Monday, June 15, 2009

Kanye West - The College Dropout (2004)

Kanye West - The College Dropout (2004)

Forget about the ego for a moment. Forget about all the stuff you've heard about Kanye West, all the head trips, breakdowns, tantrums, experiments, and just focus on the album. Just listen to his debut album and really take it in. If you really forget about all that stuff and just enjoy the album for what it is, you're left with one of the strongest, yet skit-infested, debuts by a producer/rapper in some time. Or even just a rapper. Kanye covers all the pratfalls of rap music, from drugs to hoes to money to hoes again, and sidesteps almost all of them, focusing instead on community, Jesus, and, well, ladies to some extent, but mainly just having a good time. And rocking it while at it.

The album's success doesn't come from the mountains of guest raps on the album. As good as those are, it really is Kanye who shines the most here. Leftover beats that West had saved over the years for himself pay off on his debut, despite lacking a thorough clear view for the album as a whole. Looking at the first couple of songs are a bit of a mish-mash on what West is really going for. "We Don't Care" starts the album strong, relating "We weren't s'posed to make it past 25/Joke's on you we still alive,/Throw your hands up in the sky and sing 'we don't care what people say,'" setting the tone right away that West is critical of the struggle in America in the present day based mainly on education, or the struggle to get proper education. He's on point to an extent, although later on this view really starts to become a contradiction or just pointless in some of the skits (see almost all of them), but he makes some solid points here. Real shining moment in the opening is "All Falls Down," where West takes advantage of his broken jaw to make a very typical rhyming pattern but pronounces them differently, rhyming "secure," "career" and "hair" without sounding forced.

All of the songs here, including the singles, flow together to make a unique album as a whole. Even though "Jesus Walks," "Slow Jamz" and "Through The Wire" have become famous in their own right, they fit right in here as the next logical step the album should take. And all the previously mentioned songs are some of the highlights of the album. "Slow Jamz" seems to be one of the most fun songs, a party that everyone would want to be invited to with Twista's insanely-fast rap that the listener can understand yet never repeat on their own. "Through The Wire" is West's breakout moment and "Jesus Walks" may be the best mainstream religious song since "My Sweet Lord," both in how blunt they are and universal at the same time.

Most of the songs work as a way to show off West's unique rhyming and singing patterns, but also showcase his creativity as well. "Get 'Em High" is one of the highlights, incorporating the guest vocals in a different and fun way as Kweli is literally called up to talk to some girl that West wants to get with, while "Never Let Me Down" has some of Jay-Z's best rapping since "The Blueprint" (kind of ironic if you see the trivia below).

The album isn't all highlights, and it can't be helped. The second half of the record features some of the lulls that are found on many rap albums, where it seems like West has to falsely give the album length. "Breathe In, Breathe Out" has some clever lines and quips from West but altogether lacks any real value in the long run, along with "School Spirit," which may work if the song wasn't censored but one can't tell. In fact the only reason the song might be important would be for West to sample the intro line from the song later for "The Good Life" on Graduation. "Two Words" bites and stings where it should but comes at an odd pacing in the album as the album is starting to wind down and may have worked better somewhere in the middle, whereas the final three tracks work as good closers, if not belated somewhat.

"The College Dropout" is the breakout album for Kanye West. Before he was known as the producer of "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" but here he makes a mark for himself as a genuine rapper as well. His persona is laid out right away, the ego, the mentality, the contradiction, and yet as a complete package the guy is one of the most brilliant people in music now. The album has its faults and is bloated, but what works is some of the best stuff to be made in rap music in more recent years, which the genre needs badly. He's a welcome addition to a dying breed.

Standout Track: Get 'Em High.
Overall Rating: 8.5

"The College Dropout" and Kanye West trivia:

* "Through The Wire," first single on the song, has singing on it that is quite different than the rest of the album. The reason why West sounds like he is singing out the side of his mouth? His infamous car accident was 2 weeks prior and he recorded the song with a wire still in his mouth.

* The main reason there are so many guests on the album is the fact that a lot of the songs were meant to appear on other artist's albums, beats, whatever. "Never Let Me Down" was meant to be on Jay-Z's "The Blueprint" (West added the spoken-word part), second single "Slow Jamz" was originally on Twista's album "Kamikaze" (2003), same vocals and all, "Jesus Walks" written and recorded for Rhymefest, and "Get 'Em High" on Talib Kweli's "The Beautiful Struggle," only taken off after the album leaked and Kweli revised the tracklist.

* Many, many studios famously turned down West before signing him. Some include Capitol Records, claiming they didn't want a producer/rapper, and even Roc-A-Fella was reluctant to sign him for the same reason.

* The album leaked multiple times before the actual release date to the Internet. Instead of pushing the album faster, West used the opportunity to remix some of the tracks and respond to feedback from the web. He would repeat this process again with his more recent "808's & Heartbreaks."

* "All Falls Down" features Syleena Johnson singing the main vocals of the song. The sample of the song originally was Lauryn Hill's "Mystery of Iniquity," but permission to release the song for West to sample was withheld. Thus Johnson's re-recording of the vocals.

* The violin player on "The New Workout Plan" Miri Ben-Ari. She has collaborated with many rap artists, Jay-Z, Wyclef Jean, Alicia Keys, Maroon 5, Brandy, Janet Jackson, to name a few. On tour in support of West she would play live and would also perform other songs of the time, like "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" by Jay-Z.

* A music video for sixth single "Spaceship" was made just recently leaked to the Internet. The video and single were scrapped in favor of promotion for West's follow-up album.

* Hymn "I'll Fly Away" is originally by Albert E. Brumely in 1929. Other artists to cover the hymn: Bob Dylan, The Avett Brothers, Hank Williams, Castanets, Jars of Clay, Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch, and Johnny Cash.

* Some "Jesus Walks" fun facts in particular: West wrote the first verse intended as how a drug dealer may walk with Jesus, then it took him 6 months to finish the song. The second verse, which is more of a critique of the media's treatment of Jesus, were taken from West's actual experiences trying to get signed and many record executives turning him down after hearing a demo of it. He also mentions this on final track "Last Call."

* Mase, whom West says is his favorite rapper of all time, came out of retirement from being a minister to deliver a new verse on the official remix of "Jesus Walks."

* Last "Jesus Walks" trivia. Overall 3 official music videos exist of the song, the second 2 paid by West himself because he felt they needed more.

* The reason "School Spirit" is censored on both the censored and explicit version of the album? Apparently Aretha Franklin wouldn't allow West to sample it if the song included cursing, so West was only allowed to release the censored version.

* He's known for his cameos. One of the funnier ones is the music video for "The New Workout Plan" included appearances by the following: Anna Nicole Smith, Fonzworth Bentley, Consequence, John Legend, and of course the Dropout Bear.

* Number one single from the album? "Slow Jamz," in February of 2004. It replaced OutKast's reign of the singles at No. 1 for both "The Way You Move" and "Hey Ya!" which had been a 10-week takeover.

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