In the late 90s and early aughts, before the world ever really knew who he was, Kanye West was merely just a record producer. He cut his teeth ghost-producing tracks for Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, a member of Diddy's Hitmen production team, and turned his uncredited work into a staff producer position at Roc-A-Fella Records, where he sped up the classic soul samples that would come to define the fledgling label's characteristic sound. He produced hits for Jay-Z ("I.Z.Z.O." and "03 Bonnie and Clyde") and others like Talib Kweli ("Get By") and Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name").
But Kanye wasn't content with being stuck behind the scenes. He rapped too, and saw producing for other artists merely as his entry point into the music business. It was all just an elaborate ruse for him to do his own thing. Still, industry reaction to his rapping was tepid, and this was the height of the street rap era; nobody wanted to hear a middle class art school dropout rap about his feelings. After struggling to land a deal, Roc-A-Fella chief Damon Dash reluctantly signed him in 2002 with the idea that he'd produce a compilation album for the label's roster of talent, which at the time included acts like Cam'ron, Beanie Sigel and the Young Gunz, among others.
That album would never materialize, because little did Dame know, Kanye was silently toiling away on The College Dropout, a paradigm-shifting solo LP which would come to influence almost every bit of hip-hop that came after it. And yet the soul-baring record may have never even saw the light of day, if not for a car accident West experienced in October of 2002, which inspired "Through The Wire," a song he wrote and recorded while still recovering in the hospital. Released officially in the fall of 2003, West spent his own money to promote the song, dropped mixtapes and performed relentlessly in an effort to drum up interest. His efforts paid off and people eventually started paying attention. But while that song grabbed the critics and fans, it merely peaked at No. 15 on the Hot 100. It was his second single, "Slow Jamz," featuring Twista and Jamie Foxx, which ratcheted up the charts and landed at number one. Finally, Kanye West, the artist, had arrived.
"The College Dropout" landed in stores on February 10th, 2004. The third and fourth singles — "All Falls Down" and "Jesus Walks" — kept Kanye West on the radio throughout the year, and the project eventually went on to sell 3.3 million copies to date, according to Nielsen Soundscan. At the 2005 Grammy Awards, it was nominated in ten categories, and won home three awards (Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song: "Jesus Walks," and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration: "Slow Jamz"). But more than awards and record sales, though, the project welcomed a new voice to hip-hop and American pop culture at large. "The College Dropout" was the voice of levity. The voice of a dreamer. The voice of someone who nobody took seriously. 'Ye sounded like everyone else in the disenfranchised middle class, people who had to be rich just to be poor. Someone who understood them, and had a way out. "The College Dropout" was it.
There is no way to talk about "The College Dropout" without its skits, which tie the album together. Here, comedian DeRay Davis (impersonating Bernie Mac) opens things up and asks Kanye to do something for the kids, on their graduation day. It sets up the concept of the record, which is essentially Kanye speaking to the student body from the standpoint of a dropout who made good on his life sans college degree.
"We Don't Care"
The celebratory track finds Kanye, like a valedictorian, stating his position to the graduating class — they shouldn't care what anyone thinks of them. "We forced to sell crack, rap and get a job/ You gotta do something man you're ass is grown," he spits over a steady drum pattern and chopped sample. Elsewhere, children sing, "We wasn't supposed to make it past twenty-five/ Jokes on you, we still alive." It's this idea that people are just trying to get by, and with the odds already stacked against them, they'd never planned to do much with their lives. Survival was their priority.
DeRay (as Bernie Mac) returns, incredulous at the song Kanye has just delivered to the students. He calls him the n-word, and tells 'Ye he's not graduating, at which point the music takes a much darker tone — minor key strokes and a sweeping string arrangement — setting up the rest of the LP.
"All Falls Down" feat. Syleena Johnson
Kanye at his confessional best, acknowledging that his addiction his not wealth; rather, it's consumerism. Over muted guitar licks, he spits: "Then I spent four hundred bucks on this/just to be like ni--a you ain't up on this!" The original mixtape version features samples of Lauryn Hill's "Mystery of Iniquity," from her "MTV Unplugged No. 2.0" album. But, when it came time for the official version, Hill was nowhere to be found. She was replaced by Syleena Johnson, who most certainly holds her own.
"I'll Fly Away"
A short rendition of Albert E. Brumley's classic gospel hymn, sung by a then-unknown John Legend. It's more of a skit than a song, but again, sets up the next track, which deals with the themes of escapism. It's in these early Kanye experiences where you can see his penchant for big conceptual ideas taking shape.
"Spaceship" feat. GLC and Consequence
A sample of Marvin Gaye's "Distant Lover" provides the backdrop for Kanye and his comrades to detail needing day jobs to finance their rapping dreams: "I've been working this graveshift, and I made shit/ I wish I could, buy me a spaceship and fly, past the sky." ‘Ye melodically croons, while rapping about the hypocrisy of being the only black employee at The Gap.
Over a skittering drumline, Yeezy goes in on organized religion, acknowledging that he needs Jesus, but questioning how helpful he'll be. He speaks of the American Midwest — a region filled with its fair share of blight, back in 2004, the same as now — and says that it too, needs Jesus, but to what end? He hopes the song will help absolve him of his sins, but he'll have to report back to us from pearly gates when he gets there.
"Never Let Me Down" feat. Jay-Z and J. Ivy
Perhaps looking to cash in on the slam poetry explosion of the time, J. Ivy — a Chicago native who'd appeared on HBO's Def Poetry Jam — finds himself sandwiched between Kanye and Jay-Z, kicking the rare poem on a rap album. The results are mixed, and mostly it's because Jay-Z phones in a verse about making number one albums when the rest of the cut is about overcoming racism and undefeatable odds.
"Get 'Em High" feat. Common and Talib Kweli
Fun fact: before he was famous, Talib Kweli used to take Kanye West on the road with him, and he used to interrupt his shows too. In an attempt to pay him back for that favor, Kanye recruited him and Chi-town hero Common for "Get 'Em High," one of the album's more playful cuts. Rapping about using the Internet to hook up with girls? A very honest and open portrayal of every twenty-something's real life. Kanye, again, showing that he wasn't caught up in the fantasy world of being a rapper. He was one of us.
"Workout Plan" [Skit]
A simulation of what would ordinarily be a nail salon conversation about what else?: losing weight. It looks to highlight the reasoning many women have for hitting the gym and the honest conversations that surround those efforts.
"The New Workout Plan"
Some critics argue that "The New Workout Plan" doesn't fit in with the rest of the album, but critics are traditionally anti-fun, so that explains that. This playful jam should be commended as much for its conceptual ingenuity as its arrangement; it effortlessly transitions from juke to four-on-the-floor Chicago house, and in a nod to his forbearers, even includes a soul clap. Miri Ben-Ari's violin work can be heard all over this track, and sonically you can hear the beginnings of Kanye's maximalist approach — songs inside of songs — taking shape.
"Slow Jamz" feat. Twista and Jamie Foxx
Kanye's first number one record on the Hot 100, and ultimately the track that put "The College Dropout" over the top. Lyrics like, "Got a light skinned friend looked like Michael Jackson/ Got a dark skinned friend looked like Michael Jackson," displayed 'Ye's infectious lyrical wit. Paired with Jamie Foxx's surprisingly nimble voice and Twista's rapid-fire flow, "Slow Jamz" became one of the biggest songs of 2004.
"Breathe In Breathe Out" feat. Ludacris
"Breathe In Breathe Out" looks better than it sounds. Ludacris was one of the hottest rappers out at the time, but for whatever reason, he's relegated to hook duty here and doesn't add much. "First ni--a with a Benz and packpack," Kanye rhymes, over bluesy trumpets. Not a bad song per se, but with its spare arrangement, it just doesn't live up to the rest of the album.
"School Spirit Skit 1"
Davis delivers the first part of a hilarious skit that pokes fun at the post-college experience: the graduate who has to work a menial job even though he/she has a degree. Millennials everywhere know exactly what that's about.
Kanye West is done with the fraternity life. "I'ma get on this TV mama, I'ma put shit down," he spits, singing a line that would eventually be incorporated in his 2007 hit "Good Life." A declarative boast about washing his hands of the school experience, complete with ending shots at Omega Psi Phi. ("I feel a ‘woo' coming on cuz."). Vicious.
"School Spirit Skit 2"
"When I die buddy, you know what's gonna keep me warm? That's right, those degrees." More hilarity from DeRay Davis, who takes shots at the ridiculousness of higher education.
"Lil Jimmy Skit"
A continuation of the "School Spirit" skits, but goes even further, and shows how a family that chooses education over finance won't be able to leave anything of value to their children. Pity.
"Two Words" feat. Mos Def and Freeway
This Mandrill-sampled cut sees Kanye adding live guitars, piano, a string arrangement and the Harlem Boys Choir, making it perhaps the symphonic high point of the record. What's more, conscious hip-hop and street rap meet on the same track, with Mos Def and Freeway featured. It's Kanye bridging the gap between the two worlds, as if to say, ‘hey, this is all hip-hop and we're all not that much different.'
"Through The Wire"
This is the song that started it all. Kanye, post-car accident, rapping with his jaw wired. Though the track is devoid of a hook — ‘Ye even apologizes for not speaking that clearly; such humility! — it's an endearing cut that displays his passion for the craft. His passion for life, too.
One of the most soulful cuts on the record, "Family Business" finds Kanye waxing poetic about the loving relationships he shares with his family members. If you dig around online, there's a demo version of this cut with some slight differences in the piano melody and lyric delivery. Worth checking out, just to see how much work went into the final version.
In Jay-Z's 2004 retirement movie "Fade to Black," there's a scene in which Kanye plays Hova the instrumental to "Last Call," which should be an indication that it could have wound up as just any other song on "The Black Album." Luckily, it escaped that fate and became Kanye's 15-minute rags-to-riches tale about getting signed to Roc-A-Fella. It's really on this last cut, just hearing Kanye talk over the jazzy instrumental, where the brilliance of "The College Dropout" — and the brilliance of Kanye West, the artist — is fully realized. It never gets boring or dull. The music is dynamic, the story is engaging, and Kanye sounds excited just to be living his dream. We were excited just to be living it along with him, on record.