Liner Notes | February 11, 2014
Liner Notes: College Dropout


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It feels like it was only yesterday when we met Kanye. He seemed like a nice guy. Wore a Rugby shirt, refused to take off his backpack, smiled a lot. Also wrote some of the best music we had heard so far in the new millenium. But that was a decade ago, and this week Kanye West’s seminal debut LP, The College Dropout, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. For some, the album might represent Kanye at his best. To others, it’s a mere stepping stone in the path to later works like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus. But no matter how you feel about that kid from Chicago‘s first full-length, there’s one thing everybody can agree on: this is an album worth talking about.

 

 

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Kanye’s Least Favorite Album

It’s hard to shake the suspicion that when Kanye West looks back on his own oeuvre before he goes to bed each and every night, he probably considers The College Dropout his least favorite album. Which is a weird thing for our generation’s most influential artist to think about his most influential album, but a lot has happened since 2004. Mainstream hip-hop got weird. Drake happened. Jay-Z started going to Dirty Projectors concerts. The guy who co-wrote Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” (seriously!) produced a Daft Punk album. And, of course, Kanye West released six additional albums that cemented his role as our preeminent tastemaker. None of these things would have happened without The College Dropout, but they also have had the unfortunate side effect of weakening its legacy.

Kanye probably looks at The College Dropout with that strangely proud yet embarrassed awe that most of us experience when we look through our high school yearbooks. Jesus, did I really need to put 75 skits on this thing? Was there really a time when I had to name check Talib Kweli to get girls to pay attention to me? I only sampled sped-up soul songs? I wrote a song about working in a Gap? I wrote “The New Workout Plan”?! Each of Kanye’s subsequent efforts have rewritten the book so many times that the original text seems quaint in comparison. Listening to The College Dropout a decade later, you can see that the potential was there, but when you place it next to the world-beating Late Registration and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the genre-redefining 808s & Heartbreak and Yeezus, it feels like an unfinished sketch.

 

 

Listening to The College Dropout today is a bit like listening to the early Beatles records if you weren’t around during Beatlemania. Sure, listening to Please Please Me is a rewarding experience, but when you know this is the band that would go on to make Rubber Soul and Revolver, it’s harder to see what the big deal was. Both artists’ debuts are wildly important albums that permanently changed the trajectory of their respective genres. They provided the breakthrough exposure that allowed them to go on a produce truly revolutionary works and endlessly influence the artists that would follow them, and for that we should be thankful that they exist. The impact on pop music of these debuts is undebatable, but you would be forgiven for thinking they are the respective artists’ least interesting works. Kanye would probably agree.

— Ben Wormald

 

 

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The First Post-Modern Hip-Hop Album

Sonically, The College Dropout may feel a bit outdated, but that’s only because hip-hop has grown in leaps and bounds since its release. Its lasting legacy shouldn’t be focused on its music anyway. It should be acknowledged and appreciated for what it is: the first post-modern hip-hop album.

It highlighted, and in doing so questioned, the supposed realities of not just the hip-hop industry but hip-hop culture as a whole. Whether it be the opening lines of “Breathe In, Breathe Out,” in which Kanye openly admits his hypocritical superficiality, “Golly, more of that bullshit ice rap / I got to ‘pologize to Mos and Kweli…Always said if I rapped I’d say somethin’ significant / But now I’m rappin’ ’bout money, hoes, and rims again,” or the unabashed self-awareness of “All Falls Down”’s “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it,” he took our supposed notions of what hip-hop was about and what its stars should be like, held them up for introspection and tossed them out the window. Song titles like “The New Workout Plan” and “Slow Jamz” are as generically in your face as possible, and even more controversial songs like “Jesus Walks” contain lines like “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played?”.

 

 

Since the days of College Dropout, Yeezy may have gone through a litany of transformations, but one thing that he has constantly done from this album since is take preconceived ideas about genre, culture, and the greater music industry as a whole and make us see them in a whole new light.

— Bryce Rudow

 

 

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High School Parking Lot Music

The College Dropout is part of the reason that the Kanye West of today is so infuriating to me. And while every one of the writers here can string together watertight retrospective analysis on the Kanye of yesteryear, I think it is important to remember that none of us was over the age of 17 at the time. This was the album of the high school parking lot to me, and we appreciated the music because of its simplicity and accessibility. People could relate to the ideas put forward in the album; they empathized with Kanye and his struggles; and they lauded the humble swagger he carried under his new Rocafella label.

Kanye was a musician, not the butt of Jimmy Kimmel’s jokes. I also may be a musical simpleton, but I think the music of College Dropout was ten times better than that of Yeezus. Call me crazy, but I don’t think that Kanye putting out a disjointed 10 track album stroking his own ego qualifies him as a musical genius. And I particularly despise when people are like, “You just don’t get it.” Oh, I get it. I get that Kanye is a Narcissistic asshole, who has strayed so far from what made him great in my eyes, that I am embarrassed that I ever liked him so much. And anyone who pretends that he is more than that is just kidding themselves.

— Kwasi Ansu

 

 

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Your Dad’s Favorite Hip-Hop Album

One afternoon long ago, a high school crush of mine put “School Spirit” on in the car. That song, on a sunny day, at an age when being in cars with people your own age feels like the freest kind of freedom, is unstoppable. It’s pure joy. That’s the third thing that comes to mind when I think about The College Dropout. One night a year or so later, I was driving around by myself, and “Family Business,” a song on the album I usually skipped right past, made me cry. This song, when you’re alone and internally focused and susceptible to unsolicited bouts of sentimentality, is unstoppable. It’s pure catharsis. That’s the second thing that comes to mind when I think about The College Dropout.

On many afternoons, evenings, and mornings in the era of The College Dropout, I found myself in a car with my father. My brother and I would play rap music in the car because (a) we enjoyed it and (b) we wanted to bother our dad. We wanted to shock or at least mildly annoy him, and elicit some comment like “how can you listen to this?” or “this is just garbage” for comedic effect. In the grand tradition of young folk, we were laying brick and mortar to a generational wall, sixteen bars at a time. In the early 2000s, we ran into a builder’s dilemma – we loved The College Dropout, and dad didn’t hate it. He would hum along to “Jesus Walks.” He would chuckle at punch lines like “couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis.” He would say, “you know, I like that Kanye West,” as if he were the new Meet The Press moderator.

 

 

This is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about The College Dropout – which is strange, because it has nothing to do with my own experience of the album, just my dad’s. But when I think about Kanye West in 2014, a manic, otherworldly creator at the vanguard of music and culture, this memory of mine says more about the artist than I could have known back in the day. It’s incumbent on all great boundary-pushing artists to first perfect the style in place before they break new ground – my dad’s unlikely appreciation of TCD is indicative of the record’s genius. It’s the first truly populist hip-hop album. Kanye made a near-universally appreciated collection of music, and then said, “how can I be better than this?” That, in art, is unstoppable.

— Justin McCarthy

 

 

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Slow Jamz: The Last of Funny Kanye

“Kanye, it’s Foxx man,” Jamie begins on “Slow Jamz” before stuttering into a confession: he’s not here to just fuck — Kanye and Twista too, they’re all here to fuck, yes, of course — but more so to really make love. Get sensual. Catch a feeling. Break out some scented massage oil. And you want it too.

Kanye waltzes into his verse in line with the lighthearted buoyancy featured in much of The College Dropout, fusing sex appeal with awkward raps (we can all universally agree he’s just not a technically good rapper) but it somehow works perfectly. He also delivers one of my favorite lines in his catalog — or in anyone else’s for that matter — with the line “She got a light skinned friend look like Michael Jackson / Got a dark skinned friend look like Michael Jackson.” In “Slow Jamz,” you can hear the smile in Kanye’s voice that has seemed to fade in ten years of time.

 

 

Then, as if the grinning send up of classic R&B slow jams wasn’t enough, Twista comes in with insane spitfire precision, on some god mode levels of vocal gymnastics. By the end you’re convinced you’d sleep with all three of them. For Kanye, it captures the good humor he hasn’t revisited in some time, save for maybe 2012’s sunny, sentimental “White Dress” among two albums and a side project with Jay Z that were all lacquered with anxious edges. Anyways, I’ve talked for long enough. Imma play this Vandross, you gon take yo pants off.

— Logan Donaldson

 

 

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Call Him Crazy

Kanye West has never shied away from controversy. It’s easy to dismiss his most outspoken moments by calling him crazy, drunk, or drunk with fame, but I honestly don’t think he’s any of those things. From “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” to “Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time” to his “rant” on Jimmy Kimmel Live last year, it’s always been about calling out racism and deeply ingrained inequalities. We remove power from outspoken individuals by turning them into clowns. When it comes to Kanye, we have to ask ourselves: why it is so outrageous that a young African-American man won’t be silenced?

The College Dropout revealed a flare for provocation that’s only gained a larger audience over the past ten years. It’s a deliberately challenging record that engages with the unmarketable: racism, poverty, materialism and religion. The Kanye West of 2004 was a rising hip-hop producer who’d saved beats for himself for years despite the industry largely rejecting him as a rapper. He believed in himself and did not give a fuck. One might expect an unproven artist to stick to radio-friendly fare, yet West directly criticized the radio in “Jesus Walks.” He mocked the idea of higher education as inherently valuable in “School Spirit.” He threw down an incredibly danceable yet satirical take on gender roles and materialism with “The New Workout Plan.” He rapped with his jaw wired shut. He rapped about working at the Gap. He rapped in argyle sweaters.

 

 

And he was funny. In re-listening to this album, what struck me the most was West’s incredible wit and sense of irony. To laugh at an artist with such an obvious sense of humor would be a mistake. But then again, it wouldn’t stop him.

— Liz Galvao

 

 

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Dear Kanye West. Love, Kanye West.

“Nice as Bun B when I met him at the Source awards, girl he had with him ass could’ve won the horse awards.

Kanye had been working in and around the music business for over a decade when The College Dropoutcame out. That said, this album was his introduction to mainstream America. Kanye has always dreamed of being bigger than a rapper; bigger than a musician. He wants to be a transformational figure that pushes the boundaries of how people listen to music and dress themselves. On College Dropout, the one song that perfectly encapsulates this feeling is “Last Call”: a 12 minute, 41 second love letter to Kanye West, from Kanye West.

 

 

My money was thinner than Sean Paul’s goatee hair, now Jean Paul Gaultier cologne fill the air.

More than any other album Kanye has made to date, College Dropout was carried by lyrics & wordplay. “Last Call” is the best of the best: A winding (and sometimes clumsy) amalgamation of all the great one-liners he couldn’t fit into any of his other songs. It’s the type of song that can only be created on an album that you work on for 15-20 years. You can practically hear him paging through notebooks in the studio, reading sideways words he scratched out when he was stuck inside making beats, when he was bored as hell in Calculus class, or when he was sitting in the hospital bed with his jaw wired shut, craning his neck to try to make sure he wrote down every single word before it vanished like everyone thought his career would.

Oh my God, is that a black card!? I turn around and reply ‘Why yes, but I prefer the term African-American-Express.’

This is a song that only Kanye could put on his album: Nobody else is arrogant enough to devote 17% of their album talking about how they made the album, but then again, nobody else is talented enough to pull it off.

Killin y’all niggas on that lyrical shit, Mayonnaise-colored Benz I push miracle whips.

— Charlie Rybak