College Dropout. By Kanye West. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004.
In his debut album The College Dropout, Kanye West lays down prophecy about shallow American materialism and still-entrenched racism with one breath and “sets the party off right” with the next. By doing so, West evades pigeonholing from all sides: from the very first track, he refuses to only “write something that . . . will make the kids start sharing candy and stuff,” instead filling his album with biting criticism of the societal injustices and the sins of the hip-hop industry. A few beats later, he invites “all the girls [to] pass the weed to ya m*******n man.” West won’t let himself be confined to any single role, like the uplifting good guy, party boy, or social critic. Evading these clichés, West is left to define himself, which is what strings a topically diverse album together. Stepping out from behind the turntables, West tells his own story—in one track, dissecting low expectations for black teenagers and criticizing institutional prejudice he experienced at the Gap, and in another, thanking his family and looking desperately for Jesus while confessing his own fears after a near-fatal car crash last October. West pays tribute and looks ahead, combating racism while admitting his fears, ultimately turning for help beyond himself. Dropout, which has been called the best hip-hop album of 2004, is spiteful, refreshing, hilarious and convicting. Most of all, it is honest, and this honesty gives West’s critique bite and his cause hope.
From the first beat, Dropout is clever and defiant. The album opens with a skit in which a teacher asks Kanye to write a graduation song that the “kids will love,” to which he responds with the biting track, “We Don’t Care.” The chorus, sung by a children’s choir, is as catchy as it is wry: “All you people that’s drug dealing just to get by/ Stack your money till it gets sky high/ We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/ Jokes on you we still alive.” Himself a college dropout, West uses a series of skits and the cover art to frame the album as a commentary on the educational system, criticizing what people expect to get from education and the disconnect between what is taught and what is learned. Railing on an education system that he sees little benefit in when “racism is still alive… they just be concealing it,” West wonders about the value of school when you can make more money dealing drugs than “working nine to five.” Typically, though, he bounces back with “You know the kids goin’ to act the fool/ When you stop the programs for after school,” twisting Ludacris’ own line back on itself. West worries about the fate of urban schools as they lose funding and decries a culture of violence and consumerism. He places blame implicitly on the government but brings this back on himself when “n**as can’t make it to ballots to choose leadership but we make it to Jacobs and to the dealership.” So is Kanye a scholar or a player? As he tells it, he’s the “first n**a with Benz and a backpack”.
This isn’t the only dichotomy that West bridges. First, at the most basic level, we see his attempt to bridge the gap between producer and emcee, which is something that is rarely done well. Sometimes you’re left wondering: is this really West’s album? The list of featured guests reads like a who’s-who of hip-hop: Jay-Z, Twista, Talib Kweli, Ludacris, Common and Mos Def, all artists for whom Kanye laid beats before his own record deal (a journey he chronicles in a lengthy rap/monologue, “Last Call,” the album’s final track.) On many of the tracks, he leaves the serious rapping to his guests, admitting that he can’t do it “fast enough” on the track “Slow Jamz,” as he turns it over to Twista. Still other tracks are based mostly on looped R&B clips from other artists. Recognize the singer/song writer on “All Falls Down”? It’s Lauryn Hill; West sampled a hook from her MTV Unplugged album and allows it to act as the driving force of the track, musically and lyrically. While Hill’s own album was musically frustrating (though lyrically stunning), looped atop West’s beat she sounds more herself, more the Lauryn Hill of The Miseducation, the Fugees and even Sister Act II. For West, this is business as usual, making other artists sound better than they can make themselves sound—not because he manipulates their styles, but because with West they find their own voice.
But West’s own rhymes sound really good. On “Never Let You Down,” Jay-Z starts off rhyming about gaining status and power, only for Kanye to one-up him with a better-rhymed, show-stopping attack on racism and meditation on death. And these meditations resonate because, as the album’s dichotomies and contradictions emerge, above all, we see West’s fundamental honesty. He is honest about where he is—about his fears, his struggles, and his hopes. Only West will criticize materialism while acknowledging his own guiltiness, or fear the decaying world around him but wonder what makes him good enough to judge it. On the track that starts with the Lauryn Hill clip, “All Falls Down,” he implicates consumerism as a manifestation of black self-hate rooted in a history of white oppression (“We shine because they hate us . . . things we buy to cover up what’s inside/ Cause they make us hate ourselves and love their wealth”), but includes himself in the same process. Even his production style, mostly featuring other artists and drawing them to artistically higher levels, feels humble. None of his criticism feels aggrandizing because West is most critical of himself.
As such, West is positioned to comment—some have said prophesize—about a wide range of issues. “Spaceship”, a low-key funk track about wanting to escape the working world (on a spaceship) follows the gospel hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” a spiritual about flying away to heaven to escape from the pains of the world. With these tracks back-to-back, West links the legacy of slavery to present-day corporate enslavement (“this grave shift is like a slave ship”), fighting back against the two-faced treatment he received (being questioned for stealing and then proudly displayed as the token black employee) at the Gap. The Marvin Gaye sample that the song uses and the doo-wop style in which it is sung promote the connection back to the civil rights movement, to Motown, and to slavery, whose legacy lingers. And on an album that begins as a commentary on the educational system, the ending to “Family Business,” the last real track, where a child suggests “lets get Stevie out of jail,” builds an implicit connection between a failed education system and incarceration. Racism is “alive, they just be concealing it,” says West, not from distant observation but from personal struggle.
So where is the solution to all of these societal injustices that West points out? Resolution is elusive, he says, but in “Jesus Walks” he brings responsibility back to us: “We at war with terrorism, racism, and most of all we at war with ourselves.” West avoids only blaming a legacy of oppression for his present-day problems. Instead, West places the responsibility for fighting the “war” back on “ourselves.” In this, West moves beyond the role of biting critic or lamenting victim, towards resolution. Knowing the task will be difficult, he asks only that “Jesus walk with me,” and by doing so communicates a vital, honest spirituality. Here too, West is humble—he doesn’t ask for blessing, for favor, or for escape, but only that Jesus would walk alongside him. Asking only for this, West captures the simple power of Christ’s presence that many of us lose sight of: hope, he says, is simply knowing that Christ is with us. So while the tempests of the world rage around us—failed political, social and education systems, debilitating racism, violence, and pain—Christ can be our peace. This peace, West says, is not available only to him, but “to the hustlers, killers . . . drug dealers, victims of welfare… Jesus walks with them.” His message, finally, is universal. Here, too, his honesty rings out, as he cries: “I want to talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long.” Honest about where he is, where he needs to be, and Who he needs to get him there, he prays to “see Thee more clearly/ I know He hear me when my feet get weary” and invites his listeners to do the same. Jesus meets us where we are, says West, and his presence brings assurance in the face of turmoil. And change will come, West challenges us to believe, if we start the change in ourselves, and if Jesus walks with us as we go.
Jacob Bryant ’07, Books and Arts Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House.