Kanye West has probably lost his mind.
He recently began selling white tees for $120, he just released an album with God as the only featured artist, and - perhaps craziest of all - he got Kim Kardashian pregnant. Musically, Kanye has always pushed the envelope, but his latest album (which he sacrilegiously titled "Yeezus") went over most of our heads because he seemed to push the envelope a bit too far.
It's easy to look at these current events and categorize Kanye as just another egocentric, maniacal celebrity. But it would be a true shame if new Kanye made us all forget the genius of old Kanye. I'm not going to rehash his entire musical catalog, as there would be way too much material to cover. However, I will spend the rest of this post explaining why his debut album, "The College Dropout," was genius.
"The College Dropout" is my favorite Kanye West album. This should be no surprise; debut albums in hip-hop tend to be most rappers' best projects. This is because your first album is your introduction to the public. It's the first time you've released an album and it's your first chance to create a reputation for yourself. Fans will give you a fresh listen without comparing your album to anything else that you've released. Furthermore, as an artist, there are no previous albums for you to feel the need to outperform. I once heard Jay Z say that he felt his debut album was his best because he had 26 years to write it. Everything you've ever wanted to say in an album goes in that first one, and that usually makes it the best, at least lyrically.
Let me also point out that I think "College Dropout" is his best album for that reason specifically. Although some of his later albums had better production, the content of his first album is unparalleled.
Kanye's first single on the album was "Through The Wire." The sample of Chaka Khan's "Through The Fire" was amazing, but what makes this song genius is the fact that he actually rapped the entire song WHILE HIS MOUTH WAS WIRED SHUT. Which means, after he got into a potentially fatal car accident, he made the beat, wrote the lyrics, and recorded the song all before he had the jaw wire removed.
He then went out to release "All Falls Down," which remains as my favorite Kanye West song. This song is genius because of its content. In the song, Kanye discusses the ills and dangers of people buying expensive things for the sole purpose of impressing others, even though the material possessions do nothing more than expose a self-consciousness that exists within the buyer ("We'll buy a lotta clothes but we don't really need 'em/ Things we buy to cover up what's inside/ Cuz they made us hate ourselves and love their wealth"). He's giving a valuable lesson, but he isn't preachy. He even admits that he's no different than other self-conscious rappers, saying that he's "just the first to admit it." For a new artist to give such a powerful message and release it as a single in the same year when this song was popular was, of course, genius.
The genius continued with "Jesus Walks," which might have been the most genius of them all. First of all, he released a rap single talking about his dependence on Jesus Christ. He even put "Jesus" in the title. But what makes this genius is the fact that he purposely discusses a taboo topic such as religion as a way to challenge the public. On the one hand, if they play the record, the sheer boldness of it all will probably make it a hit, simply because it's so taboo. On the other hand, if they don't play the record, he becomes the rebel who made a rap song about Jesus. This will still bring him publicity, in which case he wins anyway. Not only that, he talks about how taboo it is on the song ("They say I can rap about anything except for Jesus....if I talk about God, my record won't get played"). The best part is that even though the song probably only existed as a publicity stunt, it didn't seem like it at the time. He actually made rapping about God seem cool.
I don't want to belabor the point, but allow me to recognize a few other songs from "College Dropout" and explain why they were also genius:
- On "Spaceship," Kanye raps from the perspective of a frustrated Gap employee working a in the mall and receiving minimum wages. The song hits home because it's relatable to anyone who's had to work a job that they hate.
- "Never Let Me Down" is one of the first hip-hop songs that I can remember having an entire spoken word piece infused into the record. While Jay Z spends the record explaining why he's a legendary rapper that never lets the fans down, Kanye takes it a step further and talks about race relations in America. He narrates how his ancestors fought for equal treatment during the Civil Rights Movement, and then goes on to explain how he feels that he must've been kept alive for a reason despite his car accident. This is probably the best individual verse on the album.
- "School Spirit" and the skits surrounding it explore the idea that college degrees are actually worthless and put you in debt instead of actually making you money. Considering that school loans are the number one source of debts in America, he was certainly onto something. Again, he's providing a knowledgeable point without coming off as preachy.
- "Last Call" is the first and only song I can remember that doubles as both a rap song and an interview. Kanye explains the entire story of how he got signed, dictating how he went from being evicted to signing with Roc-A-Fella Records. When you heard the whole story for the first time, you kind of got the feeling that he was going to become something huge.
"The College Dropout" was a genius hip-hop album. Sadly, Kanye West has become so famous and so strange now that we'll never get an album like this from him again. Although I complain about what he has become musically, I suppose I should be happy he's changed. The contrast has made me appreciate his debut album even more.