The College Dropout sounds as fresh as ever, ten years later.
Kanye West • The College Dropout • Roc-A-Fella • US Release Date: February 10, 2004
“Sometimes I feel no one in this world understands us / but we don’t care what people say.” True that, true that. The aforementioned quote from “We Don’t Care” is a fitting characterization of Kanye West. Over the course of his career as a rapper, Kanye West has been one of the music’s most polarizing, idiosyncratic characters. Incredibly creative yet also incredibly complex and likely misunderstood, West has often found himself in trouble for being loud-mouthed and extremely opinionated. That creativity and frankness has served Mr. West’s music well, even when it’s personally hurt perceptions of him as a person. But as West would tell anybody, he “gives no f***s”. Charming. He certainly gives none on The College Dropout, his tour de force that is the ripe old age of ten. As difficult as it is to believe, it was ten years ago that The College Dropout changed the rap game forever. Listening to it ten years later in 2014, the album remains superb losing none of its edge.
The College Dropout initiates with a silly, though funny “Intro” performed from the by West’s ‘college professor’. “Me and the other faculty members was wonderin’ could you do a lil some…/ somethin’ beautiful, somethin’ that the kids is gon’ love when they hear it,” The professor states. “… somethin’ for the kids for graduation to sing?” The intro serves as the perfect precursor to full-length opening joint, “We Don’t Care”, West’s answer to his professor’s request (“Oh yeah, I’ve got the perfect song for the kids to sing”).
On the real-talk, rebellious “We Don’t Care”, the hook sums up the sentiment of its title: “Drug dealin’ just to get by / stack ya money ‘til you get sky high (Kids sing, kids sing!) / We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25 / joke’s on you, we still alive / throw your hands up in the sky and yell: We don’t care what people say.” Kids, indeed literally sing the hook, fitting in line with the highly structure narrative/concept of the album. In addition to the memorable, ‘f**k you’ mentality of the hook, West gives specific examples throughout the verses of the ‘hard-knock’ life and black culture. Filled with notable lyrics, among my favorite lines is from verse two, as West raps that “The drug game bulimic, it’s hard to get weight / a n***a’s money is homo, it’s hart to get straight / but we gon’ keep bakin’ til the day we get cake / and ‘we don’t care what people say’”. Unapologetic, West begins the game ferociously.
Unsurprisingly, the professor is unhappy with West’s song choice, opening interlude “Graduation Day” with “What in the f**k was that Kanye!” The professor goes off on a rant that is as comical as it is offensive. A then little known John Legend concludes the interlude, referencing different ambitions compared to what others might have. Even though it is Legend who performs this interlude, he is essentially speaking from West’s perspective. West, a college dropout, chose a different path (music) as opposed to staying in school (the traditional route).
Popular single “All Falls Down” proceeds, featuring Syleena Johnson channeling her inner Lauryn Hill (Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity” is interpolated here). The hook is incredibly simple, yet was one of the most memorable of 2004, being mindful the original appeared in 2002. “Oh when it all, it all falls down / I’m telling you all, it all falls down,” sings a soulful, raspy Johnson. West is on autopilot, delivering honest and hilarious rhymes. Among the best of those is from the first verse: “But she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny / now, tell me that ain’t insecure / the concept of school seems so secure / sophomore, three years, ain’t picked a career / she like, f**k it, I’ll just stay down here and do hair.” The acoustic guitar-driven production and brilliant conception makes “All Falls Down” just another vital reason why The College Dropout is one of music’s modern masterpieces.
Following an interlude entitled “Fly Away” (literally the church tune “I’ll Fly Away”), the brilliant “Spaceship” takes off. “I’ve been workin’ this graveshift and I ain’t made sh*t / I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly past the sky,” West sings on the memorable hook. A song much like “We Don’t Care” depicting the hardships of, “Spaceship” finds West getting the assist from Consequence and GLC. All three MCs paint a gloomy, though honest picture that’s as vivid as a book. Over a thoughtful sample of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover”, “Spaceship” was as consistent as the singles from The College Dropout, despite receiving less buzz. Even though “Spaceship” is pessimistic, Kanye West definitely feels entitled to his newfound success: “Lock yourself in a room doing five beats a day for three summers…I deserve to do these numbers”. Indeed Mr. West, indeed.
The crowning achievement for The College Dropout was one of the most unique records of 2004, “Jesus Walks”. Thoughtful, yet not quite ‘sanctified’ in a religious sense, “Jesus Walks” was a pivotal part of West’s career. The fact that West associated Jesus and rap – two unlike things – was shocking. Still, Wests makes numerous relevant points throughout, some of which could easily be supported biblically – well with modern interpretation that is. West’s most memorable series of rhymes reside in his second verse: “We rappers is role models; we rap, we don’t think / I ain’t here to argue about his facial features / or here to convert atheists into believers / I’m just trying to say the way school need teachers / the way Kathie Lee needed Regis that’s the way I need Jesus.” Amen…I think. Still, I don’t think too many clergymen will take too kindly the line “we eat pieces of sh*t like you for breakfast…” Just saying!
More ‘important’ songs overshadow “Never Let Me Down”, but it’s still high quality work. This is an early collaboration where West works with his ‘big brother’ Jay-Z, as well as poet J. Ivy. Continuing the practice of sampling (Michael Bolton’s “The Power of Love”), “Never Let Me Down” rolls right along with little to quibble about. Similarly, “Get Em High” is another solid track overshadowed by better ones. Notable aside from guests in Talib Kweli and Common is the fact that sampling isn’t employed… shocker. As always, West’s rhymes are entertaining, though West raps about his ambitions on the first verse: “My teacher said I’s a loser, I told her why don’t you kill me / I give a f**k if you fail me, I’m gonna follow / my heart, and if you follow charts / or the plaques or the stacks / you ain’t gotta guess who’s back, you see.” There it is. Oh and in regards to the hook, West can’t resist the opportunity to play the double meanings game (i.e. high on weed, hands in the air). Remember, he don’t care!
After “passing the dro” on “Get Em High”, “The New Workout Plan” was a later single released from The College Dropout. “The New Workout Plan” definitely has little to do with exercise… it’s all about sex. West’s hook says it all: “It’s been a week without me / and she feel week without me / she wanna talk it out but / ain’t nothing to talk about / unless she’s talking about freaking out / then maybe we can work it out.” Of course, even before that, the first verse states West’s intentions: “one and two and three and four get them sit ups right and / tuck your tummy tight and do your crunches like this / give head, stop breathe, get up, check your weave / don’t drop the blunt and disrespect the weed…” I guess West is allotted one track with less depth.
Keeping with he sensual vibes, “Slow Jamz” – a former number one hit – remains as great as it was ten years ago. “Slow Jamz” is reprised on The College Dropout; it originally appeared on Twista’s Kamikaze. Jamie Foxx’s hook is as effective and memorable as ever: “She said she want some Marvin Gaye / some Luther Vandross / a little Anita / Will definitely set this party off right.” Hearing Twista at his artistic peak on the third verse – sigh – “Those were the days!”
Ludacris comes along for the ride on “Breathe in Breathe Out”, delivering the catchy hook over a killer loop. “Yeah, breathe in, breathe out / if ya iced up, pulla ya sleeves out / push a big truck, pull ya keys out / girls go wild and pull ya deez out…” The hook is typical Ludacris for sure. While “Breathe in Breathe Out” is as consistent as anything else, I prefer “School Spirit” and its Aretha Franklin sample “Spirit in the Dark” (from 1970 album of the same title). As soulful as “School Spirit” is with the sample itself, Tony Williams’ backing vocals add even more sweetness. A skit both precedes and follows “School Spirit”.
“Two Words” follows the final skit of the effort, “Lil Jimmy Skit”. Like many of the non-singles, “Two Words” could actually go ‘toe to toe’ with the most notable, hyped cuts. It doesn’t hurt having help from the likes of Mos Def and Freeway, not to mention The Harlem Boys Choir. Each MC begins their respective verse with the titular lyric, which is a nice unifying touch. The Harlem Boys Choir truly enhances the hook, offering a legato passage (“Throw your hands up high / ‘til they reach the sky”) underneath West’s brasher rhymes (“Now throw ya hands up hustlers / busters, boosters, hoes / everybody, f**k that / still nowhere to go, still nowhere to go…”).
“Through The Wire”, perhaps West’s most personal single, still sounds as relevant ten years later as it did in 2004. The intro sums it up best: “…They can’t stop me from rapping, can they… I spit it through the wire…” The story behind the song was West’s horrific auto accident, which he was fortunate to recover from. Fittingly, “Through The Wire” samples Chaka Khan’s classic, “Through the Fire”. “Family Business” is nothing flashy, but is both sound and soulful. A track like “Family Business” will always register near the bottom of the hierarchy, but still epitomizes West’s total artistry. Juggernaut “Last Call” receives appropriate placement, given its length and how it sums up the album and West himself. “Last Call” details West’s ascent and ‘come-up’. It’s a cut that the listener is less likely to spin, but it does give insight into West.
Ten years later, The College Dropout remains a rap masterpiece. Scratch that – it’s a masterpiece. The College Dropout is one of those pivotally important albums of recent times. Sure, it is hard to find certified classics in the new millennium, but this particular effort is definitely a candidate. Consistent, creative, and certainly a contrast to other hip-hop albums out at the time, The College Dropout and Kanye West were trailblazers, ushering in the new movement of hip-hop. Even now, it’s remarkable how exceptionally well this album is assembled.
“All Falls Down”; “Jesus Walks”; “Spaceship”; “Slow Jamz”; “Two Words”; “Through The Wire”