The College Dropout was the first hip-hop album I ever owned. As soon as I heard “Through the Wire”, 12-year old me made sure to save some pocket money for the release of Kanye West’s debut album, which of course my mother had to purchase (thanks again, mum!). Naturally, this record played a huge part in my musical development, and it makes for a pretty severe nostalgia trip in 2019. It’s a great album, that much is obvious, but it’s genuinely startling to go back to, as Ye himself would put it, ‘the old Kanye’.
This is still the cosiest sound Kanye has ever conceived. Even with visceral songs such as “Jesus Walks”, The College Dropout is a comforting album. Gospel hymns and soul samples are partly responsible, but Kanye himself stands as an encouraging and inspirational figure. He raps about family, religion, race, and society — a stark contrast to other mammoth hip-hop albums of the time. It’s also nice to experience Kanye as an underdog (and frankly a little weird given his current status). Sure, he’s still sarcastic, but there’s no real sign of him being totally unhinged yet. His satire is executed far more eloquently here than anything post-Graduation. It’s a real pleasure to listen to.
As with almost every hip-hop album ever, The College Dropout is bloated. The first half is as good as ’00s rap gets, but the second does slightly lose its way. Ludacris’ clumsy hook on “Breathe In Breathe Out” stands out like a sore thumb, and as much as I love a good Kanye ramble, “Last Call” is probably just a little too long. However, these are minor complaints that seem almost insignificant when looking at the bigger picture. This was the dawn of one of the most creative minds in hip-hop. Now, 15 years later, it arguably still stands as Kanye’s greatest achievement.8 10
Favourite tracks // Jesus Walks
The New Workout Plan
All Falls Down
I joined the Kanye party late. I’m used to him being a bit loopy, a bit of genius, and massively inconsistent. I like that about him. Even The Life of Pablo, which was frankly a bit of a farce when it first came out, was one of my favourite albums of 2016. Kanye has a gift for making music that feels like it’s spilling directly out of his head, and because The College Dropout comes from a time when he was still loosely connected to reality, it’s human in ways he’s only managed in fits and bursts since.
It’s a defiant record. Turning its back not only on the college path, but the tropes of gangster rap as well, The College Dropout dares to be different in weird, supremely catchy ways. The record is more measured than his later work, but there’s still plenty of nuttiness. The skits throughout are superb (the school spirit ones are my favourites) and the variety of samples are balanced beautifully with Kanye’s performance. Few can weave more vibrant sonic tapestries than Kanye West, but the man’s got a silky smooth flow when he’s in the mood. “Jesus Walks” and “All Falls Down” exemplify this particularly well, but he’s on form throughout.
Not that the album quite holds up for the entirety of its 76-minute runtime. It very occasionally slips from measured to laboured. The fact of the matter is I like a little crazy in my Kanye, and The College Dropout catches him at a relatively sane period in his life. I mean, the closing track is a 12-minute stream of consciousness set to a beat, but this is Kanye West we’re talking about. He has his own standards, and they’re very high here. The record is lush, sophisticated, and — as is so often the case with Kanye — not quite the masterpiece it could have been.8 10
Favourite tracks // Spaceship
All Falls Down
Before Kanye West became the Twitter outbursting, Kardashian schmoozing curio he is today, he released his debut, The College Dropout, and all at the same time as well! It’s a different beast altogether: well polished, with healthy portions of cheek and snark and instrumentals full of character.
While less easy to appreciate after a decade of hip-hop that moved away from flash lifestyles and focused on bigger cultural issues, The College Dropout was exceptional for doing so in 2004. For a track like “Jesus Walks” to not only feature, but become a commercially successful single is quite the feat. Elsewhere there are more gems to be found, “The New Workout Plan” is drenched in satire and delivered with an appropriately energetic instrumental and plenty of snark from Kanye, making for one of my favourites across the tracklist. “School Spirit” and the skits that surround it make for another highlight, filled with soulful influences including the Aretha Franklin sample. The likes of “Get Em High” and “Breathe In Breathe Out” even feel a tad sidelined here as tracks that sit closer to straight hip-hop than anything else, but they too make for great entries in the tracklist.
It’s not a focused album by any means, coming in around 75 minutes with that 12-minute closing track featuring Kanye telling his story that meanders its way along, you’d be hard pushed to use a word like ‘concise’ to describe anything here. But for me, it’s an effortless ride to take. While I’d typically be the first to complain about an album’s length, I’m less willing to do so here, as cutting too much would lose a lot of what makes the album great.
I’ve grown fonder on each listen, smirked more at the skits, and dug deeper into the lyrical twists and instrumental details. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that The College Dropout features some of the best material Kanye West has put out and as an album, it ties together fantastically. I’ll continue to return to this for a healthy dose of 00’s hip-hop.9 10
Favourite tracks // The New Workout Plan
We Don’t Care