A lot can happen in 10 years; the world could change in unresolvable ways, yet certain pieces of music have the power to transcend the boundaries of time. There is no set formula to what makes a seminal album, no recipe to follow or specific aspect to incorporate; it instead requires a sense of poignancy and coherency that come together to redefine what we understand about a certain genre or artist, an ultimately rare occurrence that happens once in a generation (which is why so few albums age well). One could argue the sign of an influential record is its appeal a decade after its initial release, which is why it made sense to revisit The College Dropout, the acclaimed debut by Kanye West released on February 10th 2004 on Roc-A-Fella Records.

Kanye is arguably the most talked about artist in the world, predominantly because of the brash, egotistical nature of his public persona but more so due to the way he is represented in the media. Yeezy's increasingly controversial image and relationship with the paparazzi has thus earned him a divisive status in the public eye - the rap game's very own Mr Marmite - with some starting religions/currencies in his name, and others chastising every move he makes as ego-fuelled nonsense. West's fifth release, Yeezus was undeniably his most provocative album to date, a visceral beast of a record released last year that questioned how a hip-hop album should traditionally sound, incorporating leftfield production and contentious yet complex lyrical wordplay, a raw change in character from 2010's luxurious (and Pitchfork perfect) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'.

Despite his naysayers, one can't disprove Kanye's creative chops, an argument backed by the multitude of ground broken in his illustrious career so far, from redefining autotune (for better or worse) on 808's and Heartbreak to the seamless amalgamation of rap and classical on live release Late Orchestration. Needless to say, West's determination to push boundaries is something that should be praised, and wouldn't be possible without such a credible introduction on The College Dropout .

Ten years to the day after it hit the shelves, Yeezy's critically acclaimed and vital debut record still sounds as fresh and forward thinking as ever.

Without wanting to merely write a review a decade too late, it's perhaps imperative to look at the influence of Kanye's debut on the rest of his career and hip-hop as a whole, a broad argument that no doubt finds its grounding in how the record is dominated by humility rather than egotistical exuberance. Of course the trademark ego is there, but it is somewhat veiled under Kanye's need to prove his worth after making the transition from producer to artist, a situation he constantly refers to in great detail throughout the album (most notably on twelve minute closer 'Last Call'). Whilst his recent work is bathed in self adoration, this earlier material oozes a sense of naivety and gratitude, principally to Damon Dash and Jay Z who signed him to Roc-A-Fella after previous label upset with Capitol Records.

The College Dropout irrefutably follows an autobiographical focus, a trait which is nothing new in hip-hop, yet it's Yeezy's unashamed candidness that gives the album a certain charm. Refusing to conform to the 'thug-life' persona, he instead openly references his middle class roots and academic knowledge, cutting real life experiences with a deeper interrogation of major issues such as race, politics and religion. The latter has always played a major role in Kanye's lyrics, most recently on controversial Yeezus cut 'I Am A God', but it was second single 'Jesus Walks' that ultimately made the initial ground, questioning the place of religion in the genre: "They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus, that means guns, sex, lies, videotape, but if I talk bout God my record won't get played."

The College Dropout was released on February 10, 2004, on Roc-A-Fella Records. The album debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 441,000 copies in its first week [via Wikipedia].

  • 1. Intro
  • 2. We Don't Care
  • 3. Graduation Day
  • 4. All Falls Down
  • 5. I'll Fly Away
  • 6. Spaceship
  • 7. Jesus Walks
  • 8. Never Let Me Down
  • 9. Get Em High
  • 10. Workout Plan
  • 11. The New Workout Plan
  • 12. Slow Jamz
  • 13. Breathe In Breathe OUt
  • 14. School Spirit (Skit 1)
  • 15. School Spirit
  • 16. School Spirit (Skit 2)
  • 17. Lil Jimmy (Skit)
  • 18. Two Words
  • 19. Through The Wire
  • 20. Family Business
  • 21. Last Call

This consistent sense of honesty throughout gives the record a resonance rarely seen from any artist, regardless of genre, particularly on a debut album. Despite focusing on the struggle to 'make it', Kanye's reaction to this new lifestyle also shines through via his lyrical content, almost like a warning to his future self to not get overly attached to the baller lifestyle. This is no doubt most prominent on 'All Falls Down', in which he addresses the self-conscious side effects of having money to spend on designer goods, and the working class aspiration to that lifestyle "Couldn't afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis."

It is of course difficult to maintain the argument that Kanye still possesses those values when he can charge $120 for a plain white T-Shirt, but this polarity between him then and now is almost part of the allure of this debut, and furthers the idea that his changing attitude throughout the years has been authentic and organic, an honest reaction to a constantly adapting lifestyle.

West's change in viewpoint is perhaps best illustrated on the first line he delivers on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy "I fantasised bout this back in Chicago, mercy mercy me that Murciélago." This disparity between his earlier and later material is further proof of The College Dropout's openness as a record, as it offers a rare insight into a shade of personality most artists hide to avoid seeming inexperienced. Kanye's method of exposing his mistakes is another example of this, with debut single 'Through The Wire' based around his car accident after falling asleep at the wheel whilst 'School Spirit' deals with how he dropped out of college, pitting aspirational lyrical wit against fraternity stereotypes.

It is these moments of comic relief that give the album a sense of coherence, allowing West to explore tough subject matter without giving the whole record a preachy feel. 'The New Workout Plan' for example plays around a mock-workout tape yet still allows Kanye to display his technical ability, a contrast that gives the song a hard to define sense of depth, a trait also carried in in the deliberately smooth 'Slow Jamz'.

The insight into Kanye's life before the fame is what ultimately makes The College Dropout such an influential record. When compared to his consequential work, this album should be seen as Yeezy standing at the bottom of the mountain of his career, one he would later conquer (both metaphorically and physically in his Yeezus tour) embodying the lifestyle he envisions through an aspirational lens. Put simply, his ability to remain grounded and relatable throughout his debut, yet still transcend anyone in his field through sheer lyrical prowess and production genius is what makes this album special, a poignant mix that has perhaps only been matched in the last decade by one artist, Kendrick Lamar.

The College Dropout is one of those records that gets better over time, not in an ageless sense, but more because it becomes increasingly intriguing to compare to Kanye's ever changing creative dynamic. West's discography to date is no doubt far reaching, but none of it would be possible without such an honest debut, a record so candid and vital it has forced Yeezy to push himself into new territories with each release. The College Dropout is still overwhelmingly resonant today, and I have no doubt this will still be the case in ten years time.