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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Album of the Week: Kanye West - "The College Dropout" (10th Anniversary)

Rating: 7.8/10

Kanye West. Just reading his name probably conjures up a strong image in your head. You may know him for his numerous critically-acclaimed albums, hit singles, and awards. Or, maybe you know him as an egotistical paparazzi favorite who stole Taylor Swift's thunder at the VMAs and claimed that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." Most likely, you know both sides of Kanye; his extreme self-confidence and inflated self-image are part of what drives his music, music that is highly regarded by hip-hop fans and critics alike. Ten years ago this past Monday, the world was first introduced to the crazy mind of Kanye when his debut album, The College Dropout, was released. Few could expect the various twists and turns that his career would take, whether it was the vocoder-laden 808s & Heartbreak or the harsh, audacious Yeezus, on which West could dub himself a deity in the not-so-subtly-titled "I Am a God." The College Dropout was our first taste of what West brought to the table, and it was clear from the start that he was destined for stardom.

The crowning moment of the album, the track that got everybody's attention and started to define West's place in the rap game, was the ominous, marching "Jesus Walks." Excellent use of sampling and superb production only enhance Kanye's poignant lyrics, which were uniquely religious for the time. By boldly embracing Christianity on the song, West took hip-hop to a place where it hadn't been in quite some time, as explained by the second verse; "So here go my single dog radio needs this/They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But if I talk about God my record won't get played." It's also a monster of a song, with a booming choir and tricky snare roll backing Kanye.

The album, while tackling major themes, also displayed West's tongue-in-cheek sense of humor for the first time. Pretty much the entirety of "The New Workout Plan" is satirical, mocking society's pressure on women to always look their best. The record is littered with small skits in the form of dialogues, all of which are intended to provide comic relief. Some unintentional humor can be found in the now-dated pop culture references, such as West name-dropping Kathie Lee Gifford and Regis Philbin on the aforementioned "Jesus Walks."

Besides fair amounts deep philosophical ideas and funny lyrics, The College Dropout is also chock-full of some great tunes. "Through the Wire" has a great sample, and Kanye impresses with his rapping skills despite having recorded the track with his jaw wired shut after a near-fatal car accident, which is detailed in the song. On "All Falls Down," Syleena Johnson provides a classic early '00's R&B vocal, and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z shows up on "Never Let Me Down" to help West close shop on the track. Other big names contributing solid verses to the record include Common,  Jamie Foxx, and Ludacris.

The College Dropout is undoubtedly one of the top hip-hop albums of the 2000's, and holds its own when held up to the great releases of past decades, too. It remains Kanye's best-selling effort, debuting at #2 in the US  and going double platinum. To some, it may pale in comparison to West's newer works, specifically My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, but that doesn't make it any less of a great album. Not much could have been known about what the future held for Kanye West after hearing The College Dropout, but one thing was obvious from the get-go: this man was wildly talented, and far from finished.

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