By Varun Kumar
In the 3rd grade, our class had a weekly reading activity in which we read a news story from Time magazine. That was how I first heard the name Kanye West. The article, which I was assigned to read aloud, was about Kanye’s breakthrough in commercial hip hop/mainstream radio and his latest single, “Jesus Walks”. When I first read this article, neither I nor my classmates thought much about it. Kanye was not the first rapper I had ever heard of, but he was a rapper I would continue to follow throughout my life.
The most remarkable (and notorious) thing about Kanye West is his ego. The debut albums of other rap superstars like Drake or Jay-Z tend to play it safe in terms of subject matter and musical style. The same cannot be said for The College Dropout. It was risky in just about every imaginable way, from its anti-mainstream subject matter to its uncharacteristic soul sampling to the unbelievably high level of confidence conveyed from a fledgling rapper. There is no filter as Kanye speaks his mind on politics, racism and education through “Never Let Me Down”, “Two Words”, and “Spaceship,” or even makes a dance track like “Slow Jamz”.
Perhaps the most impactful aspect of The College Dropout is its ideas. First, the album title itself is quite interesting. In a society embedded with the notion that college dropouts amount to nothing, we see a young rapper practically bragging about it. In the song “We Don’t Care”, Kanye West is basically laughing in the faces of all the professors and classmates who thought he would amount to nothing due to his poor college performance. While such an execution may come off as self- centered or immature, Kanye gives it such a passionate vibe that it only conveys positivity and hopefulness.
Easily the most incredible aspect of this album is the commercial success of “Jesus Walks”. To see a song that is about religion being played in clubs and on the radio and even earning multiple Grammy nominations is nothing short of amazing. It is the kind of record that revolutionizes the entire concept of mainstream music. And in the song itself, we see Kanye West struggling to break this barrier. He famously preaches, “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, videotapes/ But if I talk about God my record won’t get played/ Huh?” And throughout the album, we see Kanye attempt to break down preconceived notions related to education, politics, family, self-consciousness, etc.
Perhaps the biggest thing about Kanye’s rapping ability is his passion. It is clearly true that he is not as proficient an MC as some of his colleagues like Common, Jay-Z or Talib Kweli, but Kanye’s confidence and passion are in everything he says. Such is the case with the first single of the album, “Through the Wire”. Kanye was involved in a near fatal car accident before this song was created. The accident gave birth to the concept of this song, since Kanye’s jaw had to be wired shut; Kanye decided to rap on this song while he had his jaw wired and the result is nothing short of greatness. It is this level of passion and dedication from Kanye to the ode of music-making that defines this album.
Some hip hop fans who loved Kanye during his first few albums are not fans of him anymore. From his autotune electro-pop album 808s & Heartbreak to the Taylor Swift altercation to the highly polarizing rawness that was Yeezus, it may seem that Kanye has forgotten his way. However, Kanye has never lost his message. Ten years later and he’s still trying to break down boundaries. People criticize him for saying that he wants to achieve on a high-level scale like Steve Jobs. But the truth is that ten years ago, Kanye West was just a producer and when he confidently spat out his self-promotional lyrics, people did the same thing they do today: they laughed at him. Society is suffused with the belief that it is wrong to speak highly of oneself. And while people still continued to criticize him, he managed to deliver some of the greatest albums of the 2000s, influencing many artists and winning 21 Grammy awards in the process.
Ten years later, Kanye West is still a dreamer. And it all started with College Dropout, his ultimate love letter to dreaming.