Released February 10, 2004
1 hr, 16 min, 13 sec
Kanye West has always been hailed as a musical genius, even as his lyrics have slowly fallen more and more in line with his public persona with recent albums (topping out with the absolute ridiculousness of Yeezus). West was, of course, not always about self-aggrandizing; he earned the right, so to speak, by clawing his way to the top of the hip-hop mountain, his music signaling a shift in the genre away from the aggressive gangsta-style rap of West’s predecessors, and more towards what was initially called “alternative” hip-hop, with an increased focus on social issues and more personal lyrics. West led the charge in this new form of hip-hop, though he did allow himself to delve into that well once or twice throughout The College Dropout.
More often than not, however, West is more concerned with the status of African-Americans in America, on tracks like “All Falls Down” and “Spaceship,” alongside the sarcastic indulgence of “We Don’t Care” and the overt religious dedication that makes up “Jesus Walks.” West frequently notes that his lyrics are not what people had come to expect from hip-hop at the time, and prided himself in being a powerful alternative to artists like 50 Cent and his own mentor, Jay-Z. His production style separated him from the rest of the pack early on, as well, with a penchant for manipulating samples of old soul tacks for a backing beat, usually tying his own lyrics into the samples he used.
Several of the album’s tracks are preceded by skits that directly relate to a given concept in the following song, providing extra context for the song, usually in a humorous manner. “Intro” sets up “We Don’t Care” as a song for children to sing as part of a graduation event; “Graduation Day” features the fallout, with the school’s dean livid that West had written such an inappropriate song. “I’ll Fly Away” sets up the protagonist of “Spaceship” and his immense frustration with the situation he is stuck in, while the two “School Spirit” skits lambast the idea that post-secondary education is the only path to success. As a whole, the album takes shots at every single person that ever told West he couldn’t do something, proving them wrong with the album’s very existence.
As mentioned above, “Jesus Walks” touches on West’s personal faith, and a great number of other songs on the album draw from West’s life and the lives of his friends and family. “Family Business” in particular is an ode to a family member locked away in prison, relating the story to a wider African-American audience, connecting it to West’s themes of oppression and injustice earlier in the album. It’s a surprisingly touching and heartfelt song, especially considering what West would eventually become by 2010. But that’s the story of this entire album; while West is still concerned with social issues after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it usually seems as if he is more invested in perpetuating his own increasingly grandiose ego and reputation. Indeed, little of what made West such a game-changer is left in his music today; instead, he has evolved as a musician, choosing to move into new lyrical territory.
West began as a producer, something that many of his contemporaries, and even the people buying his beats, never expected him to transcend. When he expressed his desire to branch out into rapping over his music, most people didn’t believe he could do it, which, of course, was all the motivation West needed to complete the album and prove them all wrong. (West relates much of the story of being signed to Roc-a-Fella and proving his doubters wrong, which stemmed from his production of Jay-Z in 2001, in conversational tone, in the album closer “Last Call,” which relates the entire story of The College Dropout‘s origins.)
One of the best examples of this is the album’s lead single “Through the Wire,” which West recorded while his jaw was still wired shut following a severe, near-fatal car crash on the way from a project he’d been working on. The single built massive interest in the album, and The College Dropout capitalized on the hype surrounding it with massive critical and commercial success. With this new platform, West began the second stage of his career, now a fully-accepted rapper.