The tenth anniversary of “The College Dropout” is in a few days. I’ll admit, the actual release of the album probably held much less meaning than the couple of years leading up to that date, when Kanye’s career really started to take off.
From there, Kanye started showing up on everyone’s production credits. Every mix CD or iTunes playlist I made during those days included tracks like “Got Nowhere” (I miss State Prop, this one’s for Peedi Crakk!), “Guess Who’s Back”, “Get By”, “Champions” and so on. As the production discography grew, songs with him actually rapping started to pop up. I probably shared the same sentiment as Dame Dash at the time, “I didn’t even know this n—— could rap!” (without the n word, of course).
Kanye as a rapper back in those days (and some would argue he still does today) had an awkward delivery and these ridiculous punchlines — most famous one: Mayonnaise color Benz, I push Miracle Whips — that sounded like the ones you and your friends came up with back in high school when we all thought rapping and freestyling just meant finding two words that rhymed with each other to end consecutive sentences. As a producer-rapper, he wasn’t the best behind the mic, but it was hard to not fall in love with what he was trying to do, the type of music he was pushing was a breath of fresh air.
With his association to the biggest name in hip-hop, and later as an official member of Roc-A-Fella Records, Kanye honestly felt like, in his own words, the gap like Banana Republic and Old Navy (I’m telling you, his shit was really corny, but in a lovable way). Hip-hop, to me, at the time, was still in this strange tug of war between mainstream and underground music. The mainstream, mostly ushered in by Bad Boy and the Shiny Suit Era, was deplored for the way the music felt ripped off, lacked the connection to the basic tenets of what hip-hop was supposed to be, and generally trended towards pop music. On the other hand, the underground — and at that time, you could name anyone from Common, to Kool Keith aka all of his aliases, to Black Star, to the entire Rawkus Records camp, and so forth — represented the exact opposite.
The music being put out by this subset of the hip-hop population had depth, often meaningful words behind the lyrics, and a respect for the forefathers of the genre. I mean, both types of music could be enjoyed and weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive to each particular fan of hip-hop, but it was strange to think Puff Daddy’s “No Way Out” and something like Prince Paul’s “ A Prince Among Thieves” actually fell under the same category of music, relatively speaking.
And this is what I mean by Kanye representing a sort of gap between the two. He had the mainstream backing of Jay-Z and the Roc-A-Fella camp, which made him a known entity in that particular circle of fans. But behind the scenes, he was putting out songs like “My Way”, the original “Homecoming” with John Legend, “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” and so forth, that was fortifying himself as this creative force who wanted to take advantage of the platform he was afforded to do greater things. He was pretty much carving out his own special lane within hip-hop, which became a huge part of what made him so appealing.
It’s interesting reading Erika Ramirez’s oral history of “The College Dropout” (read the whole thing, it’s excellent, BTW), and finding out that the car accident that inspired “Through The Wire” was actually the moment that Kanye actually decided to go in a particular direction with his music. It’s surprising because most of his material pre-album release was already trending that way.
I’ll always hold a special spot for the “Jesus Walks” snippet that was making the rounds months (might have been years) before the album’s official release. When you hear the chanting at the start of the song, and Kanye breaks into that first verse, getting ramped up just as the snippet cuts off, it was one of those teasers that really put into context just how powerful his music was going to become.
Of course, falling in love with an artist’s work usually requires you to believe in the narrative of that particular person, and to develop a connection that makes the listener-artist relationship feel almost personal. I wouldn’t really debate with anyone that Big Pun, Kanye and Joe Budden (Mood Muzik era, feels like this needs clarifying because all anyone ever thinks of is “Pump It Up” when his name gets mentioned) are the three best rappers of their time, but if you asked me to list the artists I loved the most, that would be my podium.
As it relates to Kanye specifically, his rags-to-riches story that he would spell out in full detail on “Last Call” was easy to relate to for anyone who had dreams of getting to a better place. And by pushing those ideas on his songs, like exploring social limitations on “All Falls Down” and the frustrations of the status quo in “Spaceship”, Kanye made it easy to for listeners to connect to the music, no matter their background. The fact that the music itself was pleasing to listen to regardless of the lyrics was merely a plus.
Even revisiting the album ten years later, the music still resonates. Sure, the way “Spaceship” might have inspired a certain train of thought a decade ago when I was still in university (“Man, I need to get out of this stupid retail job I have”) is much different now at age 29 and married (“Man, I need to get out of this stupid corporate job I have”, okay, nevermind, still kind of the same). But the despair on that song still carries the same message, and elicits a similar reaction. The listener changes, but the music remains as influential as ever.
Of course, from “The College Dropout” to now, Kanye has become a larger-than-life personality, much bigger than I think any of us who followed him at the start thought he would ever become in terms of cache and personality. He was the best-kept-secret in hip-hop that a lot of us cherished for ourselves, and then overnight, he became this sensation that we had to share with everyone. And these people would have so many gripes about him, that I almost feel the need to defend him all the time, not because I think he’s always right, but because most people don’t seem to know or want to know his full story. And if you did, as a lot of us do, you would at least understand the thought process behind his actions, even if you didn’t necessarily agree.
So, I’m not sure if there is a massive, giant, overarching big picture takeaway from the fact that “The College Dropout” is turning ten next week. Except that it allows a moment to stop and appreciate Kanye’s contribution to music, and recognize him as one of the truly influential artists of our time.
Okay, I’m done writing what probably ended up being the longest promoted tweet for an artist ever.