Written by Samuel Frampton
In some ways, it’s easy to make fun of Kanye West. Yeah, he interrupted Taylor Swift at the Grammys, dissed George Bush on national television, sold a bunch of plain white t-shirts for $120 each, briefly served as the mascot for an online cryptocurrency, and formally declared himself a god. And yeah, the “Bound 2” video happened.
But now that we’ve gotten that out of our system, let’s shift our focus a bit. After all, February, 2014 marked ten years since the release of West’s classic debut LP The College Dropout. Accordingly, the hip-hop blogosphere has published a slew of great articles revisiting the album, shedding light on the recording process and the influence that The College Dropout has had on multiple generations of artists. To me, however, the fans’ experiences are key to understanding the legacy of an album. What can you say about a record until you’ve had a chance to live with it and watch yourself change against the constant backdrop of the music?
The College Dropout was a gateway for many of today’s college-aged hip-hop heads. Chicago’s man-of-the-moment Chance the Rapper has mentioned in numerous interviews that The College Dropout was his first hip-hop album. Chance even pays tribute to West’s early work by using the introduction from West’s 2003 mixtape, I’m Good, as the basis for “Good Ass Intro.” Personally, The College Dropout was among the first hip-hop albums to pique my interest, but my introduction to Kanye West was less than congenial.
2003 was a fruitful year for hip-hop’s cash kings. Moguls such as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z and Dr. Dre effectively controlled the industry landscape, and when I was growing up, I felt their influence. Sean John and Rocawear figured prominently in my wardrobe, and I found myself intrigued when my friends first played me 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, which featured an executive producer credit from Dr. Dre.
Of course, it was the clean version, so the lyrics didn’t make much sense to us. But the story about 50 Cent getting shot nine times was darkly fascinating to us, and the beats knocked hard enough to appeal even to an eleven-year-old hip-hop novice. Although I was not yet fully hooked, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ laid the groundwork for my future obsession.
By Spring 2004, my main obsession was basketball. I would play after school most days with my close pal Kabir, and one day, he showed up on the court with a massive CD Walkman. He said “hey,” donned some behind-the-head headphones, crammed the Walkman into his pocket, and commenced shooting warm-up shots. The picture is comical in retrospect, the clunky Walkman threatening to fall out of Kabir’s pocket with every move. The headphones were clearly designed for adults, rather than tiny middle school kids. I had to ask him what he was listening to, what album demanded so much attention.
His reply: “Kanye West.”
I was confused: “Connie Wes?”
He laughed. “No.”
I made him spell it out for me.
When I got home I Googled this Kanye character. It appeared that the Internet was steadily buzzing over him. I saw the now-iconic promo photos: a young West sporting a Polo shirt and a Luis Vuitton backpack, along with the melancholy mascot that graces the cover of College Dropout. I saw articles about the controversy over “Jesus Walks,” one of the album’s hit singles. I was excited to learn that he grew up fairly close to me on the South Side of Chicago, although he also lived in suburban Oak Lawn for a spell.
The search results left me with more questions than they answered. What kind of rapper goes to college, even if only for a couple of years? Why does he look so preppy? Perhaps the music would hold the answers, but this was before YouTube, and the only ways to hear music online that you did not own were to download it through Limewire or listen to thirty-second samples on the iTunes store. Ever the law-abiding good kid, I went with the latter option. I opened up the dirty version on iTunes. The first song I double clicked on was “Spaceship (featuring GLC & Consequence).”
I didn’t like what I heard.
The portion of West’s verse that I was able to hear describes his troubles dealing with a disrespectful manager while working for low wages at the Gap. The opening lines, “If my manager insults me again / I will be assaulting him / After I fuck the manager up / Then I’m gonna shorten the register up” failed to sell me on West’s skill as a rapper. For all the hype over The College Dropout, I expected clever rhymes and nimble delivery, but all I heard was West grumbling about work with a ham-handed flow.
Gone was the cinematic excitement I had come to expect from hip-hop, the stories that rappers told to glorify their lifestyles. If 50 Cent was a real-life action hero, West felt more like my little cousin throwing a tantrum in the shopping mall.
Nevertheless, the crisp, soulful production of “Spaceship” was enough for me to give West another chance. I played the song that I had seen all over the Google results, “Jesus Walks.” ITunes began somewhere in the first verse, where he discusses the mix of crime and police brutality found on the streets of Chicago. Although he managed to squeeze in some thought-provoking lines such as “We ain’t going nowhere, but got suits and cases,” the boring realism of “Spaceship” was still there. Besides, he had eschewed soul samples for a heavy church-tinged chant with a weird flutelike thing floating on top. I was done with Kanye West.
For the time being, at least. Two years later, my dream of becoming a great basketball player was steadily waning. Meanwhile, my hip-hop obsession was in full swing. A few months after rejecting The College Dropout, I bought my first hip-hop album: The Roots’ Do You Want More?!!!??!. I have no idea what motivated me to choose this obscure jazz-hip-hop opus from 1995, as The Roots—with their hip, artsy aesthetic—were a far cry from 50 Cent. Nonetheless, this album helped the art of rapping become more accessible to me. I continued digging through the world of alternative hip-hop, becoming a devotee of a Los Angeles-based label called Stones Throw Records. Their releases such as Madvillain’s Madvillainy, seemed like pure gold to me. I hurried to my local record store after school on February 7, 2006 to cop J Dilla’s Donut’s the day of its release. Sadly, J Dilla passed away just three days later.
Seventh grade being the age of conformity that it is, few of my peers shared my curiosity about alternative hip-hop. Their reactions to my music tastes generally ranged from confusion to name-calling. Thus, I was surprised that a conversation with my good friend Henry ended with us agreeing to burn copies of all our music for each other over the weekend.
Lo and behold, The College Dropout topped off the stack of CDs Henry handed me on Monday.
Now, unlike before, I had the option of listening to the album in its entirety. I gave it a chance. After a few listens, the gravity of the album snapped me into focus. Where I had previously heard a lack of cleverness, now I heard directness and urgency. It’s the type of immediacy that comes from almost losing your life in a car crash just as you’re about to realize your dream. Opting for honesty rather than glorification and fantasy allowed West to create a unique articulation of genius struggling against circumstance.
The listening I had done since my earlier exposure broadened my perspective on West’s project. His approach to sampling reminded me of my favorite Stones Throw releases, but he elaborated on this sample-heavy base with intricate arrangements, live instruments, and aggressive drums. The College Dropout unified the underground and the mainstream for me. The camps that West’s collaborators represented seemed impossibly disparate: “conscious” rappers (Common, Mos Def), “mainstream” rappers (Jay-Z, Ludacris), and “underground” rappers (GLC, Consequence) all featured on the same tracks, trading verses with each other. West’s lyrical content displays a similar range. Throughout the album, he skillfully jumps from social commentary to satirizing the American educational system to boasting about money and cars.
West avoided the trap that I had seen other mainstream rappers fall into. By placing the overwhelming focus of their music on portraying one aspect of their lives, they became caricatures. Rather than portraying himself in this reductive way, Kanye West allowed himself to be seen as a real person.
Therein lies The College Dropout’s appeal to me. Throughout the album, a narrative emerges of an artist who is supremely confident. Roc-a-Fella records only signed him reluctantly, worried that West’s rapping wasn’t up to snuff and that his image wouldn’t sell, but each of his many successes has proven them wrong.
Back then, I was confused about where I stood in the world. The media constantly caricatures young black men from Chicago (look no further than the frenzy over Chief Keef for proof), yet I fell far outside of these stereotypes. Although The College Dropout didn’t suddenly resolve all my internal conflicts, it gave me a powerful example of how to reject the hype and accept my individuality.
For all that, there’s only one thing I can say. Thanks, ‘Ye.