10 Brief Years with a College Dropout

Written by Matthew Ramirez  (taking a break from @theredbackpack)

It’s a long and winding road for art to endure: first it must withstand scrutiny, deflect the naysayers, stand strong when the fickle fall away, remain loyal to the apologists and those who stick with it through tumultuous times, quietly lurk when other things happen, and when it’s time for reflection, or when the mood hits, it should be there, sounding as great as the first time you heard it. It would seem these “___turns 10/15/20” anniversary opportunities are a time for this kind of reflection but to do this with an album as monumental as The College Dropout is redundant: the album never really went away did it? (And, uh, Kanye didn’t either.)

The time and emotional distance of an arbitrary date, February 2004, has no way of helping me think about or understand this album. It’s great, obviously: it was great then, great now, and most of the complaints about it when it first released seem so quaint and stupid. (WHAT? RAPPERS HIRE SONGWRITERS SOMETIMES?!)

But what’s the point of regurgitating that content? Every possible verifiable, objective fact on the album is lurking somewhere on either Wikipedia or AllMusic. And really, when young guys are writing “20TH ANNIVERSARY OF ENTER THE WU-TANG” pieces it’s not as if they’re drawing on personal history there, because I was four in 1993 and that’s probably older than most people now writing professionally. It places an album in a false context, re-parsing the past to adjust to our current framework, which is exactly the wrong thing to do when writing about any kind of history from music to sports to politics.

I did not know who Kanye West was before 2004. A thing that gets overlooked by a lot of people, especially those who are older than this generation, is rap was always there for us. Especially if you came of age at the turn of the century, when it was at its absolute commercial peak, from Puff Daddy to Jay-Z to Kanye to Lil Jon to Lil Wayne, those years of peak adolescent-through-teenager times. The idea of hip-hop as anything but a constant on the musical landscape is foreign and unknowable. Sometimes people pull that trump card of saying “But when did you really start listening to rap?” on the internet and the answer is uh, whenever the first time it was I turned on a radio. You’re not my age and ignorant of rap as a dominant cultural force unless it’s by choice or you didn’t grow up in America or weren’t allowed to listen to the radio by your parents.

So I didn’t know who Kanye was in 2004 because I took rap for granted in 2004 and taking it for granted entails a certain ignorance on the inner workings of something you assume is permanent. Even when I guess he broke through the mainstream via Jay-Z’s Blueprint in 2001, I cut my Jay-Z teeth on Hard Knock Life, so I didn’t internalize the one Jay-Z record everyone loves like that. Surely the influx of “chipmunk soul” songs on the radio in 2003-2004 were recognizable, but it’s not like I was checking for who produced them. I guess I heard or read his name at some point before then but in 2002 I made a conscious effort to “reject” pop music which meant Soulseek-ing and Kazaa-ing every album by the Replacements and attempting to get into “alternative” rap (Rhymesayers, Def Jux, Rawkus, a.k.a. the usual suspects) which usually just made my head hurt.

Thematically appropriately enough, I didn’t listen to The College Dropout until the first oldest cousin in the family graduated from college, May 2004: a good three whole months after the release date, which is telling of how people really thought about release dates in those prehistoric times. I was in my brother’s car and it’s a long drive from where we live to the University of Houston and I remember having this feeling about music you don’t get too often: “Music can do this?” The skits about the uselessness of higher education were catnip to a budding ninth-grader like myself. I have very few musical memories quite as vivid as this one: hearing a transmission from the other side, an older, wiser, but still brash and coarse side, a window into an experience unlike mine but seemed like something about which I wanted to know more. And in this way I had an epiphany that was certainly not new to anyone, say, 25 in 2004 as opposed to 15 in 2004, but still: music can have a message like this? Something so anarchic and rebellious and insightful and it sounds like music they play on the radio? From that moment in that Jetta on, nothing truly was the same.

Know how explaining a joke ruins the joke? It feels like interpreting a work’s message or theme ruins it fore. Analysis is fine; illuminating subtext or inferring things from context is fine too; but extended interpretations usually make my eyes glaze over and I forget what I read as soon as I’m done reading it. In a way that went beyond the easily-identifiable lines and songs that separated Kanye from traditionally “street” rappers or the conscious/underground/experimental rappers my brain objected to or the rappers I was mostly uninterested in on the radio/MTV at the time, Kanye was a relatable person on record.

I’m sure if you “were there, man” the line about having a Benz and a backpack was revelatory but when you’re young how I was young you just accept everything, like “a Benz and a backpack why is that weird” and since I was coming out of a punk phase where I internalized most of the music Ian Mackaye put to tape hearing socially-aware lines like “drug dealer buy Jordans/crackhead buy crack/and the white man get paid off of all that” made perfect sense. In contrast to what will probably be the main narrative of these “College Dropout Turns Ten” pieces, all the ways Kanye was new and revolutionary and a breath of fresh air and completely turned a new chapter on rap music, while not exactly lost on young listeners, was taken for granted by young listeners. Suddenly you didn’t have to choose only between the diminishing returns of Ja Rule or Puff Daddy, because now there was that stuff and then here was this new guy in a bear suit and all of it coexisted.

But still even when you grow up on rap there are palpable differences when certain artists/songs/albums hit. Hearing a rapper talk about working at The Gap felt (and still feels) weird, because this was when Gap commercials were still events (a comparable status now would be American Apparel controversies) and it’s like “can’t believe this rapper worked at that place” but at the same time he was saying he’d assault the manager and steal from the register so what young teenager doesn’t just automatically root for that kind of behavior? The small but striking ways Kanye played all over the field were right in front of you.

What about the album anyway? It hasn’t aged at all. To wit, though: “All Falls Down” is probably forever my favorite Kanye song, I have always thought “Jesus Walks” was overwrought, I think the skits are great and I don’t get in general why people hate rap skits because skits are as essential to rap album tropes as intros, outros, goofy minute-long jams and all that stuff, I can barely recall “Through the Wire” having a radio/MTV moment but I know “Slow Jamz” was everywhere, when I was feeling hopeless and horrible and depressed at the start of college the “School Spirit” line about “everything I want/I gotta wait a year” was “OOF” too real, etc, etc. The College Dropout is one of those albums that is universally loved but I find myself disagreeing with people over the weirdest things about it. Where did this narrative of “Last Call” and “Breathe In Breathe Out” being disliked come from? How can you call yourself a Kanye fan and not want to live through his eight-minute origin story that ends the album? That it allows itself such unique and personal readings is undeniably one of its greatest qualities. Surely someone somewhere didn’t even read this far because they X’ed this browser out with rage when I said “Jesus Walks” was overwrought. It is, though. It is a great beat and a great concept waiting to be a great song.

Kanye is so good at talking about himself and expressing his views through his music that to inflict, impose and project certain readings onto him is overkill, no matter how well-intentioned and more or less “accurate.” This is not to say analysis is beneath him, but rather when an artist spends so much of his time telling you about one thing the critic shouldn’t go then talk about that one thing forever. Go dig deeper, to really hear what an artist is saying.

Four years ago I heard the perfect rap song: fall 2010 was a low point, I didn’t have a car or a job or a girl to text and was struggling through my senior year and the only thing I had to look forward to that semester was the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Twitter was nary a twinkle in my eye and I was so blessedly ignorant of the blogosphere). I forget how much of a bubble it is to be in college: I feel like I didn’t even know about the Runaway movie until the weekend it premiered on MTV. It floored me. So I went back to The College Dropout almost immediately after it ended. I’m doing rap hands in my dorm room and rapping at no one because I lived by myself and then the breakdown happens during “The New Workout Plan” and I screamed. Yelled. Screeched. I FORGOT THIS SONG DOES THIS. This is a loosely conceptual album about what can happen when you walk away from higher education (and good lord Yeezus almighty did I feel that emotion that year) and most of those songs were second nature to me but somehow Kanye found the time to throw in an interlude that is literally him guiding a workout routine.

The College Dropout is music that does things, and moves people, and “The New Workout Plan” is literally the most black-and-white example of this instructive music. This was music that could actively do, not show, tell, preach, pander, vibe, meander, linger, proselytize, get lost in itself, wallow, overreach, slump—it was doing music, it was active, alive, vital, reassuring, motivating, it put blood in the veins and got you to pay attention. It readjusted the narrative on pop music, how it’s always kind of trying to get you to do something: dance, sing, yell, move, make love, but it’s at its most sublime when it all feels natural, like the music a person creates comes from a real place inside them that wants you to do those things, the purest distillation of a shared desire that unites people trying to do better. Kanye is so relentlessly generous and giving through his music and that’s always overlooked. It wasn’t just he made great rap music, but he made music that empowered you, it made you feel like you could’ve made it, while at the same time operating at a level that was clearly out of an amateur’s reach. The most powerful form of generosity or charity is when the giver empowers their subject. The College Dropout does that wonderfully.

And I guess part of the point of these types of articles should be at least an attempt at grounding it in a real-world-influence analysis: what the album did was re-focus rap into an auteuristic genre, where people made names for themselves as producers, or rappers who emphatically produced their own music, or stressed their MySpace popularity, or ringtone hits, or other mid-of-the-decade phenomena—it encouraged them to be themselves, focusing less on the collaborative nature of the genre that made it so unique for so long. And while at the same time (the years 2003-2006 blur together for me) snap music and other regional waves were in many ways the complete opposite of the high-minded Album Oriented Rap aims of College Dropout, the philosophy was the same: they can’t stop me from rapping, can they?

Not even rap’s most recent messiah, Kendrick Lamar, who is a more serious, writerly, and introspective rapper while adamantly lacking the bone in his body that can make him write pop hits like “Slow Jamz,” gave what Kanye gave when Kendrick dropped his five-star album. After spending a lot of time with College Dropout in the weeks leading up to this anniversary, it dawned on me the most recent successor of this style is Chance the Rapper, another Chicago artist. This is a guy who takes Kanye for granted because he’s been that huge for that long. When Chance stops Acid Rap dead in the middle for a churchy, Gospel sing-along interlude, it’s the praise-song version of Kanye as an instructor of an exercise class with an Auto-Tuned megaphone. These are albums and artists that do, that give, not just through catchy songs but the motivation behind it: uniting listeners, making them aware this is a real-life person behind the other side of the speakers, one with flaws and contradictions that make them interesting from every angle.

The extent of Kanye’s reach goes way past The College Dropout era, and even the music itself and more the Kanye as a celebrity, personality, cultural figure. But it was still the music that got him there in the first place. Sometimes it feels like critics want to look at a person or an album as a neat, tidy little summation of influences, pressure, messages. But sometimes an artist does that work for you, the music does something intangible, where to talk about the influences and what the music means is redundant because it’s all there in the content. (Again: “Last Call!” And “Family Business!” Two songs about Kanye’s struggle, even if one is not about him at all, but through his storytelling his lens is as important as the narrative.) Undoubtedly these anniversary pieces contain good writing, but sometimes reading about what an album means or the mundane details of how it came together underwhelm and overlook the accomplishment of the thing in the first place. Don’t forget what happens when you drop Yeezy in a crowded room or listen to it all by yourself through headphones. With 20/20 hindsight we can say we saw it coming; his talent proved itself; this album changed everything; release dates are destiny; hype is king; here’s what this albums means to me; here’s what he did; here’s how and when and where and why he did it. And then we’ll overlook the irony of being self-conscious while he was the first to admit it.

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