When Kanye West dropped his debut album on Feb. 10, 2004, he forever changed the rap game. “The College Dropout” was a critical and commercial success, but it was a surprise to most of Kanye fans at the time. The Kanye of the mid-90s and early 2000s was well known not as a rapper, but as a producer, the genius behind the beats in Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” and other popular hits by singers like Alicia Keys and Ludacris. The industry wanted him for his beats, not his lines, and it took him several years and many failed attempts before he finally got Damon Dash to reluctantly sign him to Roc-A-Fella Records.
"The College Dropout” brought something different to the hip-hop scene. For as long as there was hip-hop and rap, there were songs that addressed societal issues, racism, and the African-American experience. But overall, in the early 2000s, rap was still a genre dominated by trap. While Kanye clearly respected the hustle, he avoided themes of violence that were more popular with his peers. What makes “The College Dropout” stand out then and now is Kanye’s beautiful execution of witty rhymes and stunning production. Throw in a few excellent guest features, and you have a masterpiece.
The album starts off with “We Don’t Care,” a joyful beat juxtaposed by lyrics about the unpleasant necessity of dealing drugs, topped off by a children’s chorus singing verses like “Drug dealing just to get by / Stack your money ‘til it gets sky high.” Then we get to songs like “All Falls Down,” where Kanye struggles with his desire for value and validation through expensive name brand clothing and accessories — a very noticeable difference from the Kanye today. “Spaceship” follows, a steady, soulful song in which Kanye and two guest rappers, GLC and Consequence, sing about desiring a more fulfilling life where they get the fame and recognition they deserve.
Beyond even these gems, there are truly extraordinary tracks that hold up the album to this day. “Jesus Walks” is one of them. The gospel-fueled, intense track is an ode to Christianity and finding redemption in times of intense moral struggle. The song emphasizes Kanye’s faith in God, and one particular line in the chorus embodies the theme of the song: Poignant, poised, and powerful, Kanye pleads, “God show me the way because the Devil is tryna break me down.” It’s a strong line that not only demonstrates Kanye’s struggle for faith, but his fearlessness too — not everyone can admit to feeling vulnerable and wanting guidance. “Slow Jamz,” in contrast, is a saucy and melodic song about a suggestive encounter between a man and a woman. The song utilizes a slow beat and couples it with Jamie Foxx’s lyrical chorus and Twista’s quick lines in the second verse to create a warm, soft-beat track that pays tribute to classic soul artists.
It would be foolish to remember “The College Dropout” without talking about “Through the Wire,” the first single, and arguably the heart of the album. A couple of years before the release of the album, Kanye got in a near-fatal car accident and had to have reconstructive jaw surgery. Two weeks after the surgery, with his jaw still recovering, Kanye recorded the first version of “Through the Wire,” the lyrics slurring as he recounted his tale of horror while throwing some comedic elements into the mix. The chorus is a high-pitched sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire,” uplifting and steady despite some of the grounding lyrics in which Kanye talks about how “half [his] jaw was in the back of [his] mouth” and how “in a blink of an eye, his whole life changed.” It is a powerful song about determination and perseverance; Kanye avoided death, and his physical state wasn’t going to stop him from rapping and doing what he loved.
It is hard to dissect “The College Dropout” and its legacy track by track. From the nostalgic “Family Business,” to the high-stakes, crescendo-building “Two Words,” to “School Spirit,” a critical piece about higher education, Kanye raps about anything and everything. Though many of Kanye’s fans today were just toddlers when he released ‘The College Dropout”, it evokes a strange sense of nostalgia. The Kanye of “The College Dropout” was fresh, still a struggling artist eager to prove his worth and fighting against societal norms for what he believed was right.
The Kanye of today seems to have become a part of the very system he criticized, someone who rides trends (ex. “I Love It” with Lil Pump), covers himself in expensive clothing, and contributes to consumerism — the very thing he spoke against in “All Falls Down.” He aligns himself with a racist President, despite frequently discussing the social and economic challenges faced by African-Americans in his music. Kanye West appears to be a changed person from who he once was, even if he still releases some pretty decent songs. If anything, now is the perfect time to listen to who Kanye was — if only to remember the humble beginnings and industry-shattering talent that skyrocketed him to the fame that shaped who he became.