 wardrobe was framed as a foppish metaphor for rap's halcyon Golden Era, when you could happily listen to both De La Soul and N.W.A., where smart raps and street content weren't cast as eternal foes. But his inaugural solo outing at rap-industry school wasn't a case of resurrecting the ideal of balance — it was an attempt to gain the approval of everyone, all at once. Right from the start, the great behind-the-scenes-producer turned rap savior was nourishing his own ego, not hip-hop's health.
The album that accompanied Kanye's 2004 collection was sparked by a curt introduction performed by a perturbed principal: "Kanye, can I talk to you for a minute?" he barks, before requesting the precocious dropout make "something beautiful." The opening bars of what 'Ye calls "the perfect song for the kids to sing" seems to stick to the syllabus, with a just-so-slightly sped-up sample of break-beat staple Jimmy Castor's "I Just Wanna Stop" conjuring a joyful and euphoric feel-good rap backdrop over which Kanye can bound around and hand out candy to the kids.
His rap swagger at this point was Grand Puba redux — he just fancied up the Brand Nubian leader's Hilfiger knapsack. With a cocksure flow, three verses unfold that bond supposed opposites: Drug money fuels the next generations's tuition fees, Jacob jewels pair with bootleg mixtapes, the short bus gets flipped for the souped-up whip. The sensation is uplifting, but by the time the song ends, it's like a scene from Glee: The cloying chorus might as well be lead by Lea Michele and her suburbanite students as they chime in unison, "Drug dealing just to get by / Stack ya money 'till it get sky high / We wasn't supposed to make it past 25 / Joke's on you, we still alive." The reverie is then abruptly terminated — sonically and in sentiment — as the principal's voice cuts in and calls a halt to the proceedings. Kanye at this point has been revealed as a gifted class clown who turned out to be smarter than everyone.
As the album's opening track, "We Don't Care" set a tone for not just The College Dropout, but for Kanye's career to come. That sense of idealism slowly degraded from there — he can be awfully bitter these days, despite his wealth and fame — but the common theme of his music remains his endless quest for attention and approval. This is a harbringer of award-show rants to come. "We Don't Care" offers a less abrasive version of his current "How much do I not give a fuck?" attitude — and it shows that from the outset, Kanye was savvy enough to know that sometimes, the easiest way to court attention is to say that you don't care about attention. PHILLIP MLYNAR
3."All Falls Down"
On YouTube, you can find a 2003 Def Poetry Jam performance by Kanye West. Introduced as “the future of hip-hop” by Mos Def, West walks out in a very regular-dude outfit of loose-fit jeans and a long-sleeve under a tee, mumbles into the mic that he wants “to be the best-dressed rapper,” and then launches into a sprightly spoken-word rendition of “All Falls Down.”
This was pre-College Dropout, and some phrases and cadences are jumbled, plus there’s no strummy, sing-song Syleena Johnson chorus to serve as a reprieve from all the bright ideas spilling from his still-healing metal-plated jaw. But it’s still prescient. West is kinetic; the soon-to-be-piercing swing blade of his bravado is comparatively dull, so he makes up for it with physicality, leaning into his punch lines, swapping verses for voices and smiles for scowls. He stands strong, chest braced against the new weight of his Roc-A-Fella chain. It’s a swerving sermon and a pithy introduction to the themes — chicks, clothes, capitalism, consciousness — that he remains preoccupied with to this day.
After the redemptive chest-thumping of “Through The Wire” and the told-y’all radio-baiting of “Slow Jamz” (West’s first No. 1 hit), the bratty, middle class-y pseudo-moralizing here was jarring. At the time, rap was still intellectually divided between radio/mainstream and underground/"backpack"; West’s 20 Feet From Stardom-style desire to transcend his just-a-producer role gave him cachet among both sets. “All Falls Down” is the rare track that brings those worlds together.
On the one hand, it's a pseudo-intersectional social and economic critique of inequity, both self-perpetuated and systemic, with a hook sampling neo-soul goddess Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity.” On the other hand, it’s a party anthem, documenting Kanye’s pre-existing obsession with embracing fashion and ditching hood signifiers (“Pass that Ver-say-ce” is the original “What she order, fish fillet?”), with a video featuring a bouncy Stacey Dash, her soul still intact.
This conscious-meets-club theme has carried through to the Yeezus era, but “All Falls Down” is a less convoluted, beautifully articulated, funny iteration of “New Slaves” and its race-class polemic. It is Kanye, distilled. Which is to say that it’s what West has been saying all along. As the music moved away from the soulful style heard here toward something more opaque, and his raps became obfuscated by wealth — a totally valid, though unrelatable, perspective — he never quite lost his ability to play the dozens on himself. The “Bound 2” video shows he can still do it if he wants; he just has different shit to say now.
Like a lot of rappers, ’Ye has often offered unsolicited opinions on what women do, and what they should do. Here, he’s gentler (unjaded?) and more playful, casting his female foil as a fellow college dropout addicted to Airs, but burdened with a baby-daddy who doesn’t give a shit. It’s a lot more nuanced and ally-minded than Yeezus’ spiteful “second-string bitches” trying to get babies. In the second verse, he creates a brilliant defense of his own materialism that — wait, a second. Why don’t we have this on blast every time Lorde and Macklemore toss out value statements on rap? Kanye: “We shine because they hate us, floss 'cause they degrade us / We’re trying to buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper look how low we stoop / Even if you’re in a Benz, you’re still a n*gga in a coupe.”
Then, in the third verse, after reminding us that it’s always a white dude who holds the real power in Western capitalist society, he holds a hand up to his detractors. The last bars detail Ye's decision to forego buying property to pick up a chain from Jacob the Jeweler ("And I’d do it again") while ignoring his past-due bills. And then comes the clincher: “We’re all self-conscious / I’m just the first to admit it.” Before Drake's confessional semi-honesty (offset, of course, by his own claims of immense fame and wealth), there was Kanye West. ANUPA MISTRY
4."I'll Fly Away" / "Spaceship"
Kanye West fans who were incensed last year by the brand-obsession-as-mental-slavery message of "New Slaves" — and by the invocation of Billie Holiday's classic Civil Rights protest song "Strange Fruit" on "Blood on the Leaves" (a song about a man feeling strangled by monogamy that samples a song about lynchings) — should note that it's a trick he's pulled before. He did it ten years ago on The College Dropout, shoehorning the old peace-in-the-afterlife spiritual "I'll Fly Away" square in the middle of "All Falls Down" and "Spaceship," two tales of twentysomethings settling for grunt work when a better life awaits.
"Spaceship" pulls the spotlight off the overworked unwed mother of "All Falls Down" to train it on the artist himself, outlining Kanye's pre-rap career as a department-store drone at the Gap. If the "single black female addicted to retail" jab in "All Falls Down" was too harsh, "Spaceship" swoops in to show an MC sympathetic to the struggle, because he's been there too. "Spaceship" is full of bile for employers who paid in peanuts and treated Kanye like a petty thief, all the while accentuating his blackness to feign diversity. It advances The College Dropout's leveraging of self-deprecating humor with caustic social commentary, adding a dollop of "Take This Job and Shove It" in the violent I-quit fantasy of the opening couplet.
The verses here are equal parts "Everyday Struggle" and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," a life's calling in hip-hop teased out of a crucible of adversity, but the real grit comes from G.O.O.D. Music 1.0 mainstays GLC and Consequence, who complement Kanye's success story with a measure of hard luck and actual failure. GLC dispenses with the legalities in verse two as he recounts his passage from a life of crime to a gig "putting pants on them shelves" at a clothing store before lucking out when 'Ye hit the big leagues. Consequence, meanwhile, pipes in about A&R's stonewalling him after a fleeting stint in A Tribe Called Quest petered out.
"Spaceship" is an outlier in West's discography because its bluesy waltz-time sturm und drang is a technique he'd scarcely employ on a solo album again ("Drunk and Hot Girls," aside), but also because its started-from-the-bottom approach isn't a story he can tell anymore as a legacy hip-hop heavyweight and an entrepreneur who spent all of 2013 trying to literally scare up venture capital for a clothing line. He'd return to the theme on Graduation's "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "The Glory," and "Good Life"; all three of those tracks, though, trade the air of uncertainty here for the surety of triumph.
Haute-couture Kanye has been the death of everyman Kanye, but he's figured out a way to tap back into the aspirational, conscious-rap heft of his college trilogy. Through literary devices like the rap game/crack game metaphor of Late Registration's "Crack Music" and the protagonists of dubious morality in the vindictive baby-daddy trifecta of "Gold Digger," "All of the Lights," and "Blood on the Leaves," he's since darted outside the colossal machinery of his stardom to speak for and about the streets. But he started here. CRAIG JENKINS
Back when they thought pink polos would hurt the Roc producer, Kanye West met with label executives with a song seemingly even less marketable than he was — an earnest devotional to Jesus Christ sampling Harlem's Addicts Rehabilitation Center choir. The unshakeable confidence that would soon become his hallmark proved industry heads wrong then, too: "Jesus Walks" went on to win a Grammy for Best Rap Song and remains one of West's most popular tracks. Released as The College Dropout's fourth single, it represents Kanye's hermeneutics of the self, one bowed before a higher power and motivated by a faith in God's faith. And it's supremely successful because, like many of his songs, it's an inner monologue made public — a conversation about universal struggles, not a conversion narrative.
Kanye doesn't speak as a preacher here, but as a believer expressing the trait so often absent from the religious: yearning. Pious self-satisfaction wouldn't compel you the way his guileless, multi-tempo cadence can. He tells us plainly that "I want to talk to God but I'm afraid, because we ain't spoke in so long." The line speaks to the fundamentally human fear of rejection, from God or from anyone; the emotional honestly at the core of his music is what makes even this distinctly Christian song rich with meaning and accessible to so many.
All West's albums draw through-lines between the personal, the universal, and the social contexts between both. He bears witness to his flawed self via art that invites others to do the same, while simultaneously providing eminently listenable social commentary. The first verse of "Jesus Walks" contexualizes the unrest that shadows areas with little economic opportunity, describing the quality of life and adversity specific to the "the valley of the Chi where death is." The second verse challenges the industry to play a track that doesn't feature the trappings of a radio hit, and returns to meditate on Kanye's own resolutions: "If this take away from my spins... then I hope this take away from my sins."
Kanye's relationship to God is often interpreted as a self-identification. To be fair, he does have a song called "I Am a God," and a 2006 Rolling Stone cover depicting him as Christ, crowned with thorns. But he works beyond the simplicity and delusion his detractors project onto him. Kanye doesn't suffer from a God complex — he exhibits godliness, in all its human fallibility. And it's no more than the Bible itself perscribes, as Psalm 82 says: "You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High." If we are made in God's image, then living as if we reflect something bigger than ourselves is worship. If Jesus died for our sins, what is more prayerful than living with the conviction that you are worthy of that sacrifice?
"Jesus Walks" offers church minus The Church. And no where else does a personal paean sound so urgent than when backed by a military order to march and a gospel choir building to a crescendo as snares hiss to attention. Lesser artists reflect the zeitgeist; Kanye invites us into his psyche as a way to reflect on our own. What we so often see as bloated self-perception is his deliberate self-presentation. In the service of inspiring others, Kanye walks. AYESHA SIDDIQI
6."Never Let Me Down"
A guiding principle of The College Dropout is Kanye West's belief that God shepherds the downtrodden, whether they're lowly drug dealers or, in his case, a bright middle-class kid who dropped out of Chicago State University to pursue a music career. For him, abandoning the higher calling of academia — and, presumably, a staid middle-class life — for hip-hop is akin to finding common ground with the street folk who populate much of hip-hop culture. (Hence, the cliché "the rap game is like the crack game.") On "Never Let Me Down," he tells us why God is in us all.
Kanye would repeat this emphatically nearly a decade later in "I Am a God," and be widely misunderstood in the process. "Never Let Me Down" is more subtle. There is the chorus, sung by Ken Lewis and sped up into a chirpy blur: "When it comes to being true, at least true to me, one thing I've found is that you never let me down." (The words are a slight variation on a line from "Maybe It's the Power of Love" by the Michael Bolton-led '80s corporate rockers Blackjack.) Then Kanye answers, "Get up, I get…." "Down," adds Spencer's voice. The "you" is God, and as Kanye's "I" suggests, God lives in you.
Jay Z's two verses bookend "Never Let Me Down," and they initially seem contradictory to Kanye's spiritual fervor. The first verse is recycled from the 2002 track "Hovi Baby (Remix)." The second verse finds him on his Black Album shit, arguing for his continued relevance: "Clear the way, I'm here to stay / Y'all can save the chitter chat," he raps. "Hov's a living legend, and I'll tell you why / Everybody want to be Hov, but Hov's still alive."
More important is how Kanye uses Jay's raps. Together, they're the equivalent of A Tribe Called Quest's Phife and Q-Tip as they approach the track from opposite directions. Jay trumpets the God that he personifies; he is the living Jay Hova / Jehovah who brings hellfire to his foes. "When I start spitting them lyrics, niggas get very religious / Six Hail Marys, 'please father forgive us,'" he raps during his second verse. In his words, he is the Brooklyn thug who "snatched the charts," the hustler icon that Kanye valorizes throughout The College Dropout. "Imma be that nigga for life," he says during the recycled verse in an apparent allusion to NWA's efil4zaggiN. "It's not an image / This is God-given / This is hard livin' mixed with Cristal sippin'."
No other album before The College Dropout had so successfully espoused the big-tent theory of hip-hop culture. Kanye bridged chasms between conscious/backpacker (via co-production from Dilated Peoples' Evidence on "Last Call"), Southern rap (thanks to Ludacris' chorus on "Breathe In, Breathe Out"), and the East Coast street-hop that marked his pre-Dropout Roc-a-Fella productions. But his gaze always returns to Chicago, even though he'd long since left his hometown for New York (a transition he chronicled in the 2003 mixtape version of "Homecoming"). So he places J. Ivy, a star of the city's early-2000s spoken-word scene, at the center of "Never Let Me Down." The Def Poetry Jam alum's declarative phrases remind us that this song, for all its Christian underpinnings, is still a classic hip-hop striver's anthem.
"We're all here for a reason, on a particular path / You don't need a curriculum to know that you're a part of the math," says J. Ivy, his use of the word "curriculum" hearkening back to the album's title and central theme. "I get my hymns from him, so it's not me, it's He that's lyrical."
Kanye has never been shy about trumpeting his potential greatness. It is part of his DNA, a kingly heritage that descends from his family's participation in the Civil Rights tumult of the '60s. He raps, "I get down for my grandfather / Who took my mama / Made her sit in that seat where white folks didn't want us to eat / At the tender age of six, she was arrested for the sit-ins / And with that in my blood, I was born to be different." Heavenly inspiration and scrappy determination — these are motifs that Kanye has consistently revisited, from the aforementioned "I Am a God" to the gospel crescendos that spindle through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
"Never Let Me Down" is one of many reasons that he's given for his otherworldly ambition, but it may be one of his most gracefully understated. The syncopated bass and percussion add a swing to Glenn Jefferey's modest guitar chords. Tracie Spencer and John Legend's backing vocals are double-tracked to turn their voices into a small but mighty chorus. And Kanye the rapper is at his most persuasive here. He may have reneged later on some of his promises: "My girl's father passed away / So I promised to Mr. Rainey that I'm going to marry your daughter," he raps in reference to then-girlfriend Sukeme Rainey. But other lines seem prescient: "I can't complain what the accident did to my left eye / 'Cause look what an accident did to Left Eye / First Aaliyah, now Romeo must die? / I know I got angels watching me from the other side." Considering how his life has progressed since his 2002 near-fatal car accident, it's hard to argue with that. MOSI REEVES
7."Get Em High"
If there’s one thing Kanye West did exceptionally well on The College Dropout, it's the way he established himself as an outsider. Sure, by 2004, he'd already produced a slew of mainstream rap hits, including Top 10 bangers by Jay Z, Luda, and Talib Kweli. His production blueprint involved edited soul samples and key orchestral elements tinkling beneath the hooks; lyrically, he was a politically minded musician as obsessed with owning Versace as he was condemning institutionalized class-systems. But willing as he was to rep and be repped by his squad, the guy doesn't exactly fit in with his peers, and as time has shown, he likes it that way.
‘Ye, like his friend Kweli, grew up in a middle-class home reigned by a college-professor mother; more than anything, this record is an acknowledgement of his desire for an education of some kind. After all, he didn’t drop out of high school (a scholarship-funded art program in Chicago); he’s not an idiot. If anything, he wants us (and his mother, too) to know that ditching college was a proactive decision to not deal with the bullshit. The College Dropout wasn’t meant to be inspirational, necessarily, because it’s too personal for that. Kanye was an artsy weirdo and new-wave conscious rapper both by choice and by his environment’s design.
Not only does “Get ‘Em High” crash through the wall as a sign of ‘Ye’s knocking, drum-focused production prowess to come, but it highlights the rapper’s constant blend of insecurity and braggadocio. After catching the beat, Kanye goes in both on himself and his naysayers: “I give a fuck if you feel me / I’m gonna follow my heart." Though the line, like almost all of the zingers on his verse, comes with a qualifier; the moments of just-trying-to-live-out-here sincerity come with defensive rebuttals throughout.
That is, he’ll show you his charts, his plaques, and his money to prove that it’s working for him. He’ll reference Beck and call himself a loser, before turning back to bark at anyone else suggesting the same. Mention of his getting signed to Roc-a-fella by Dame Dash comes with the caveat that they’re both assholes. He calls himself a bastard and then immediately threatens to “cut your girl” (an aggressive sex act!) like Pastor Troy. Banging girls to make himself feel better — some things never change for ‘Ye.
Largely, though, “Get ‘Em High” feels like a freestyle where he’s perched on a stoop, shooting the shit with his friends Talib and Common. This is the Kanye we'd want to have a beer with: the cheeky neighborhood rap-brat who makes an anthem out of talking smack, slinging jokes, smoking weed, and picking up NYU girls on the Internet. His mention of Black Planet — an African American dating site popular in the early ‘00s — is especially amazing, given that he’s still watching girls post up online years later. (Now, they're more apt to "Instagram themselves llike #BadBitchAlert.”) Note: The Talib-obsessed girl he’s spitting game to on the track was actually voiced by his then-girlfriend, Sumeke Rainey.
The song gives us insight into Kanye's future as a producer, too. It’s the only song on College Dropout to come without any sort of key instrumental sample: There are no horns, no guitars, no vocal clips chopped, screwed, or over-dramatized to supplement the beat. This was ‘Ye’s first rap single that fully relied on computerized synths, bass, and drums, a style that he'd make feel new again on 808s and Heartbreak (“Love Lockdown” most notably) and Yeezus. This is, however, the only song he'd ever do that features Common rapping, “Good rappers are hard to find / Like a remote." No kidding. PUJA PATEL
8."Workout Plan" / "The New Workout Plan"
The "Workout Plan" skit sets the tone for both "The New Workout Plan" and Kanye's big ideas about the consumate woman, which constituted one of maybe two complex male opinions about women available on hip-hop radio at the time. (They still played Common songs on corpo radio in 2004.) A parody of fictional chicks kiki'ing on how to upgrade their men from ignoring pager calls to pushing them around town in a Lexus (oh, the simple cars we loved back then!), real-life women Candis Brown, Brandi Kuykenvali, and Tiera Singleton voiced to perfection the fear-of-birds that sat deep in the pathos of male rappers before everybody got Murciélago rich. (Except for 50, but he wasn't given to bothering all that much with women in the first place.) Over-exaggerating their hair-salon voices, they hilariously played into the stereotype of materialistic yet low-rent women trying to snatch a man (one driving an "Acrroooa") with their "video hoefessional" physiques — and how'd they get their bodies right? Kanye's workout plan, of course, copped by the "bootleg queen" and passed on for "free ninety-nine."
Some enterprising Wikipedia author in a women's studies course called all this "a satirical take on the absurdity of the gender binary in which women are valued only for their bodies, and men are valued only for their money." Which is true, but at this point we're also familiar enough with Kanye's complex relationship with women to know that it's a little bit satirical and a little bit what he actually thinks, his side-eyes directed towards the "Gold Digger" from day one. His interactions with women in his art, from then to especially now — holla at a Kardashian — have been tethered completely to class, first wrought in the way he caricatures the thirsty hoodrat-stereotype in "Workout Plan," rendered from the viewpoint of his own middle-class, middle-American upbringing. From the very first notes here — especially with then-girlfriend Sumeke Rainey voicing one of the appreciative mall chicks on the track — it was inevitable that he'd end up wifing a woman who rakes in more dough than he does. (SPIN's Brandon Soderberg called "Bound 2" "progressive"; I call it the logical endpoint to Ye's certifiable Mary/Eve dichotomy.) It's a spoof, yeah, but underneath it all, you know he thinks these chicks are trife.
But damn, this dude makes everything so likeable despite it all. I was, ironically enough, on a rowing machine in the basement of a eucalyptus-scented, women-only gym in Portland, Oregon, the moment I realized how much I love Kanye, a decade ago. The College Dropout had come out that week, and I was giving it my first full listen while circuit training, but let's face it: That gym was too much like a spa to inspire any real sweat. It was affordable, but emitted the illusion of bougie. It had an aromatherapy room. So I was half-assedly rowing away when "The New Workout Plan" came on, and Kanye chanted, in a sing-song, mocking voice, "All the mocha lattes / You gotta do Pilates," completely self-aware, and in that second, his entire steez made sense to me. Hilarious and knowing, he was indicting himself in this jam, 'cause he knows he kinda believes it, too.
How funny and intelligent of a man you have to be to rib the most shallow notions of getting some, while slyly using them as a ploy to get some? "What's scary to me / Is Henny makes girls look like Halle Berry to me," he raps, foreshadowing his many dumbly lovable booze-stunts. "So excuse me miss, I forgot your name / Thank you, God bless you, good night, I came… I came… I came." The flow ramps up to double-time here and there to match one of his best beats ever, a metal-style double-kick-drum pumping on sped-up violin samples, offering high BPMs for whatever aerobic endeavor you prefer. "She wanna talk it out but / Ain't nothin' to talk about / 'Less she's talkin' bout freakin' out / And maybe we can work it out."
'Ye can still be this funny, but after years of pushback and mischaracterization, he's more guarded now — you really think Yeezus is simple egomania, and not a character he had to invent to keep himself from going crazy in a racist world? So listening to impeccable, perfect tracks-as-commentary like this one gives you not just a glimpse back at the birth of an astonishing career, but a dose of bittersweet nostalgia, too, for a Kanye we don't get to see much anymore. (Though I still contend that "put my fist in her like a Civil Rights sign" was humor in this vein.) But for a nascent start to the "Monster" we're dealing with now, he simply could not have done better than this. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD
Hard to believe that just ten years ago, we all considered Kanye — and he considered himself — to be hip-hop's everyman, a regular Joe not different in any particularly notable way from a fan who bought one of his CDs. Not to be confused with the similarly themed but straight-faced (and Rod Temperton-penned) "Slow Jams" on Quincy Jones' 1995 Q's Jook Joint, Kanye's track is meta: It's a slow jam about slow jams. The source of its whimsical edginess is that it has no less than zero reverence for the transcendent black romantic R&B tradition to which it pays homage. "Slow Jamz" namechecks the Quiet Storm canon — Anita, Luther, Gladys, Marvin — only to rightly conclude that it's all really just macking music, the joints you gotta play to git some if you a playa. Kanye envisions soul music only as utility: What else are you actually supposed to do with those songs, but use them to get some leg?
With crudely funny lines like "I'm a play this Vandross / You gon' take your pants off / Imma play this Gladys Knight / Me and you gon' get right," "Slow Jamz" builds on the comedy-rap tradition of Biz Markie, Dana Dane, the Beastie Boys, you name it. Notice Ye possessively says "this Vandross," the festooned soul icon becoming nothing more than a tool for foreplay. Kanye manipulates Luther, both in the lyric and in the underwriting sample, in a way that's not dissimilar to how he would later controversially press Nina Simone's voice in service of his unique agenda on Yeezus' "Blood on the Leaves." No hip-hop star had musically mocked the Quiet Storm to the same degree before "Slow Jamz": Consider the track a preface to SNL's satirical 2006 smash "Dick in a Box."
Originally planned as a showcase for Twista (it would appear on his 2004 album Kamikaze, as well), "Slow Jamz" rocketed to No. 1. Musically, the track is inoffensive R&B, replete with conga rolls and lilting guitar, but its sly power lies in its savvy meditation on speed, and the way it shifts gears throughout. Macking requires attention to tempo ("Now I gotta go up in it fast, but I'm-a finish last"); Kanye also adds his lackadaisical drawl (punctuated by a classic oh-shit punch line about Michael Jackson), the deranged sped-up Vandross sample, and the Speedy Gonzales shtick otherwise known as Twista's verses.
In 2003, you could read "Slow Jamz" as either a brashly funny hip-hop homage to soul or as a disturbing fuck-you to Luther Vandross himself, who lay tragically comatose at the time. History has tended to prefer the former interpretation. But in the last ten years, Kanye has disturbingly upgraded the guileless levity of "Slow Jamz" to more unhinged wisecracks (those croissants ready yet?). His early dropout-slacker-underdog persona has coarsened, giving way to a distasteful messiah complex. "Slow Jamz" reminds us that in 2003, Kanye saw his peers as black comedians — Aisha Tyler cameos, pre-Ray Jamie Foxx (then known mostly for In Living Color and films like Booty Call) sings the hook, and Mike Epps shows up in the video. These days, however, Kanye strives to upgrade his peers: He now imagines that his body of work has earned him the right to cavort in an elite social set that includes the late Steve Jobs, Ralph Lauren, and Anna Wintour. 'Ye craves gravitas, but apparently only knows how to tie it to status, not to intellectual depth or a moral compass.
Were it not for his brilliantly bold musical choices and his continued willingness to shock the bourgeoisie by any means necessary, this sort of sexist-consumerist self-absorption would be entirely indigestible. I, for one, miss the "Slow Jamz" days, when Kanye was really just the ambitious, fuck-higher-learning backpacker-on-the-come-up, the guy who saw himself as Mr. Everyday. The only backpack he'd be seen wearing today is a custom-commissioned one-of-a-kind model designed by George Condo that might make you recoil and laugh at the same time, because you can't afford it and you'd never want it. JASON KING
10."Breathe In, Breathe Out"
Kanye West has never actually believed himself to be infallible. His 2002 car crash showed how anyone can be quickly taken from this world — even the guy who'd one day put out a song called "I Am a God." But "Breathe in Breathe Out" finds him laughing at this near-death experience by recklessly rhyming about outrunning cops, delivering each line with an audible, now seldom-seen grin.
Ludacris is on the hook here, and manages to rhyme "weaves," "D's," and "Desert Ez."; appropriately, the second and third verses mostly find Bro-Ye laughing about sex. Instead of asking the wise question "What Would Talib Kweli Do?" before entering the booth, he instead finds himself clarifying that "Ph.D" stands for "Pretty Huge Dick." But rarely is Kanye so one-track-minded: To preface all this Raw talk (sans the all-purple-leather outfit), he opens the song with an off-the-cuff verse full of his concerns about finally achieving success in an industry he'd tried to conquer on his own terms for so long.
The key lines here are "Always said if I rapped I'd say something significant / But now I'm rappin' about money, hoes, and rims again." Kanye once saw himself making it big and using his new pulpit to bring the gospel, but now, finally in front of the congregation, he's not living up to those old expectations. He wonders if he can even live up to the example of Kweli and Mos Def, the rappers who got him to this point; now he's just another nigga, a simple-bullshit spitta. The College Dropout proved that Kanye was never just a producer; it also proved that he was never just a conscious rapper, either.
The guy has never lacked self-awareness, though, despite naysayers who only believe his mad-black-man routine and never acknowledge his composed pleas. Coming a little more than halfway into his debut allbum, "Breathe in Breathe Out" exists to help break down the Louis Vuitton Don's already-burgeoning myth. He mocked his own bullshit long before all those fishy South Park writers, late-night hosts, and Complex commenters got the chance. #itaintRalphtho. DAVID TURNER
11."School Spirit Skit 1" / "School Spirit" / "School Spirit Skit 2" / "Lil Jimmy"
Kanye West delivers controversial, self-evident truths: George W. Bush doesn't care about black people; the hip-hop community needs to fall back with its homophobia; Beyoncé is better than Taylor Swift; the prison system is a privately run, deeply racist pit of despair that reforms nobody and never intended to. On The College Dropout, the truth-bombs revolve around backpack rap's misguided, impractical sanctimony, and just how much of a waste of time and money higher education has become.
Fitting for a chuckling middle finger to middle-class aspirational goals, "School Spirit" is punctuated by black frat chanting, anchored by a bumpy and freestyle-like flow, and clearly influenced by both Spike Lee's School Daze and Chappelle's Show. It's The College Dropout's most tossed-off and DGAF track, nothing more than a nice little loop of Aretha Franklin's "Spirit in the Dark" (Franklin wouldn't clear it unless West promised not to use profanity) and surrounded by three — yes, three — skits. This "college blows" mini-suite is a hot mess of cheap jokes that puckishly threatens to derail an otherwise fairly cohesive album, hilariously hammering home its point over and over again.
So many of Kanye's ongoing obsessions are apparent on "School Spirit." The take-it rather-than-wait-for-it attitude that led him to wield full control over his records, make music videos out of pocket, move into the world of fashion, and found DONDA is outlined when he notes a central paradox of college — every interesting class is filled or unavailable to frustrated freshmen who lack the prerequisites. But he doesn't want to wait for permission to do anything: "Back to school and I hate it there, I hate it there / Everything I want, I gotta wait a year, I wait a year." Meanwhile, the opening lines ("I'm-a get on that TV, mama, I'm-a put that shit down") forecast that moment when he actually got on TV and spoke truth to power, calling out our then-president, confounding a national audience, and completely freaking out Mike Myers.
West's churlish, arguably dangerous assertion that higher education is something of a hustle has been proven true. When seven out of ten college seniors have debt — and this debt averages almost $30,000, and mixes cruelly with this country's wretched jobs situation — well, his lumpy thesis starts to stick. The College Dropout is a concept record about the still-pending Higher Education Bubble. Even the presumably hyperbolic zingers on "School Spirit" (especially the one about the dude from the top of his class working at the Cheesecake Factory) seem prescient. Kanye West is always right, eventually. BRANDON SODERBERG
Fans of Chappelle's Show took away a number of catchphrases — "I'm Rick James, bitch!" — from its second season. But a few months after that season's last episode aired, the most noticeable takeaway — to Chappelle, at least — was that a portion of his audience wasn't as smart as he once believed. So by the time Kanye West had made his second musical guest appearance on the show — on a rooftop, alongside Chappelle and "Two Words" guest MCs Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) and Freeway — it would have been safe to assume that most fans would've rather seen Roc-a-Fella's bold new chain-bearer break out one of The College Dropout's lighter singles, like "Slow Jamz" or "The New Workout Plan."
Hurricane Katrina's landfall was still a year and a half out, and before West infamously licked shots at George W. Bush on national television, his most audacious snap of grandiloquence was either the "fuck the police" line on "All Falls Down" or his open protest against the 2004 American Music Awards for "robbing" him of the Best New Artist award. Around this time, the only throne-talk anyone directed at West was more about his seat in The Blueprint's producer's chair, rather than his moxie as an MC. "Jesus Walks" was West's rebuttal, but only to the extent that he could turn a taboo topic like religion into a mainstream hit. As virtuous as it seemed, it wasn't the occasion to hail West as a browbeating MC. "Two Words" finally set him up to be taken seriously.
Overlooked, however, was the fact that the Christian rap of "Jesus Walks" coexisted on the same album as this track, bolstered by the street-jihad policies of two Sunni Muslim MCs and, at the same time, anointed by the Boys Choir of Harlem. This multi-denominational space was where West might've first manifested into Yeezus — the arrogant god of both high art and Chi-Town tough talk. Mos Def had just made the jump from Black Star underground-hero MC to Broadway auteur, while Freeway's foray as a Roc-A-Fella henchman looked promising. So, naturally, West shows up, in the middle, where "Two Words" peaks, or as he told <i>XXL</i> six years later, "The sweet spot between the hood and Hollywood."
"Two Words," then, became the perfect playground for these three to break character and address the American reality that for every hood character, be they "hustlers, busters, boosters, hoes… there's no where to go." Rappers, on the other hand, are protected by their concepts — in this case, confronting us with frank, interlocked verses of two-word declarations. The patterned offensive of "Two Words" hauls Mandrill's "Peace and Love" drums along a tri-city warning siren of armed attitude and aggression. Mos Def wants his pride, West wants his respect, and Freeway wants, well, gunplay. But West, by far, covered his spread with more exactness than his guests, lightly boasting, "Hotel-accommodated / Cheerleader prom-dated," then wisening up with, "And I basically know now we racially profiled / Cuffed-up and hosed-down / Pimped-up and hoe'd-down." Unfortunately, you had to wait till the end of the album to catch the beatdown. ERIC TULLIS
13."Thru the Wire"
Kanye West has always had a mouth problem. Try to remember a time before Yeezus, before he "ranted" against the closed doors and minds of the fashion industry, before he went onto daytime television to defend his status as the soon-to-be Mr. Kim Kardashian, before he declared himself "the nucleus." Try to remember that this is a guy who, even when his jaw was actually wired shut, refused to shut the fuck up.
In the early hours of October 23, 2002, a 25-year-old Mr. West — then a shit-hot beat-maker who had just inked a deal for his own proper debut album with Roc-A-Fella — followed a late-night producing session by falling asleep at the wheel of his rented Lexus and getting into a near-fatal car accident, fracturing his jaw. Roughly two weeks after being admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles ("the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died," he'd later boast), he emerged with his jaw still wired shut and recorded his first-ever single as an MC, with a shamefully on-the-nose but still-brilliant title.
Built around a chipmunk'd sample of Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire," The College Dropout's lead single doubles as an origin story and a prophecy. Kanye is crafting his own creation myth, casting himself as an underdog survivor and an outsider who's proud to stand out, but remains self-conscious enough to try and fit in: See the hackneyed, of-the-moment "sizzurp/bizzerk/wizzerk" rhyme scheme of the track's opening verse. He admits he's still a "grown-ass kid," but still crowns himself a champion. And he leaves us with a snapshot of a time when he still had to reach with both hands, when hitting No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 felt like all the validation he could hope for.
The cultural references here are quaint and cornball, for the most part — there are nods to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Vanilla Sky, and M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, for Christ's sake. But at least no public apologies were necessary when he name-dropped Emmett Till. He also thanked the lord that he wasn't "too cool for the safe belt," but we should've seen the self-aggrandizement of "I Am a God" coming. It's right there, in the first line: "Yo, G, they can't stop me from rapping, can they?" KYLE MCGOVERN
Anyone who grew up amid an extended brood knows that for better and worse, you're never more yourself than with family. No matter how high you climb or how low you fall, you revert to your usual spot in the hierarchy and at the dinner table. Your regional accent, if you ever had one, comes back. You can't front or step out of line, because your grandmother or uncle or older cousin — people who have changed your diaper! — will call you out. Old resentments, rivalries, and grudges re-emerge. But there's also joy in being together, and telling funny and embarrassing stories. Chances are, these people know you better than anyone on earth, and with them, you merge back into the whole like a missing puzzle piece.
On "Family Business," Kanye West evokes that feeling as well as any short story or film, and brings a twist by injecting a bittersweet element to the holiday-dinner scene: He's missing his cousin, who's been incarcerated for an unspecified offense. That duality carries over into every element of the song, a celebration of family built around chopped-up vocal samples from the Dells' 1972 track "Fonky Thang" both musically and thematically ("Fonky thang, diamond ring… All that glitters is not gold"); Kanye's lyrics could be referring to his cousin, or a deceased family member.
Like a short story or film, the details tell the tale: In the first verse, speaking to his cousin, Kanye raps, "Somebody please say grace, so I can save face / And have a reason to cover my face / I even made you a plate… Who knew that life would move this fast? / Who knew I'd have to look at you through a glass?" The next two verses keep the perspective, but address the world, talking about family and also Kanye's then-rare MC stance: "I get to represent somebody I don’t think is getting represented right now,” he told The Fader in a 2003 article published several months before the album was released. “The regular dude: The guy who believes in God but still likes pussy.”
In the second verse, Kanye tells hard rappers to own up, daring them to "act like you ain't took a bath with your cousins / Fit three in the bed," then doubles down on embarrassing himself with lines like, "You ain't have to tell my girl I used to pee in the bed" and the Tupac-quoting "I can't deny it, I'm a straight rider / But when we get together be electric slidin.' " And the third verse lays out his mission statement: "I woke up this morning with a new state of mind / A creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns… You can still love your man and be manly, dog." The fact that Kanye needed to explain his stance back then points to how far hip-hop has come — and how much he's responsible for that progress.
A look through the CD booklet gives another perspective on "family business" and hip-hop's progress. Along with lyrics, credits, a handwritten thank-you list, and an ad for Roc-A-Fella Records (featuring Jay-Z's The Black Album, Cam'ron, Beanie Sigel, Freeway, and more), there's a hilarious yearbook-style series of high-school-era photos of the album's contributors, listed under their real names: Sean Carter ("Most Popular"); Eric Bishop, a.k.a. Jamie Foxx ("Class Clown"); Ludacris, a.k.a. Christopher Bridges ("Mr. Loudmouth"); Mos Def, a.k.a. Dante Smith ("Most Flirtatious"); John Legend, a.k.a. John Stephens ("Most Talented"); Lonnie Lynn, a.k.a. Common ("Mr. Natural"); and others. Ten years on, it's a revealing look at Kanye's and the Roc's extended family — who they were then, looking back at who they were before.
"Family Business" isn't the best song on The College Dropout. It's not one of Kanye's signature tunes; it wasn't one of the five singles released from the album. But it might be the most revolutionary, containing a sentimentality rare for the era. As the album's penultimate track, it's the true closer, confirming the world-class talent promised by the rest of the album, proving beyond any doubt that The College Dropout was one of the greatest hip-hop debuts of all time. JEM ASWAD
When's the last time you voluntarily listened to all 12:41 of "Last Call"? Could it be… the first and only time? Could it be never? Verily, it is the "Stupid Mop" of 21st-century event-rap, an eminently skippable album-capping ultra-indulgence doomed to a woeful iTunes play count or a pristine, scratch-free vinyl groove no matter how enraptured you get with the 20 tracks/grooves preceding. But let us revisit it just one more time, to reflect on how our hero has changed, and how he hasn't.
"Last Call" starts out with a burst of laughter and Jay Z dropping three f-bombs in 11 seconds. Promising! A cheerful chipmunk-soul romp that swipes from (yes!) Bette Midler's "Mr. Rockefeller," it boasts two pantheon Kanye lines (the "African-American Express" thing and "Mayonnaise-colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips"), plus a lot of pleasantly uncouth detritus (reference is made to his dickhead; "Source Awards" is rhymed with "Horse Awards"). But at the four-minute mark begins an exhaustive, pointillistically detailed chronicle of his rise from minor producer to major producer, from woefully underappreciated rapper to rapper-rapping-on-the-last-track-of-his-beloved-debut-album rapper. You will likely nod off at some point; I won't tell anyone, or at least I won't tell him.
The detail here is astounding, though: An Altman/Scorsese/Tolkien-esque procession of A&R dudes, rapper peers, and label suits half-full or completely empty, carrying us from Kanye's first Roc-A-Fella beat (Beanie Sigel's "The Truth") to the last-second collapse of a deal with Capitol that led him back into Roc-a-Fella's arms. There are fashion cues ("Get a Pelle Pelle off layaway"), setbacks (an eviction, plus a few defections), some regular-dude slumming (he hand-assembles an IKEA bed in Newark, New Jersey), and lots of dialogue, involving everyone from Kanye's mother to Jay Z, who, we are informed, was wearing a Gucci bucket hat when he heard the beats that'd wind up on The Blueprint.
But what you mostly hear about is Kanye's tireless attempts to convince everyone he can rap, too, and the responses he gets, which range from indifference to amusement to wary condescension. (Dame Dash's "It's actually kinda hot" is the high point; Jay apparently dug the "miracle whips" line, at least.) Kanye, of course, is incredulous at this lack of faith in him: "Everybody out there, listen here!" he declares, once we're at the label-wooing stage. "I played them 'Jesus Walks,' and they didn't sign me!" But his tone throughout is, let's say, 80 percent bygones-be-bygones cheerful and 20 percent aggrieved, a split not exactly prevalent on Yeezus.
So, superficially, yes, the appeal of "Last Call" now is this glimpse of a (relatively) kinder, humbler, star-struck Kanye, suffering a minor loss for every major win, watching the throne like everyone else. But what truly strikes you is how little has changed: The thesis of his fantastic head-to-head chat with Steve McQueen in Interview last month is exactly the same: No one believes Kanye can do the things he believes he can do. On "Last Call," the world sees him as a producer, but not a rapper; in 2014, the world sees him as a rapper/world-class provocateur, but not a designer of gyms, of schools, of, yes, leather jogging pants. What's different is his resulting mindset — cheerful resignation then, full-blown rage now. This track is but one Mad-Libs version of his whole life, the slow, painful rise to grudging acceptance in an arena he will soon dominate. To wit:
Some say he arrogant, can y'all blame him?
It was straight embarrassing how y'all played him
Last year, shopping my demo, I was tryin' to shine
Every motherfucker told me that I couldn't rhyme
Now I can let these dream-killers kill my self-esteem
Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams
I use it as my gas, so they say that I'm gassed
But without it I be last, so I ought to laugh.
He's not laughing now, exactly, but full of gas he remains. You don't have to play this song ever again, but don't you ever forget it. ROB HARVILLA