First time I ever heard of Kanye West was when I copped Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth” back in early 2000. West had produced the title track. At that point, he had already done some tracks for Jermaine Dupri, Goodie Mob and others, but he was still a young producer trying to make a name for himself. When Jay-Z dropped “The Dynasty” and I saw that Kanye did “This Can’t Be Life“, I became a fan.The beat was downright soulful and I was hoping dude would come with more dope productions. He wouldn’t disappoint.
When Jay-Z dropped the classic “The Blueprint”, I was ready to anoint Kanye as the best new producer in the game. He was responsible for the production on “Takeover“, “Ain’t No Love” and others. And yes, that was him on the hook as well as behind the boards on “Never Change“.
He was probably my second favorite producer behind only DJ Premier by the time I heard he’d be dropping an album. At first I was thinking compilation, like DJ Muggs’ Soul Assasins or Hi-Tek’s Hi-Teknology. But wait…dude’s actually gonna rap? Ehh…I wasn’t so sure about that. Many producers had tried to be rappers and just came off as wack so I had my reservations, no doubt. Still, I was looking forward to it.
The release of his first single, which came out 5 months before the album dropped, happened to be a week after I had shipped off to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego in September 2003. I didn’t get a chance to hear it until February, right before the album dropped. There I was, along with about 30 other young Marines, sitting in the barracks lounge watching BET when suddenly the “Through the Wire” video came on.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, and I couldn’t stop from damn near breaking my neck to that beat. I thought right there, there was no fucking way I would not be copping that album.
College Dropout, to me, is a borderline classic. That being said, however, it falls well short lyrically of other classics like Nas’ Illmatic or Biggie’s Ready to Die. The beats are the obvious backbone of the album, with West putting together some of his best production work that he had been saving for years, in the hopes he would one day release an album.
Very few albums are as beautifully produced as College Dropout, with its soulful samples, strings, and even a full choir on some songs. Even the interlude “Graduation Day” was soulful and worthy of more than a few listens. But while his mic skills may have been overshadowed by his own production skills, West was no slouch on the mic either.
At a time when everyone was either spitting about how gangsta they were, how rich they were or how smart they were, he came with a different approach, and was just himself instead of trying to copy what was hot at the moment. As he spit on “Family Business” – I woke up early this mornin’ with a new state of mind/a creative way to rhyme without usin’ knives and guns…”
West was probably at his best when accompanied by other MCs, perhaps feeling he had to step up his game more. He more than held his own with GLC and Consequence on “Spaceship“, in which a pre-ballin-so-hard Kanye voiced his frustrations of working a 9 to 5 with no end in sight. He also did well on “Two Words” with Mos Def and Freeway and even managed to hang with “big brother” Jay-Z on the epic “Never Let me Down” .
If there’s a magnum opus on the album, it has to be “Jesus Walks“. It was brave of him to even make a song about Jesus on a mainstream rap album in the first place, and he came correct with it too. The movie Jarhead kind of ruined it for me though (can someone please explain what Marines in the first Gulf War have to do with Kanye West?) but it’s still on point. There’s really only one track I could’ve done without – “Workout Plan“. Other than that, this album is fire.
Overall, this album falls short of bonafide hip-hop classics like Illmatic or Reasonable doubt, but at the very least it has to be counted among the best rap albums of the 21st century. The new “N*ggas in Paris” video that just dropped caught a lot of headlines, but on the 8th anniversary of his debut album, take some time to remember Kanye West back when he was watching the throne with the rest of us.