Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"The College Dropout" at 10 and Kanye West's Beautiful Dark Twisted Career

Yesterday (February 10) marked the 10th anniversary of the release of The College Dropout, Kanye West's stunning debut album. It's hard to imagine that there was once a world in which his massive ego, brilliant music and spot-on South Park caricature didn't exist. Kanye's spent his career making incredible albums - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy being his masterpiece, 808s & Heartbreak and Yeezus his experimental works, Late Registration and Graduation being towering rap records - and self-aggrandizing statements and actions that have made him an easy target to lampoon/hate/praise.

But before he became Mr. Kim Kardashian, before he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the VMAs (what he said was right, what he did was wrong), and before he proclaimed "I inspire me," West was a producer from Chicago whose beats caught the ear of Jay Z. Jay Z then had West produce a number of tracks for his 2000 album The Blueprint, which now has the reputation of being among the best rap albums of all time. Of course, it didn't take long for West to produce his own debut, and after several delays, it was finally released to enormous acclaim. The album would go on to sell over three million copies and earned West ten Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year, of which he won three (including Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for "Jesus Walks").

More after the break.

So what is it about The College Dropout that makes it such a huge deal, other than introducing the world to West's mad genius? First off, there's the fact Kanye the rapper was just as immensely talented as Kanye the producer, coming out of the gate as a fully-formed voice. What he sometimes lacked in rhymes (he's one of the most notable lyricists that rhymes a word with itself), he made up for in sheer confidence and style, showing off a braggadocio that belied an open-book glimpse at his insecurities. In our post-Drake world, it's easy to forget that mainstream rap was once a place with very little introspection, and that West was among the first major artists to unabashedly discuss his inner thoughts and fears (it's also worth noting that Drake's career would not have been possible without the influence of 808s & Heartbreak). Songs like "Jesus Walks" and "Never Let Me Down" were achingly human, while "Through the Wire" recounted his own struggles that brought him to his success. That's not to say this is all late-night confessions; "The New Workout Plan" and "School Spirit" - plus the various skits - show off his sense of humor, while "Spaceship" and "We Don't Care" find him lashing out at privileged society, and "Slow Jamz" is the, well, slow jam (of sorts).

It's his beats, though, that helped make this a stone-cold classic. West was a pioneer of the "chipmunk soul" sound - samples from classic soul and R&B sped re-appropriated and pitch-shifted several octaves higher than the original. The result is a production value that's lush and intricate, working in ways that are as original as West himself. From the jazzy horn flourishes of "Family Business" to the strumming guitar of "All Falls Down," the production is perfectly matched for the material, and the result is a rap album that takes well-worn ideas and puts a new spin to them.

There are only a few rap debuts that can classify themselves as classics of the genre. Nas' Illmatic - getting it's own 20th-anniversary release later this year - is one, as are Jay Z's Reasonable Doubt, Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full, N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre's The Chronic, and Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die. But The College Dropout is an interesting case because it's the most recent one to spawn a lasting career. The only truly great debut since then, Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.a.a.d. city, is so recent that we have yet to see how his career pans out (it's incredibly promising, though).

Regardless of the many twists and turns that West's career has taken, there's no denying that his less-than-humble beginning was a remarkable effort. It's rare for an artist to hit a grand slam on his first at-bat, but then again, West has never been anything short of unpredictable. The College Dropout is testament to that.

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