10 Years Later: The College Dropout

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By: Connor Lenahan, Patrick McKay & Max Hollander

Ten years ago today marks the world’s first introduction to Kanye West. Sure, he had been around the rap world for a while, producing some of the best beats ever made like “Heart of the City,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Lucifer,” and “Encore” all for Jay Z in the early 2000s. But this was the moment the world met Kanye West the rapper. With the release of The College Dropout music met the man who would go on to create some of the most incredible music of all time while touching all aspects of culture from music to fashion with everything in between.

I was only nine when this album came out, so I’m not going to pretend that the fourth grade version of myself knew the importance of this release to music history in the moment. That would be ridiculous and false. I openly admit to not falling in love with this album until years later, but even though it was a delayed discovery it still holds a place in my heart. The College Dropout isn’t the greatest album Kanye ever made, that would be 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, nor is it really close to his best work. In the realm of Kanye West The College Dropout is actually one of his weaker albums. That said, it’s still one of the best albums released in the past fourteen years. That’s how incredible Kanye West is as an artist. The theory I’ve seen across the board is that it’s easy for an artist’s debut to be amazing. They’ve spent years crafting it. Kanye spent five years working on The College Dropout. The theory goes on to claim that the true test of an artist’s merit is how they follow it up. Seeing as Kanye followed The College Dropout with five ungodly amazing solo albums in Late Registration, Graduation, 808’s and Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Yeezus while also collaborating with his big brother Jay to make Watch The Throne in 2011 it is more than fair to say Kanye passes this test.

Ten years into his career it’s unfathomable to think Kanye has only been around for this singular decade. He made that seismic of a shift on music. It all began today all those years ago. So it’s a day worth celebrating. A day to recognize one of the most important album drops in music history. To commemorate the anniversary I recruited some fellow Kanye fans to tackle some elements of the album that have stuck with us for years following the first time the CD hit shelves in the winter of 2004.

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Kanye’s Mission Statement

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            Connor Lenahan: “All Falls Down” wasn’t the first song I heard off of The College Dropout. That would be “Jesus Walks.” I remember hearing “Jesus Walks” during the summer between third and fourth grade and thinking that the song was awesome. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but I thought back to those days when I saw Kanye play it live last November in Boston. I had a moment of nostalgia to my introduction to Kanye West.

            “Jesus Walks” is still one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, but it’s not my favorite off of The College Dropout. “All Falls Down” has continuously grown on me as a beautiful piece of work that succinctly sums up Kanye West as a person. It’s always funny to view things in hindsight to see what’s changed over time, yet ten years removed and “All Falls Down” is still scarily appropriate to Kanye as a human being.

The song toes the line between autobiographical and political that has turned Kanye from a producer to a music legend. The song begins with a story about a girl trying to figure out her life in college. The verse is an obscenely thinly veiled moment of introspection for Kanye. Sure, he doesn’t have hair like Eve nor did he name his daughter Alexis, but there are clear indications about Kanye’s personal life scattered throughout. He isn’t talking about this fictional female’s college career at all. He’s talking about his own. He had no idea what he was doing in college so he dropped out and released an aptly titled debut album in The College Dropout. The closing line to the first verse, “single black female, addicted to retail,” still hits today as a direct characterization of Kanye save for the prefix “fe-.“

The second and third verses contain some lines that have become iconic in Kanye’s career. One section in the second verse remains one of the most beautiful moments in any song I’ve ever heard. “It seems we living the American dream/
But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem/
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
/For the road to riches and diamond rings/
We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us/
We trying to buy back our 40 acres/
And for that paper, look how low we’ll stoop
/Even if you in a Benz, you still a ni–a in a coupe.” Those eight bars are overwhelmingly poetic and gorgeous. It is to me one of my favorite Kanye moments. It’s what takes “All Falls Down” into the pantheon of rap songs in recent history. It’s the first time on the album you can hear evidence that Kanye is going to become a legend. No one that writes that can be a one hit wonder. It’s impossible. If nothing else, relisten to “All Falls Down” a few times tonight and tomorrow and the next day and think about how incredible that song is. That’s what I’ve done all day. It’s what makes me love The College Dropout.

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Broken Jaw

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Patrick McKay: The first time I heard Kanye West’s voice was on “Through the Wire,” a song that he rapped through a wired-shut jaw. I was eight years old, and the only exposure I’d had to rap up until then was 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” So you could say I was a bit naïve when it came to what was good rap and what was bad rap. Then I heard “Through the Wire” on the radio, and I forgot all about partying like it was my birthday. Starting from the beginning bars, “Through the Wire” is classic Kanye: opulent production, slick rhymes with meaning behind them. He immediately became the rapper that knows his flaws: “And I still won’t grow up, I’m a grown-ass kid/Swear I should be locked up for the stupid shit that I did/But I’m a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph/Make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire.” Even to an 8-year-old who was just discovering what girls were, this song struck a cord with me. Kanye knew that he wasn’t perfect, and there was no point in trying; he knew he had to make do with what he had, prevail through adversity, and make a song that began his reign as rap’s top dog.

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Meeting the Bear

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            Max Hollander: Kanye has always had interesting album art to say the least, but his first three albums all shared the same bear depicted in different ways.  Fans were introduced to the bear on the cover of The College Dropout. The bear first appeared as simple and plainly dressed sitting on bleachers in a gym with his head hanging, seemingly lacking confidence.  The bear only wore a red shirt, a jacket and jeans. When the bear appeared on the cover of Late Registration he had more style rocking a pair of jeans and a letterman jacket and arriving late to the college registration building.  The bear was standing with more confidence, standing with his head held high. This was a direct representation of Kanye; showing up late (as he always does, if you have ever been to one of his concerts you know what I mean) with his head high, not caring what people think. The bear on the Graduation cover was clearly modeled after Kanye’s style. He was rocking a gold and diamond encrusted Jesus piece, an obnoxious letterman jacket, a white tee, jeans, and a pair of Marty McFlys from Back to the Future. This was very fitting of Kanye at the time the album was released; extremely cocky dressed in ridiculous outfits. The progression of the bear throughout his first three albums always interested me because of how much it was transformed more and more into Kanye over the three years.

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Kanye’s Journey

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Connor Lenahan: To close his debut Kanye could have gone a number of different ways. He certainly could have stopped over the beautiful “Family Business” which clocks in as the twentieth track on the album. He had proved to every listener by this point that he was not fucking around. He was going to become the next legend of rap. It was clear, but Kanye has always had a penchant for ranting. It’s glorious really. He has never held back from speaking his mind. “Last Call” was our introduction to Kanye’s rants in the best possible way. Calling it a rant is unfair though as it’s not a charged as just about everything else he has said in the past ten years but it’s Kanye speaking his mind nonetheless. After laying down two of the meanest verses of the album and adding in some of my personal favorite Kanye lines like “I’m Kan, the Louis Vuitton don/Bought my mom a purse, now she Louis Vuitton Mom,” and “’Oh my god, is that a black card?’/I turned around and replied ‘Why yes, but I prefer the term African American Express,” Kanye spends nine minutes telling his story about how he got to this point. How he worked to get The College Dropout to happen.

It’s an incredible tale that details Kanye’s determination to become the best in the world. I would be unable to do the story justice by attempting to describe it. Kanye tells his story better than anyone. In reality, there’s no other way for this album to end. It’s like the graduation speech he never gave. Instead of following through on his education and getting a degree Kanye opted to reach for his dreams and try to become the star he is today. It’s inspirational in how it shows that dreams can come true. That’s really what Kanye’s career is. No matter what happens or how far he diverges from the twenty-six-year old that made this album nothing will change his journey.

Kanye has the room to himself with the opportunity to tell the story about how his dreams not only came true, but are coming true in the moment. The last nine minutes of “Last Call” are a realization of the hard work he had put in for years paying off. It’s impossible to blame him for wanting to share the moment. The result is an introspective one-man conversation that holds today as the most genuinely human Kanye has ever been.

 Connor Lenahan (@ConnorLenahan) is the founder and editor-in-chief of Connorlenahan.com. He is a freshman at Boston University, majoring in journalism. He can be emailed at lenahan@bu.edu

Patrick McKay (@Pmckay5) is a freshman at Boston University and a writer for The Daily Free Press. He enjoys the music of Kanye West almost as much as he enjoys napping.

Max Hollander (@HaxMollander) is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, a Kanye fanatic, sneaker expert and artist. He provided the incredible drawing of the Dropout Bear in this article.