The people who complain about Kanye West as a person really have no fuel here (not that they ever did); The College Dropout is a really humbling experience. He has to beg Talib Kweli to tell the girl that they’re friends so he can fuck her on “Get Em High” and when the girl asks him to “do it faster” on “Slow Jamz,” a sexual jam that turns into a showcase for Twista, Kanye throws his hands up and lets Twista have her because he knows he can’t satiate her speed-wise. On “Last Call,” he namedrops A Tribe Called Quest and Bun B as people he looks up to (even if it’s just because of the company they keep; “Girl he had with him – ass could have won the horse awards”). Compare the people he namedrops here to the people he namedrops on Yeezus (ie. Jesus) for perspective of how much has changed in the near-decade in between. And it’s not just the namedrops: he details how hard his life used to be on “Family Business” where he shares a bed with five of his cousins and cockroaches, or the autobiography portion of “Last Call” (worth it to hear all the way to the end at least once). Then there’s the self-depreciation: “Somebody please say grace so I can save face / And have a reason to cover my face”; “You ain’t have to tell my girl I used to pee in the bed”; “Her guy look like Emmett Till”; “I look like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky“; “All Falls Down”‘s final verse ends with “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.
The people who complain about Kanye West as a lyricist really have no fuel here either (not that they ever did because Kanye West’s strengths have always been his beats; more on that later); he raps his heart out on The College Dropout as if scared that said beats wouldn’t have been enough. Let’s start with some of his most quotable lines, even a decade after the fact: “Some of them dyslexis / They favorite 50 Cent song ’12 Questions’”; “Trying to be a millionaire, how I used two lifelines”; “The doctor said I had blood clots, but I ain’t Jamaican, man”; “She got a light-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson”; “My money was thinner than Sean Paul’s goatee hair”; “They say he bougie, he big-headed / Would you please stop talking about how my dick head is”; “I’m Kan, the Louis Vuitton Don / Bought my mom a purse, now she Louis Vuitton Mom”; “’Oh my God, is that a black card?’ / I turned around and replied ‘Why yes, but I prefer the term African American Express.’”
Fine, you find some of those to be laughable (I admit I have no idea why I find the Louis Vuitton Mom line so funny). How about the way he purposely mispronounces words to make them rhyme in a way that’s more endearing than it is annoying on “All Falls Down” (“Now, tell me that ain’t insecurr / The concept of school seems so securr / Sophomore, three yurrs, ain’t picked a carurr / She like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just stay down here and do hair’”)? How about how he acknowledges his own arrogance in the second verse of “Last Call” before immediately justifying it (“Some say he arrogant. Can y’all blame him? / It was straight embarrassing how y’all played him / Last year shoppin my demo, I was tryin’ to shine / Every motherfucker told me that I couldn’t rhyme / Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem / Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams / I use it as my gas, so they say that I’m gassed / But without it I’d be last, so I ought to laugh”)? How about the visceral lines in the first verse of “Jesus Walks” made more-so by the interjecting “Niggas” (“Where restless niggas might snatch your necklace / And next these niggas might jack your Lexus / Somebody tell these niggas who Kanye West is”)? How about the way Kanye West runs through “They-said-I-could-rap-about-anything-except-for-Jesus!” in the second verse of “Jesus Walks” (he’ll never go as fast ever again in his life)?
Actually, though he very clearly sets himself up to be the voice of our generation on “Jesus Walks,” he implicitly does so on the album as a whole. There’s a(n extremely loose) concept throughout The College Dropout. It might have been a bad idea to pile three skits in a four-track stretch, but I personally identify with Kanye West pointing out the follies of higher education in “School Spirit Skits 1 and 2” and “Lil Jimmie,” as well as the opening verse of “All Falls Down”: “She has no idea what she’s doing in college / That major that she majored in don’t make no money / But she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny.” Whereas two and a half decades ago, it was revolutionary to hear the children chanting on Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part II,” it sounds cheesy and dated compared to Kanye West rallying an entire school to yell out “Drug dealing just to get by / Stack your money ‘til it gets sky high” on opener “We Don’t Care.” Speaking of children, I get goosebumps when the kid begs his parents at the end of “Family Business” to stop fighting. And while I’m on the skits, Bernie Mac is hilariously over-the-top on “Intro” and “Graduation Day” (“You’s a nigga, and I don’t mean that in no nice way”), and the latter shifts into one of my favorite John Legend contributions ever.
But of course, the beats – the beats! Everyone’s probably already familiar with what a novel idea it was to speed up soul samples until it sounded like chipmunks were singing them (“School Spirit” and “Through the Wire” are the most obvious, but an unrecognizable and very-feminine-sounding Marvin Gaye is the catchiest part of “Spaceship”) (serious question: has any other artist put chipmunk soul to as great use as the songs here afterwards?), so let’s skip those. Everyone’s probably already familiar with instantly catchy beats like the flamenco guitar that drives the choruses of “All Falls Down” and the unstoppable groove of “Get Em High,” so let’s skip those as well. Let’s talk about the kinetic bass in the verses of “All Falls Down” instead or the bongos in “Through the Wire” that I never noticed until my fiftieth play-through or the string hook that’s even more important than John Legend on “Graduation Day” or how the soul sample that’s cut before decay can even think to begin and the punctuating chord right after of “Two Words.” Elsewhere, let’s talk about how affectionate it is to hear an entire family sing the hook on “Family Business” and the odd effect that’s generated from the speech that’s constantly cut up or cut off. But my favorite detail is the synth hook that appears halfway through the rapped portion of “Last Call” (around the time when Kanye mentions Bun B, and the beat stops right after to make room for it after the horse awards line) that’s fully-integrated with the rest of the beat thereafter.
Just so we’re clear, the only songs that I skip are “The New Workout Plan” and its introductory skit (it confuses me why Kanye West admonishes “Gold Digger” so much for being pop pandering when this is clearly much worse in that regard) and “Breathe In Breathe Out”, which manages to be more obnoxious because it’s not as funny.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy seems poised to becoming the most Important album of the new decade, but The College Dropoutwas and remains my favorite Kanye West album.