PMO: The College Dropout – Kanye West

Welcome to PMO (short for “Put Me On”) – a biweekly column dedicated to introducing new and old music and exploring their history and impact on culture. The purpose of this column is to encourage readers to expand their musical palette.

Since this is the first PMO post, what better way to kickstart this column than analyzing the legend of firsts: Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout.

  • Background:
    • Released February 10th, 2004
    • Certified triple platinum
    • Nominate for two Grammys
    • Won the 2005 Grammy for “Best Rap Album”

Kanye West got his foot in the door of the music industry by starting out as a producer, producing music for the underground hip hop artists of Chicago. Eventually, he began producing music for well-known rappers at the time such as Common, Jay-Z, and Talib Kweli. In 2000, he began working with not only Jay-Z but other artists under the Roc-a-fella record label, as well as the likes of Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson.

Despite being a stellar producer, Kanye’s real interest was in rapping. However, record labels were unwilling to sign him because he did not fit the “gangster rapper” image that predominated hip-hop at the time. Kanye grew up in a middle-class family and wore pink polos. Unlike other rappers at the time, he didn’t know what growing up in the “ghetto” and selling drugs was like. Here’s a quote from Jay-Z to sum it all up: “We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there’s Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn’t see how it could work.”

Eventually, Kanye was signed to Roc-a-fella records, though primarily to be kept as an in-house producer. In 2002, Kanye was involved in a near fatal car crash which required him to get reconstructive jaw surgery. This incident inspired West’s classic hit “Through the Wire”.  

  • The College Dropout Tracklist:
  1. “Intro”
  2. “We Don’t Care”
    • Rate: ★★★★
  3. “Graduation Day”
  4. “All Falls Down (feat. Syleena Johnson)”
    • Rate: ★★★★★
    • Fun Fact: This song samples Lauryn Hill’s song “Mystery of Iniquity”, but Hill wouldn’t allow West to use her voice in this song. As a last resort, Syleena Johnson flew in to record the vocals heard in this song.
  5. “I’ll Fly Away”
  6. “Spaceship (feat. GLC & Consequence)”
    • Rate: ★★★★
  7. “Jesus Walks”
    • Rate: ★★★★★
    • Fun Fact: “Jesus Walks” broke the “gangster rap” mold of hip hop that was popular at the time. The song endorses Christianity and faith- a groundbreaking move that deterred from the morally questionable lyrics of “gangster rap”. This song won the Grammy for “Best Rap Song” in 2005.
  8. “Never Let Me Down (feat. Jay-Z and J-Ivy)”
    • Rate: ★★★★★
  9. “Get ‘Em High (Feat. Talib Kweli and Common)”
    • Rate: ★★★★
  10. “Workout Plan”
  11. “The New Workout Plan”
    • Rate: ★★★★
  12. “Slow Jamz (feat. Twista and Jamie Foxx)”
    • Rate: ★★★★ ½
    • Fun Fact: “Slow Jamz” is how Jamie Foxx got his foot in the door of the music industry. He first met Kanye at a house party- he was carrying his signature Louis Vuitton Backpack (filled with his music samples of course). Later at the party, West played what would later be known as “Slow Jamz” for Foxx. From there, Foxx recorded vocals for the tracks, but he was initially doubtful that the song would succeed- much to his surprise, “Slow Jamz” peaked  #1 in the country.
  13. “Breathe In Breathe Out (feat. Ludacris)
    • Rate: ★★
  14. “School Spirit (Skit 1)”
  15. “School Spirit”
    • Rate: ★★★ ½
    • Fun Fact: You may notice that there’s no profanity on this track. The reason being is because this song samples Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark”, and in order for Kanye to get permission to use this sample from Mrs. Franklin, he had to agree to not curse in the song.
  16. “School Spirit (Skit 2)”
  17. “Lil’ Jimmy (Skit)”
  18. “Two Words (feat. Mos Def, Freeway and The Harlem Boys Choir)”
    • Rate: ★★★★
  19. “Through the Wire”
    • Rate: ★★★★★
  20. “Family Business”
    • Rate: ★★★
  21. “Last Call”
    • Rate: ★★★
  • Overall Review:

The College Dropout not only criticizes the American education system but also tells the story of Kanye’s journey from starting as a producer to achieving hip-hop stardom. Kanye’s take on higher education can be found on songs like “We Don’t Care”, “School Spirit”, and the various skits found on this album. What makes Kanye’s debut album so special is the fact that he touches on subjects rappers at the time did not address. Rap music about consumerism as heard in “All Falls Down”, religion as heard in “Jesus Walks”, and emotional vulnerability as heard in “Never Let Me Down” and “Family Business” was unheard of at the time. At the same time, Kanye did not shy away from rapping about topics mainstream rappers at the time did. However, when he rapped about such topics, he often times did so in a satirical way, like in “The New Workout Plan”. Additionally, Kanye establishes his “chipmunk soul” style in this album (the name deriving from his use of sped up soul samples) in songs such as “School Spirit”, which samples Aretha Franklin, and “Through the Wire”, which samples Chaka Khan. Overall, it is fair to say that The College Dropout changed the face of rap music.

Personal Favorites:

  • “All Falls Down (feat. Syleena Johnson)”
  • “Jesus Walks”
  • “Never Let Me Down (feat. Jay-Z and J-Ivy)”
  • “Two Words (feat. Mos Def, Freeway and The Harlem Boys Choir)”
  • Overall Rate:  ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

 

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