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Kanye West

The College Dropout

[Rocafella; 2004]

Rating: 8.2

College Dropout Mini-Course Syllabus

Week 1: Allow Myself to Introduce Myself. Backstory. Discuss humble beginnings making beats in bedroom, car accident in October 2002 that nearly killed him. Consider rise to fame: Currently has three singles in the Top 20 ("Slow Jamz", "You Don't Know My Name", "Through the Wire") bearing his name. Compare/contrast rise of hip-hop artist/producers with singer/songwriter movement of 1970s; Is Kanye West Neil Young or Neil Diamond?

Week 2: Chitown, What's Going On? Discuss the failure of Chicago to produce a bona fide hip-hop star despite possessing more than enough fertile neighborhoods of racial segregation and socioeconomic difficulty. Uncover reasons why Common and West needed to move NYC-wards to attain widespread success.

Week 3: First Nigga with a Benz and a Backpack. Analyze the fast-disappearing line between mainstream and underground hip-hop, as personified by College Dropout's guest appearances, and West's personal rap style. Compare/contrast to analogous rock divisions, in regards to how rock collaborations of similar caliber (Nickelback ft. Xiu Xiu?) would be greeted with indignant horror by fans.

Week 4: School Spirit. Engage the anti-education themes of College Dropout's songs and skits, discussing why this particular message is greatly emphasized by West. Acknowledge the groaner irony of discussing an album's anti-intellectualism in syllabus form.

So many extracurricular angles, so little time; so let's just suffice it to say thatCollege Dropout is the first great hip-hop album of the still pre-pubescent 2004. Runner-up in its first week on the Billboard album charts only to Ravi Shankar's jazz-waif kid, the record is poised to be a huge coming-out party for one of the top producers working today, possibly even winning him the Outkast Triple Crown of acceptance from pop radio, hip-hop purists, and reactionary rock critics. Frequently delayed, retooled, overdubbed, teased on the mixtape circuit, overloaded with skits and guest stars, and dispersed in multiple misleading forms over the Internet, the retail version finally takes the form of a flawed, overlong, hypocritical, egotistical, and altogether terrific album.

In a way, it's strange that West would be the first of the current producer bumper crop to find such success with his own name on the spine, with The Neptunes and Timbaland having colonized the charttops for a much longer period of time, and with much more adventurous and characteristic sounds. West's style is far less future-vision, as he typically reworks old records with the playfulness of a kid enthralled by playing 33s at 45. You can write it off as a safer or less original approach, but the sugar-high soul technique tends to be an addictive substance in West's hands, as anyone who's had the hook from "H to the Izzo" stuck in their head for a week or eight can attest.

But Kanye's success through the studio glass is more drawn from his surprising abilities as an MC: He possesses a sizable amount of his Rocafella boss' charisma while hiding his occasional technical shortcomings with his gift for comedic timing. Mixtape downloaders have known this for a while, thanks to his whip-smart verses on "Heavy Hitters" and "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly", but College Dropout brings a new evidence file, whether he's probing creative tax accounting on "We Don't Care" or puncturing the air bag of designer materialism in "All Fall Down". And when words fail, Kanye can always fall back on his day job, camouflaging even less-inspired lyrical moments with affably absurd beat constructions like the vocoder/strings/handclaps amalgamation that carries "The New Workout Plan" past its lyrical juvenilia.

One begins to wish there were even more examples of Kanye's mic-work, as the album is also laden with distracting guest appearance speed-bumps-- spots that safety-net the album's bottom line but dilute the spotlight on its lead performer. Strangely, the biggest names fare the worst, with Jay-Z already sounding groggy from retirement on "Never Let Me Down" and Ludacris sounding groggy from something less legal on the hook to "Breathe In Breathe Out". The small names of Kanye's Chicago crew fail to impress as well, with GLC and Consequence's laconic verses deflating the menace of working-class lament "Spaceship".

As a result, the mid-level MCs steer around the flank to steal the show, particularly on the quietly tense "Get 'Em High" where Kanye coaxes Talib Kweli into lightening up and fellow Southsider Common into getting serious. Chart-topper "Slow Jamz" appears in a slightly longer (and slightly weaker) form featuring overkill Jamie Foxx and depleted Twista, but if you haven't reached your quota yet, it remains the best getting-it-on song ever written about getting-it-on songs. The ferocious "Two Words" up-ramps a Mandrill sample into an ominous choir and violin-fed war cry flexibly savage enough to allow Mos Def to spit about his politics, Kanye about his Grammys, and Freeway about Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Steven Seagal.

That "Two Words" is sequestered (along with the chock-full-of-clever "Through the Wire") behind a painful stretch of three clunker skits in four tracks (with the song island, "School Spirit", one of the album's weakest) shows that Kanye hasn't quite soaked in the lesson of the Jay-Z album that made his reputation: less skits = longer shelf life. Fortunately, listeners can take the editing into their own hands in this age of the iPod, also axing the once-interesting, twice-tiresome biography speech that fills out the 12-minute "Last Call". Deleting the skits also cuts down on the strange logic of the album's anti-college stance-- someone should tell West that not everyone on the street has the ability and/or luck to make a living in the music biz. (Full disclosure: Your reviewer may be biased by the fact that he'll probably be spending his lifetime in the Ivory Tower.)

Bloated tracklist, guest star overload, lyrical paradoxes: It all might sound a bit critical for an 8+ album, but College Dropout's flaws tend to only help make Kanye West all the more personable as an artist. With the fat playlist trimmed, the album lays down a sky-high standard for hip-hop challengers in '04, featuring enough singles in reserve to fill out the calendar year. Ideal weather conditions of Chicago's rap void, producer name-dropping, and mainstream/underground bleedover may have handled the advance work for Kanye West's arrival, butCollege Dropout doesn't muff the kick.

-Rob Mitchum, February 20th, 2004


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You want my honest, crude, up front opinion of Hip-Hop/Rap music?

It's a dime a dozen thing.

I've seen "competitions" and such. I went to a high school that had a..........er...............high "hip-hop/rap" population/following.

In my opinion, there is very little difference between the 11th grade student, raping at the lunch table, and the biggest name the "industry" has to offer. I'm not a fan of this music, but I just don't see how there is a difference.

This is not universally true, but i've seen multiple instances of this, in action. I speak from experience.

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In my opinion, there is very little difference between the 11th grade student, raping at the lunch table, and the biggest name the "industry" has to offer.

Was there pillaging, too?

Give me James Brown, anyday. If you want to hear the hottest thing on the Urban scene, Ken, check out Van Hunt--a mix of the Isley Bros and Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. Its hummable, too scratchin'

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