At the height of his fame, MC extraordinaire Jay-Z had a choice to make. Should he honor the request of Kanye West, an innovative young producer who wanted to rap over some of the beats he himself had crafted, or abide by his peers’ beliefs that those same beats would be better off saved for somebody else’s record?
In hindsight, this was one of the biggest turning points in the course of hip-hop history. Jay-Z’s decision to take a risk on West yielded the first of its many payoffs exactly ten years ago, on Feb. 10, 2004, when West released his debut album, “The College Dropout.”
“‘[The] College Dropout’ is one of the all-time great hip-hop debuts, probably the best example of a promising hip-hop debut actually leading to the great career it promised,” “Rolling Stone” critic Rob Sheffield told the Daily in an email.
“I think it’s a hip-hop landmark,” Professor of History Peniel Joseph said. “It reasserted a kind of authentic, intellectually-based voice of the streets … that [had] been lost by the time the album came out. In an age before Obama and after Apartheid, [West] was an astute observer of the ennui of black middle-class life.”
In 2003, the year that Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” (2002) and 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” were all-conquering, emerging from relative obscurity and securing hip-hop stardom was certainly a topical narrative. West himself capitalized on that trend when he released “The College Dropout’s” lead single, “Through the Wire,” in September.
The song had been recorded almost a year earlier while the rapper was confined to a Los Angeles hospital following a near-fatal car crash. To this day, hearing a man rap with a metal plate fastened to his jaw during surgery remains a unique and indelible listening experience.
“Strictly as a musical personality, he came across as so emotional and energetic, so full of curiosity and high spirits and invention,” Sheffield said, recalling the first time he saw “Through the Wire” performed live at a 2004 Miami concert. “It seemed he could go anywhere from there.”
“The College Dropout” further parlayed West’s early struggles as a musician into such captivating numbers as “Spaceship,” “Two Words” and “Last Call.” Elsewhere, the Chicago MC could be found wooing the ladies (“Slow Jamz”), thanking his relatives for everything (“Family Business”), and unwinding a bit with a few comedy tracks (“The New Workout Plan,” “Breathe in Breathe Out”).
Yet it was on the track “All Falls Down” that West hit a lyrical high point. The album’s third single established that, even with celebrity in his grasp, West still possessed the problems of the everyman. Life was as uncertain and scary for him as it was for the “single black female addicted to retail” he raps about on the track.
“It seemed very vulnerable, the whole song – a kind of vulnerability which I thought was very exciting,” Assistant Professor of Music Stephan Pennington said. “He was talking about insecurity a lot – how do you deal with a fairly hostile environment [in which] all that insecurity weighs you down? For me, I was shocked by him dealing with all these parts of black lives which are not acceptable in the classic hip-hop narrative.”
On a record chock-full of enduring material, the song for which “The College Dropout” is best remembered is likely “Jesus Walks.” This track establishes its presence instantly as a group of baritone singers first delivers its unmistakable “bump-bump-bump-bump-BA-bump” refrain. Drums, violins, flutes and gospel singers are then infused into a militant soundscape that remains as sonically riveting and complex as anything ever achieved in rap music.
Moreover, as the song’s title implies, West had become the rare individual daring enough to use hip-hop as a platform for expressing his feelings about Jesus Christ and – perhaps even more boldly – the hope which Christ inspired even when all else appeared so grim in the black urban landscape which permeates the lyrics.
“We had crossed the Rubicon at that point where you could talk about so much – guns, drugs, misogyny – but West was saying, ‘If I talk about God, my record won’t get played,’ [as if that topic] had been considered too sectarian,” Joseph said. “So I think he put that irony and those contradictions in the air. I don’t think Kanye West is a huge Christian, I think he’s a provocateur, and he was able to play off of that.”
By selling 440,000 copies in its first week, “The College Dropout” made an immediate impact on hip-hop listeners. Ten years on, as West continues to serve as one of the music industry’s driving creative forces, his very first record still holds a firm spot in many fans’ hearts. Its legacy endures as one of the finest debut albums by any rapper ever and as the first stepping stone to one of hip-hop’s most consistently fascinating and far-reaching catalogues.
“He came out and blasted the competition out of the water,” Aliandro Brathwaite, a senior, said. “And he did so consistently. He did not falter.”
“If ‘Through the Wire’ and ‘[The] College Dropout’ were his only hit records, he’d still be remembered today,” Sheffield said. “It just so happened that he went on to exceed that achievement many times over.”