The College Dropout was Kanye West’s debut album. Years in the making, this was the thoughtful, well-executed album that shook the hip-hop industry. Arriving on February 10th 2004, it was this album that provided the solid groundwork upon which West would base his controversial career. Fifteen years on, the role it played for the industry and his career becomes increasingly apparent.
Before Kanye West was the controversial and unpredictable artist we know in 2018, he had humble beginnings as a producer. As the man behind some of Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, and Talib Kweli’s most successful work, he was constantly exploring different sounds and styles and developing his edge as a producer. While he was working hard to make a name for himself in the industry through his production credentials, he was busy accumulating ideas for his own solo career. He made a great producer, but Kanye knew he was destined for fame.
His debut album was a long time coming. 1999 was the year that is attributed as the year the recording of The College Dropout started, which is over four years prior to its public arrival. The date was pushed back three times and ended up being nearly a year later than anticipated due to West’s perfectionism.
On his debut record, Kanye West was incredibly real. He was relatable. He was taking a screenshot of his life and what he was experiencing, from the disappointment he felt from his mother and the outside world for dropping out of college to pursue his music career, to a near-fatal car crash he experienced during the recording of the album. There was no mirage of a lavish lifestyle filled with excess on The College Dropout. This was as real as a person could get.
West described The College Dropout as ‘whatever you’ve been through in the last week’. It stepped away from the glitzy gangsta rap that portrayed an unrealistic lifestyle – a trademark of music from that era of hip-hop. While West let fans into his personal life, he also exerted a high level of self-awareness as he observed the world around him. The album explores a variety of themes and topics, ultimately framed by the institutional faults West saw in the world – from feeling let down by the education & the work system, the consumerism he saw around him, the role of religion, race issues, and of course, family.
From a production angle, West was a breath of fresh air. There was nothing at the time that was comparable. His finesse for sampling was as crystal clear, right from the start. Across fourteen tracks, the album features twelve samples from the Soulful greats. Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Tupac and more all appear on the record, some making appearances more obvious than others. West became known for his inclusion of soul and funk in his otherwise hip-hop tracks, which established himself as a pioneer for the R&B/Pop/Funk hip-hop cross-genre that he worked in. In conjunction with sampling, West popularised the ‘Chipmunk’ effect, where he would speed up the track resulting in high pitched vocals, which he would normally layer over a sample – an effect that has been utilised across by the board by artists since.
The College Dropout was praised for its effective and meaningful collaborations with artists who clearly cared about the project, opposed to just teaming up with stars for a commercial hit. These features added to his tracks rather than subtracted, as could be argued for many other collaborative efforts of the time. His friends Jay-Z, Twista, and Ludacris all made appearances as well as soul singer Syleena Johnson. Once again, West was ahead of the musical curve.
The College Dropout took the world by storm and gave Kanye West the break he had been working so hard for. At the 2005 Grammy’s, Kanye West was nominated for a massive ten awards. The College Dropout won Best Rap Album, and the stand out single ‘Jesus Walks’ won best Rap song.
The College Dropout has stood the test of time. Fifteen years on and ten projects later, it still remains as honest as ever with cutting edge production. While it never hit number one, it has sold over four million copies worldwide and stands as his most popular record to date. It has become a classic in its own name, as West pioneered the more emotional, self-conscious hip-hop we hear today. It’s the most relatable we’ve ever heard Kanye West, and perhaps the most relatable we ever will.