Throwback is a column which looks at older albums and the impact they’ve had on today’s scene. Whether still in their original pressing or now reissued, Julio Anta writes about his thoughts on the music when he first listened to it, along with his current thoughts on the record. In this week’s entry, Anta talks about Kanye West’s debut full length album, “The College Dropout,” which was a record that opened him up to an entire genre of music.
Like most kids growing up in the ’90s, Saturday mornings were reserved for cartoons: Bobby’s World, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, Freakazoid, the list goes on. As I got older, my Saturday morning viewing switched to VH1’s Top 20 Video Countdown, which was my introduction to music beyond “boy bands.” For years, I was introduced to hundreds of mainstream artists, the likes of which didn’t make it into the “70s, 80s, and Today!” oldies radio stations my father would listen to. And although the countdown didn’t introduce me to many profound bands or artists, it did show me that there was more to be listened to than what I had been put onto; for better or for worse. Oddly enough, the only artist I remember discovering on the program, whose effect is still felt within my musical consciousness is the self-proclaimed “Most Hated Man in America,” Kanye West.
To understand why Kanye West impacted me in the way he did, you need to know one thing about me, circa 2000-2004: I absolutely, unconditionally hated hip-hop. The gangster persona and the rapping about wealth and status, rather than themes more in touch with myself, a middle class suburban pre-teen, caused me to look down on the genre for years.
All that ended the morning I first saw the music video for “All Falls Down” as it made its debut toward the bottom on the charts. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, but there was something about watching West follow Stacy Dash through an airport, as she handed her bags off to Kel Mitchell, of “Kenan and Kel,” and as she handed her boarding pass off to fellow Chicago rapper, Common, that finally softened my heart to the genre. Today, I know this shift from prejudice to respect was a combination of elements. For one, I had never heard someone rhyme over an acoustic guitar (an interpolation of Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery Of Iniquity”), and a rapper intelligently discussing the complexities of American consumerism was in stark contrast to what I was used to hearing.
Needless to say, I begged my mother to drive me to the local Best Buy, where I would purchase my first hip-hop album, The College Dropout. Further impressed, I listened to the album over and over again until it was too scratched to play any further. “Through The Wire,” with it’s infectious Chaka Khan sample, and now legendary narrative of Kanye West’s near-fatal car crash leaving him on life-support and his jaw wired shut, told the story of a man over a thousand miles away from me, who would forever alter my musical palate. And I wasn’t the only one. Still West’s best-selling album after nearly eight years and five albums, The College Dropout is one of the most influential hip-hop records of the last decade.
Bursting with sped-up samples from Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin and various other classic soul and gospel artists, the album brought back a sampling trend not widely used since Dr. Dre and NWA’s G-Funk explosion of the early ’90s. “Never Let Me Down,” for example, contains a sample of Blackjack’s “Maybe It’s The Power Of Love,” prominently used as the song’s hook, rather than just a mere backing track, as most samples in mainstream hip-hop had been reduced to. Another trend popularized by The College Dropout, which shows up in the same track, is the conscious discussion of religion and spirituality, specifically during J. Ivy’s spoken word piece, and West’s reflection on the aforementioned car accident that almost took his life. To this day, “Never Let Me Down” is my go-to song on the album. Something about hearing West rhyme about his mother, six years old at the time, being arrested for a sit-in at a white-only restaurant gives me the chills every time.
As with all albums I’ve come to love, I eventually purchased it on vinyl. Unlike most albums I love, I did not pursue a copy of this record, but randomly found it at a Spec’s Music near my wife and I’s first apartment, while still living in South Miami. Packaged in a single sleeve just big enough to house two LPs, I was disappointed to find the skits included in the original versions of the album missing. Not that I was particularly fond of the sometimes hilarious, but oftentimes bloated skits featuring stand-up comedian DeRay Davis and Tony Williams, rather I was let-down for the archival purposes of owning a physical copy of the album in its intended state. And like most digitally crafted hip-hop albums, the audio did not add any improvements in sound quality, but at least remained free of pops and cracks. Also included in the packaging is a two-sided black and white insert detailing the many credits and samples that went into each track.
To be quite honest, the vinyl packaging gives off the perception that it was quickly slapped together. At this point, I had already owned his later albums on vinyl, 808s And Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, both of which came in beautiful triple gatefold sets, and meticulously designed by West himself. Overall though, The College Dropout is a great album I was ecstatic about adding to my record collection, no matter how lackluster the packaging feels at times.
At this point in my understanding of music and pop culture, I consider Kanye West to be this generation’s single most important figure in popular music. Since his shift from predominantly producing for rappers, to becoming a rapper himself, West has commanded the hip-hop landscape. From the soul-heavy samples of his debut, to the orchestrated Late Registration, polished and highly glossed Graduation, auto-tuned yet highly vulnerable 808s And Heartbreak, and finally, the beat-heavy and ambitiously avant-garde My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, every step of West’s journey has been critically praised. Throughout the course of these releases, trends have followed. Auto-tune became acceptable, singers in R&B and hip-hop became more comfortable with discussing topics of remorse and deprecation, producers embraced strings, and I let my guard down long enough to discover the vast world of hip-hop.
The over-arching theme of The College Dropout is the inner-struggle between the underground and the mainstream (in “Breathe In Breathe Out” Kanye proclaims himself to be “the first rapper with a Benz and a backpack”) and looking back, I was in the same position, struggling to accept the music genre literally taking over the world at the time of this album’s release. Thanks to Kanye West, my mind was opened, I was able to realize what I was missing out on, and an entire genre of music was laid out before me, ready to be explored.
You can still pick up The College Dropout through Amazon.