The idea of writing about the College Dropout has been floating in my mind for a few weeks now. Today, I read, is the 10 year anniversary of this landmark album. Aside from making me feel old, I'll use this moment to throw my two cents in on reflecting on this important album. I really hope I don't come off sounding like a "I-liked-him-before-he-got-big" hipster.
There is certainly an argument to be made that (with an exception for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) Kanye's albums got worse and worse. This isn’t so much a dig at all of the albums that follow. Late Registration and Graduation are both excellent. 808s is frustrating. Yeezus is unlistenable, but I’ll get to that later. The distance between my love for Kanye’s best albums and his worst albums is probably the furthest than on any other artist. Mr. West likely would not have it any other way. His M.O. seems, looking back, is just to make people talk—whether that means letting Taylor Swift finish, deciding to try his hand at architecture on a whim, or wearing a leather man-skirt, Kanye from the very start, made people talk.
What was refreshing about The College Dropout is that it just felt different. Hip-Hop, especially late in the 90s and into the early part of the new century, was dominated by bravado. This isn’t an indictment of the culture, but a fact. Rappers were focused on wealth, material goods, and generally appearing more macho. Here was this middle-class guy, the son of a Black Panther and a college English professor. His pants weren’t sagging, he was wearing polos, and he named his debut album after his inability to finish college. He was vulnerable.
The first single supporting the album (not including promotional single “Through the Wire” or collaboration “Slow Jamz”) was “All Falls Down.” I remember listening to this song, ten years ago, riding to school in the bitch seat of an SUV between some of my best friends. The major declaration in this song comes in the last verse.
“But I ain't even gonna act holier than thou /
Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with twenty-five thou /
Before I had a house and I'd do it again /
Cause I want to be on 106 and Park pushin' a Benz /
I want to act ballerific like it's all terrific /
I got a couple past due bills, I won't get specific /
I got a problem with spendin' before I get it /
We all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it”
Those last ten words are some of the most important I’ve ever heard in any hip-hop song. The fact that there is another level of consciousness in that line, which is a sentiment carried throughout the whole album, is what makes The College Dropout special. He was different and he knew he was different. He knew that vulnerability, that self-consciousness, was what separated him from the pack. That’s probably what makes the road Kanye has travelled since then all the more frustrating.
No matter how avant-garde he may push the hip-hop envelope, I can’t help but believe he has become more and more like the rest. He started with such an excellent foundation to speak from a unique perspective, and on top of that he has built hollow proclamations on how he is the greatest alive. He fell into the bravado booby trap and became one of those types of rappers. Maybe we should have seen it coming, because he alludes to it on “Breathe In, Breathe Out.”
“Always said if I rapped I'd say somethin' significant /
But now I'm rappin' 'bout money, hoes, and rims again”
Is it too much to ask for a rapper that can maintain that human element of vulnerability? Maybe that torch has been passed onto Drake or Kendrick Lamar, but I think it’s necessary to temper the extravagance of mainstream hip-hop with some of that self-consciousness to which Kanye refers. I find it comforting then, that the same day Kanye released his latest album, Yeezus, in which he proclaims himself a rap god, J. Cole released Born Sinner, proving that there is still hope for mainstream hip-hop showcasing that vulnerability.
When all is said and done (with Kanye, it’s almost inevitable that more will be said than done), I can only hope that people remember the vulnerable college dropout who brought us "Jesus Walks," and not the megalomaniacal rap god who brought us Yeezus.