10 years ago today, the greatest rap (musical?) debut of this century came out. Kanye West’s College Dropout dropped in like a breath of fresh air and my ears and love of hip-hop would not be the same. I wrote in brief for Bro Jackson about it but I need to expand more.
For me, it was the first time a rapper had touched me in a way I could relate. I connected with Eminem for his passion, Nas for his lyricism and Tribe Called Quest for their vibe. I enjoyed Nelly and I tolerated 50 Cent while not becoming the full G-Unit fan most were. I still hadn’t found too many rappers that spoke to where I was.
That’s where Kanye West came in. A middle-class kid from Chicago who grew up like I did. A guy who didn’t fit in to what convention said a rapper should be just like I wasn’t what most of my peers expected of Black kids. He cared about his fashion, wore backpacks and looked like a combination of underground cred with mainstream appeal.
I remember watching the MTV Diary special on him and wondering how this guy who produced for Jay-Z, Scarface and Talib Kweli would fare as a rapper. I remember hearing about his accident and wondering why “Through the Wire” sounded so weird but was a bold step. That alone would’ve given him buzz for an album but an even bigger reason helped.
When we look back at rap, “Slow Jamz” has to be one of the biggest songs of recent memory. It boosted three careers - Twista who became a platinum crossover, Jamie Foxx as he revived his R&B side and set the stage for Kanye’s production/witty rapping to come full swing on Dropout.
Oh, and I also feel this is Kanye’s most lyrical album too. He’s still a great writer with emotional content (as opposed to just emotion) but his bars have wavered from 10 years ago. He’s a much more confident MC now but I feel that his lyricism hasn’t always been as consistent as it was on Dropout.
Here are my favorites…
Spaceship - working in retail never sounded so unglamorous but you could relate to it if you worked a job that sucked. It felt so appropriate cause many my age had jobs like that and it still feels appropriate if you’re working a dead-end job.
Get Em High - So much groove and rhythm in this one. I remember playing this loving Kanye’s 2nd verse and it perfectly segued into Talib Kweli’s verse. But besides the crazy beat and some witty Ye lines, this is all about Common’s comeback. So many bars, so many lines (Control rap is out of, “When the industry crash, I survive like Kanye - spitting through wires and fires, MC’s retiring)
Jesus Walks - I couldn’t forget this song. Rhymefest wrote a great first verse to set up Kanye’s empathetic 2nd verse. I was still moved because again, I could relate to it. Faith was and is a big part of my life and to paint Jesus as living among us was again a bold step but an incredible song. I still can’t believe this song became a hit because its as daring a rap single as any recently. Yes it’s hypocritical cursing in a song that mentions Jesus and I can’t overlook it but the passion and delivery moved me
All Falls Down - I usually love Kanye’s first singles more than his second but everything about this hit me. You can read my blurb for a funny story on it but the openness, the vulnerability, the fact to sample Lauryn Hill expressing her pain and using it to be so open about his self-consciousness.
Never Let You Down - 1) Kanye outshined Jay here so much that it’s my favorite K. West verse, 2) J. Ivy’s poem touched me so much I wanted to print it and place it on my wall, 3) It inspired me because of my deep loyalty to my friends. It’s such a building beat and Kanye showed me why he touched me deep. He wasn’t afraid to speak out on real topics than just balling.
At the time, he was a bridge between underground and the mainstream. He had cache from Jay and others but also rolled with Kweli, dead prez and Common. He also benefited from a change in rap climate.
There was more emphasis on conscious rappers coming around. Also key to remember was 2004 saw albums from established folks Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Eminem, Nas, The Roots and other big names that were underwhelming. Jay-Z was heading to retirement with “99 Problems” blowing our minds and ear drums.
Nelly’s “Sweat” and “Suit” combo was more chill than club bangers. 50 Cent and G-Unit were running rap. So the timing was perfect for Kanye to arrive as something new and he help lift a few boats with his rising tide (see Dilated Peoples and Slum Village)
Nobody back then could have imagined him would be the big star he is now (him selling 441K out of the gate was a shock to me, I remember). The irony is that his career resembles the music industry. Every album since has debuted at No. 1 with big sales but has collectively sold less than the last one. All despite his star growing bigger and bigger.
Maybe that’s why I love Dropout so much. It not only changed the game, it changed how I saw rap. It was the birth of the most unlikely pop star I’ve seen and it connected with me on an emotional level at a perfect time in my life. While Kanye is far from the only rapper to be emotional and vulnerable, he’s one of the best at it for me (as I've stated before). This album takes me back to a time when he was happier and his music sounded as fresh as anybody I’ve ever heard.