Before he was a presidential candidate, billionaire and engaged in antisemitic behavior, Kanye West was a 26-year-old music producer on the verge of releasing his debut album, “The College Dropout.” At the time, the hip-hop industry was flooded with so-called “gangster rappers,” usually hailing from either New York City or Los Angeles and nowhere in between. What room did this leave for an art student from Chicago? Someone who wore a Polo and a backpack? Someone with seemingly no connections in the rap game? Very little. In fact, it took Kanye nearly a decade in the industry to even get to the point where he could put out an album, due to many thinking he simply didn’t have what it took to make it as a solo artist.
This was 20 years ago. The Kanye of today has replaced the Polo and backpack with some of the most unusual outfits ever seen and has succeeded in seemingly every way possible in terms of his career. However, in terms of who he is as a person, he has time and time again fallen short, often in the public eye for everyone to witness. As a result, many are left wondering what happened to the conscious, yet positive and confident Kanye that was seen at the beginning of his career.
On “The College Dropout,” Kanye makes himself known from the very first song, “We Don’t Care.” Throughout the song, Kanye, eventually joined by a children’s choir, repeats the refrain “We don’t care what people say.” This line essentially becomes the mantra for not only the rest of the album but also Kanye’s career as a whole. From the start of his career, Kanye has been known for pioneering new sounds, whether it be the heavy use of autotune on albums like “808s and Heartbreak,” or the more industrial instrumentals on “Yeezus.” On “Dropout,” this is what has come to be known as “chipmunk soul.” The style, introduced by West, is trademarked by sped-up soul samples and is a style that is seen on several songs across the record. These include the tracks “School Spirit,” “Last Call,” “Slow Jamz,” and “Through The Wire.” The latter song, which served as the album’s lead single, originally featured West rapping with his mouth wired shut following a near-fatal car accident that shattered his entire jaw.
Several times since the song was first released, West has stated that the accident was the reason he decided to commit himself to a solo career. For years prior, West had desired to start rapping on his own beats and releasing his own music. However, he was pressured against doing so by members of his own label, Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records. But after the accident Kanye realized he didn’t have much time to waste, recording the song as soon as it was physically possible, then eventually persuading Jay-Z to let him release it. The song’s success proved that, if nothing else, Kanye could sell a record, so the label let him go ahead and do his thing. “Through The Wire” was followed by the aforementioned “Slow Jamz,” which reached #1 with some help from Jamie Foxx and a sped-up Luther Vandross sample. From these two songs alone, it became clear that Kanye had a formula that worked. Although “Through the Wire” contained pretty serious subject matter, several songs on the album are defined by their fun, relatively unserious lyrics filled with clever punchlines, very much deviating from the hardcore content that was mainstream at the time. Songs like “Slow Jamz” and “School Spirit” are good examples of this, as well as songs like “Get Em High,” “Breathe In Breathe Out,” and “The New Workout Plan.” None of these tracks discuss anything that important but are simply enjoyable to listen to.
However, Kanye makes it very early on in the record that if he has something to say, he’s going to say it, a trait that has led him to some of the highest highs and lowest lows of his career. But in terms of “Dropout,” this is usually a good thing, for it allows Kanye to touch on things that seem very near and dear to his heart. Take the album’s second full song, “All Falls Down.” Right after claiming that he “[doesn’t] care what people say,” Kanye speaks his truth about the issues he sees in his community, particularly the negative effects of consumerism and the materialistic mindsets many seem to have, including himself. He then goes on to discuss the problems he sees in the modern work environment in “Spaceship,” before speaking on his family and overall familial relationships in “Family Business.” He and Mos Def trade verses about inner-city life on “Two Words,” with Kanye’s vivid depiction of his Chicago past making it one of his best verses to date.
Despite how personal all of these songs feel, none is as powerful either to the listener or seemingly Kanye himself as “Jesus Walks.” On the track, West discusses his relationship with Jesus, as well as religion as a whole. He describes the role he believes God plays in his life, which until this point was never really discussed in mainstream hip-hop. West even acknowledges this point on the track when he asks “If I talk about God my record won’t get played?” He goes on to state that even something as brutal as murder can be depicted in song with no repercussions, but even mentioning Jesus could have devastating effects on his career. For an artist just getting his start, this is an incredibly bold move and one that can be respected regardless of anyone’s religious beliefs.
20 years later, it is no surprise that Kanye would make a decision like this. Every choice he makes seems to be determined by him and him only. Musically, this is often a good thing. Kanye’s willingness to go against the grain and create sounds that are unheard of for their time has led to some of the greatest projects in recent mainstream music, influencing countless artists in the process. Everything outside of his music is a completely different story, with the same mindset seemingly having a lot to do with his rapidly crumbling reputation. But, if “The College Dropout” says anything, it’s that Kanye honestly is not worried in the slightest about what people think about him. This mentality is the hill that Kanye chooses to die on; the hill he has both climbed and fallen down time and time again throughout his career and seemingly will continue to do so for a long, long time.