Talking about Kanye West’s early days in the office took me back to a time when he wasn’t known as an overbearing, attention-seeking personality. I’ve had a falling out with his music over the years but I’ll admit I enjoyed his earlier material a great deal. Therefore, it’s fitting to talk about College Dropout, my favorite album of his catalog, and its effect on rap music.
Take a quick flashback to the early-mid aughts. Roc A Fella Records was more than a label. It was a sizable force featuring all kinds of cliques dominating the scene at the time. The Roc also stood as one of the east coast’s last great movements before it folded. Their roster at their peak goes beyond the word deep. Plenty of heads from the established figurehead Jay-Z to in-house rivals in the Diplomats as well as newer acts like Freeway and Beanie Sigel made waves. Some kid from Chicago managed to get in the back door with solid beats and a hunger to rap. Higher ups reportedly did double takes at his initial rhyming attempts. But it’s interesting to recall how the geekiest member of the crew became one of its most popular artists in no time.
Kanye’s position on the label didn’t quite fit. He was the talented yet not quite “cool” producer/burgeoning rapper of the set who’s style of beat making was largely, and admittedly, shaped by the Rza. West almost didn’t sign with Roc A Fella in the first place. Joe “3H” Weinberger of Capital Records made the initial attempt at signing him to a solo deal. Then Dame Dash interceded with his own offer as a means to secure the budding producer his label. West’s career could’ve transpired much differently had he parted ways so it’s interesting to see how Dash’s defensive move set up Ye quite well in the long run.
Nevertheless, he managed to get things together with multiple features and production credits leading up to his first LP. The rest, as they say, was history as he exceeded expectations by the time College Dropout hit. The album remains as his best selling record yet and his most influential effort to date.
You can credit the machine for his meteoric rise to success but the record’s accessible subject matter and presentation played a heavy role in its acceptance with the masses. The hook lied in the topics, ranging from the initial hit “Through The Wire” the blue collar-themed “Spaceship,” straight up silly “New Workout Plan,” and the introspective “All Falls Down”. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Jesus Walks a special mention since the track’s stance on Christianity spawned discussion and created his earliest controversy on major media outlets. These singles, featuring soulful production and lyrics with conviction, transcended the usual fare seen in the Roc’s popular street anthems and struck a chord with the buying public not familiar with rap. They opened up interest for the record as a whole and opened him up as a multi-faceted yet endearing, radio friendly artist.
More importantly, he played up his non-confrontational image to his advantage. That was a pretty risky move in 2004 considering the hardcore rapper persona was the model towards mainstream acceptance. Influential artists like Tribe and De La Soul served as the previous wave of “everyman” rap personalities and set a road map of sorts for those following their example. However their prevalence waned by the time the 00’s began. Pharrell helped kick start the trend in the same time frame but Kanye West’s debut put it in a definitive form of an album. Moreover, their co-signs from established hip-hop artists of the old guard like Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z worked as a backdoor screen to help shape the genre how they saw fit. It’s an important caveat to bring up since it’s unlikely their fame would be so widespread without those initial looks.
Let’s rewind back to the point. The shift set forth by College Dropout is largely recognized as a pivotal turning point in rap where an intimidating demeanor and, oftentimes, fake posturing gave way to “being yourself:” i.e. manufacturing your image to something closer to your own personality. Of course that spawned a bunch of rappers with following the trend in their own way with some problematic results. Yet it just goes to show there will always be some less desirable effects with every new wave of music.
College Dropout put Kanye on the map and enabled those after him to use the model towards their own success. It’s a great piece of work as it is a pivotal agent in pushing the genre towards another transitional phase. In closing, best believe many records before and after College Dropout exceeded it in terms of quality. Nonetheless, few can say they changed a popular genre in a considerable way.