February 12, 2004

Graduating With Honors

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The liner notes to Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout, read like a high school yearbook. Pictures from basketball games and graduation depict Kanye as your typical lost teenage soul, looking as though he feels dejected and inadequate in every picture, his shoulders slumped and a vacant expression permanently adorning his face. Two of the pages are presented as the senior pictures of the graduating class — the class being all the rappers and technicians who had a hand in the making of this album. Below the pictures read each character’s senior superlative.

There are actual yearbook photographs of eighteen-year-old Sean Carter (Jay-Z, “Most Popular”), Leslie Pridgen (Freeway, “Most Studious”), and Dante Smith (Mos Def, “Mos Flirtatious”), among others. And way down on the bottom right corner sits our protagonist, Mr. West himself, voted “Best Dressed” and, tellingly, “Most Unlikely to Succeed.” Whether such an ominous distinction was actually bestowed on West as a boy is not certain, but it stands as a perfect metaphor for Kanye’s underdog status throughout the album which details his rise from misguided and aimless student to his current position as one of the premier figures in all of mainstream hip-hop.

For someone whose name is relatively unknown to the American public, the hype surrounding this album has been enormous. Many times when a debut garners this much attention, it is due to a guest spot on an already established star’s album (see Snoop Dogg), or a killer demo tape that’s produced a sizable buzz within the underground (50 Cent). West, however, took a different path to stardom.

Kanye made a name for himself as a producer, leaving his mark all over the airwaves on hits such as Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A),” Talib Kweli’s “Get By,” and Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name.” He quickly became Roc-A-Fella’s top gun, and earned himself a place on the short list of the most coveted producers in hip-hop today, along with Timbaland and the Neptunes.

Through his production, West, like all great artists, has accomplished the rare feat of developing a signature, instantly recognizable style without ever sounding repetitive or formulaic. This combination eludes some of the most famous of beatmakers. Whereas Timbaland is known for his unmatched ability to draw inspiration from sounds and elements from everything outside of the music world, Kanye is just the opposite. His production is a melting pot of everything within the music world, recalling timeless soul standards from the 60s and 70s, classical, gospel, and even a little rock n’ roll as well.

But can he rap? The answer is an emphatic yes. The College Dropout is a concept album in its purest form, a long and winding tale that touches upon West’s scholarly struggles (from his time as a disaffected high-schooler to, yes, a college dropout), dealing cocaine for financial survival, and West’s near-fatal car crash in 2002.

In addition to his apparent storytelling skills, Kanye reveals a surprising and impressive cleverness with his lyrics. On the opening track, “We Don’t Dare,” West rants against the lack of academic opportunities for youth in urban America. “You know the kids gonna act a fool/ When you stop the programs for after school/ And they DCFS some of them dyslexic/ They favorite 50 Cent song’s ’12 Questions.'” This line perfectly outlines the interaction between passionate commentary and humorous wordplay that is laced throughout the album, becoming its defining characteristic. He also employs slant rhyming deftly at various points, rhyming “dessert” and “syrup” as “dizzert” and “sizzurp” on “Through the Wire.”

The musical styles West utilizes come from all over the map. Of course, there are his trademark soul-influenced joints such as the aforementioned “We Don’t Dare” and “Through the Wire” (which samples Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire”), as well as the blues and gospel-influenced tracks. West continues to amaze with his ability to take older music and make it his own, while still retaining the passion and feel of the originals. But the most impressive blending of musical genres comes on “The New Workout Plan.” The song’s first half is carried by the sound of orchestral violins laid over a fairly traditional beat. But halfway through, the song makes an unannounced, stunning, and seamless transition into electronica, ripping a page right out of Daft Punk’s playbook. Only Kanye West can travel from the symphony to the rave so quickly and so smoothly.

By the time the album is completed, West has essentially told his entire life story through vivid narration, skits and interludes which fill in the story’s gaps, and sweeping production whose fluctuating styles come full circle. Kanye West has proven to be very successful, indeed, with The College Dropout as a testament to his current musical prominence. It’s hard not to agree with Kanye when he boasts, “I swear this right here history in the making, man.”

Archived article by Ross McGowan