On May 11, 2013, I graduated from college after seven years of taking advantage of my parents’ love. They were not there due to a family emergency and I hadn’t announced the graduation since I didn’t think it was a big deal. I made it to Lloyd Noble ten minutes before the ceremony and five minutes before that I’d borrowed a friend’s cap and gown because I was serious. As “Osizimete Aken’Ova” was called to the stage, I suddenly wished I’d written my name down as “Sani Abacha”—a Nigerian dictator—to get a reaction from the other Nigerians I knew were in the audience. I still think that would have been funny but obviously it would have been a cry for attention. After the director of my college, Dr. Sturtevant, hugged me and said something unforgettable I soon forgot, I walked down the stage and the loneliness slapped me right in the face. Outside everyone was smiling and taking pictures without me. I didn’t tell anyone about the graduation, but it was still annoying watching people happy as I was left out. I couldn’t stand it, so I walked to my apartment, peeled off my suit and gown, threw on my College Dropout T-shirt and played my favorite hip-hop album of all time, Kanye West’s “The College Dropout”.
The album welcomed a rapper that didn’t fit into the thug or revolutionary category and to this day we are still trying to categorize Mr. West. Kanye wasn’t attempting sensitivity or pugilism but honesty to the point of eye-roll inducing melodrama, which worked. Repetitively funny, charming, rebellious and of course hypocritical, to say the album has everything would be bad writing but it does. Jesus even makes an extended cameo. A musician only did Jesus songs if he needed to apologize—R. Kelly—or lazily inject religion into his image.
Kanye has always been astute at arranging songs in his albums and on “The College Dropout” he takes us on a journey of loneliness to triumph while criticizing higher education, consumerism, self-consciousness and himself amongst other things.
Listening to the album after my college graduation called to mind the first time I heard it 10 years ago as I was about to graduate from high school. It was summer 2004 and I was in my last year of boarding school in Nigeria. Few other seniors were stuck in the hostels (dorms) waiting to take a new nationally sanctioned set of exams no one cared about or respected, after taking the exams we cared about and respected. The dorms were devoid of cool students because they’d hopped the school’s fence to live in day student’s houses as cool students did. Other seniors stuck in the dorms were there because they had nowhere else to go, were in-between day students houses or like me, lame. Senior students that stayed in the dorms were exemplary to the staff but to students, we were wimps. Thankfully, the cool seniors were hardly around and our piousness paid off in favors among the staff. Contraband was ignored, sports equipment was made available and we were allowed access to various entertainment systems. Aside from the usual Reggaeton and MTV/Channel O sanctioned pop music, Usher’s
“Confessions” album was what everyone was listening to not only because it was a good album but also because Mr. Raymond tied it to his personal life. Usher had gone through a public break up with his then girlfriend, Chilli from TLC and the album’s title track hinted a surprise baby was the cause. It was all bullshit and looking back I regret wondering what the effects would have on Usher’s life instead of my wallet.
After the effects of 50 Cent’s gangsta epic “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” Outkast’s mainstream success, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”, and Jay-Z’s “retirement,” left a void in Hip-Hop that was yet to be filled. Southern rap was getting the attention that had previously eluded it and African music was about to change with the release of 2face Idibia’s “Face 2 Face,” nevertheless the absence was still felt.
A random Saturday, the school’s Chaplain decided to take the lame students into the city because God probably told him how pathetic we looked. We ate somewhere nice and he let us pick some movies to buy. I can’t remember the movies but “The Passion of Christ” was one of them. He refused get any music so I bought a few. I got Twista’s “Kamikaze”, N.E.R.D’s “Fly or Die” and Kanye West’s “The College Dropout”. I initially didn’t like “The Blueprint”, it was different from the usual summer hit heavy Jay-Z we were used to but Kanye had a few production credits on I liked. At that point he’d worked with a variety of artists like Slum Village, Dilated Peoples, and Janet Jackson so his resume was formidable.
I got to the dorms and put on the album; not impressed. Due to my country’s proclivity for rolling blackouts, I had little patience for music with a “slow” build up because electrical power was precious and fleeting. After the short “Intro” which segued into the hilarious “We don’t Care” and ended with the even funnier “Graduation Day,” I couldn’t stand the album. I skipped through it, concluded the album was boring and enjoyed “Fly or Die.” Another thing to consider at the time I listened to this was Timbaland and The Neptunes were the biggest producers in hip-hop, their spacey and techno inspired beats were hardly slow and if they were, they were interesting. Kanye’s star might have been rising and although his album had come out in February of that year, his hype hadn’t reached Nigeria. Soul and funk samples have been popular in rap/hip-hop for as long as I can remember with Dr. Dre, the RZA being popular innovators. Kanye sampled soul and funk in a fashion that highlighted their influence instead of just a bass line or for a hook, you can hear the most popular lines of songs through the beats, that more or less removed any vague sense of similarity of the old records one would regularly associate with hip hop. It was different but didn’t pique my interest.
Kanye’s style of rapping was another big problem for me; he was all over the place. Not only lyrically but his flow in general. He would slow down in the middle of bars abruptly bursting into song; it was sloppy.
I can’t recall what happened, but I found myself coming back to listen to the album after I’d gotten bored of “Kamikaze” and “Fly or Die”. Also, I should probably admit that I started hopping over the fence to stay at a day student friend’s guest house. It probably was the boredom, but at least my friend’s family had a generator, so the electrical power problem was solved. “College Dropout” was not easy to listen to but at least it was something diverse. The stand out track was “Never Let me Down” or track 8 . Jay-Z “retired” but kept randomly popping up on other people’s songs hinting that he was going to make a comeback. He of course outshone everyone with his autobiographical verse about his rise to the top including the verbose spoken word poet J. Ivy and Kanye’s personal input. Jay-Z’s verse might have been the best as expected however Kanye left his mark on listeners with his new perspective on historical significance of the Black Power movement and ends with his car accident in one of the corniest rap lyrics ever. “But I can’t complain what the accident did to my left eye/Cause look what an accident did to Left Eye/First Aaliyah now Romeo Must Die…” Still makes me cringe.
My preferred songs on the album change as I go through life and have various experiences, tracks take on a different meaning. The skits are one of these, initially humorous because of their ludicrous nature and portrayal of college graduates, but they take on a new level meaning when you consider the Kanye’s background. His father, Ray West, was a former Black Panther and his mother an English professor, so the pressure to be an educated exemplary black man and revolutionary must have been heavy. Dropping out of college wasn’t infantile rebellion but rather belief in himself and his seemingly unachievable goals. I’d never heard anyone skewer the college myth of a good job at the end the way he did. Kanye attacked the realities facing college girls on songs like “All Falls Down”, the lack of jobs depending on major and insecure egos attached to graduating. Till this day I’m unsure where his insecurity of not graduating starts and criticizing begins, maybe it was the insecurity that lead to the criticism, I don’t know. Many feel that his insecurity taints his criticism but his present success should quickly dash those thoughts. The myth of college being a haven for young blacks versus getting caught in street life was examined. A theme that runs through the album as Kanye neither embraces the educated black lifestyle or the gangster, but dabbles in rapping about Sit Ins then comparing the size of a woman’s ass to a horse.
“Through the Wire” was already considered a hit because of the controversy surrounding it and the nostalgia inducing Chaka Khan “Through the Fire” sample. A rapper still “spitting” lyrics through a jaw wired shut after a car accident didn’t impress me; 50 cent happened the previous year with more bullet holes. Never the less, the screeching vocal sample, sped up drum beat juxtaposed with Kanye’s mumbled tale of turning “tragedy to triumph” is what brings it home. Even without the beat Kanye’s flow is seamless and I bet anyone can dance to it acapella.
“All Falls Down” featuring the currently missing Syleena Johnson has Kanye getting in touch with his inner Gil Scott-Heron—he premiered a piece of it at Def Poetry Jam—by digging deep into the insecurity in Hip-hop’s desire for material wealth. Consumerism in general is investigated and justified by default when no alternative is offered, but the point is still made. The song is made better with the Chris Milk directed video featuring Cher’s friend from “Clueless” which is by far the best Kanye West video.
“Slow Jamz” was already considered Twista’s song since it was released as his single and helped launch Jamie Foxx music career before “Ray”. “The New Workout Plan” has Kanye poking fun at gold diggers and even gets Talib Kweli and Common to abandon their standard socially conscious lyrics to rap about “bitches.” Freeway and Mos Def’s appearance on “Two Words” are forgettable when paired with the sick wailing and operatic crescendo throughout the track, “Breath in Breath Out” is another playful song with Ludacris at the height of his ignorant—“Pussy Poppin’” came out the previous year—rap, DTP reign and bullhorns. “Spaceship” is for all of us who have had shitty jobs as drones no one cares about. Sprinkled with minor elements of racism and yelps of frustration on Kanye’s part, GLC and Consequence’s verses hold the theme of being stagnant as the beat drones on like the empty spaces between the ticks of a clock.
“Family Business” is timeless as Mr. West paints a nostalgic yet current picture of the African American family that will leave you missing yours. Kanye has always been good at writing honest love songs not only about Kim Kardashian but his mother and my favorite, family. To this day the song makes me want to hug a grandma.
The last track on the album and my current favorite is the perfect way to end or begin anything, with a toast. “Last Call” has Kanye drop the intensity after two verses of a Michael Jordan Hall of Fame acceptance speech, to tell his tale of making it as a producer rapper; from assembling Ikea beds after a crestfallen move to another city to the awe of watching Jay-Z record an album in 1-2 days. There are a lot of hip-hop cameos in the song that aren’t bland or pointless; Talib Kweli and No I.D are Kanye’s mentors, teaching him how to rap and produce respectively, impressing Jay-Z with a line from a song, Damon Dash. His passive aggressive scorn is directed at A&Rs (Artist and Repertoire) a few who heard “Jesus Walks” and still didn’t sign him post-Blueprint. Lots of rappers have problems with A&Rs and make vague accusations whereas Kanye pulls us in with broken promises and politics. Just when you think all is hopeless, the good people at Roc-a-Fella Records give the college dropout a shot with the line“…man, you think we could still get the deal with Rocafella?” with an echo then the soulful “So wouldn’t you raise your glass, wouldn’t you?” signaling the entrance of one of the best hip-hop producers of all time. Sadly, this was the last great year for “The Roc”. Dame, Jay and Kareem said they will not lose and I guess technically they didn’t; they got bought out. I’m not clear on what happened, but I remember Jay-Z being president of Def Jam, Cam’ron and The Diplomats making a few diss tracks and every single rapper in the world having a Roc-a-Fella chain. It wasn’t pretty.
After listening to the album post-college graduation, I realized I’ve bought it three times. The first time, I gave the album to a girl after my high school graduation because I didn’t know what love was; the second got stolen by a friend, and finally my present was purchased copy for a Hip-Hop class when “Late Registration” was required. I got “Dropout” and illegally downloaded “Late Registration”. Registration is more polished but what it lacks is Kanye’s newness and drive to attain his current level of success. It’s unpolished in the way Wu-Tang’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” is; gritty, thirsty and full of heart. Kanye might not be making the same type of music he did in 2004 but he’s the same person. If you’d asked me what I thought about Kanye morphing into the artist that he is now, I would have responded with a cynical, “If he’s lucky.” I don’t know about luck but he made it. The petulant self-described “genius” with a great ear for music has just been given a bigger sandbox to play in. This is the guy who accused George W. Bush of ignorance nationally, grabbed Taylor Swift’s mic mid-acceptance speech, and is currently attempting to claim the Confederate flag.
Feels good to have followed Kanye’s career from the beginning
Thinking about it now, I feel like I had to listen to “The College Dropout” after my college graduation. High school not so much, I was too naïve to seriously contemplate life in the real world. Who isn’t more narcissistic after high school? The great anticipation of one’s future is at its zenith during a high school graduation as opposed to a college graduation where there’s a sense of the party being over. In my case, I overstayed my welcome. The reality for a Film and Media studies major isn’t the best; not that there aren’t any jobs but they are hard to find and one has to get creative. It’s a strange place to be. Kanye’s album chastises higher education relentlessly and his success as a college dropout is enough to make any super-duper senior feel wasteful, but for me, it doesn’t. What I see is a person who absolutely believed in his vision despite the challenges facing him; his family, Hip-Hop cultural norms, pop music and his idol Jay-Z. Of course what we have now is a Kanye West that is pushing the boundaries of art or patience with his ego, I honestly can’t tell, but he probably thinks we’ll get it somewhere along the line. Where some saw ego, I saw Kanye using whatever he could to fight all the things preventing him from doing what he wanted. His rants and blatant claims of godhood reveal a person who had to fight make his vision seen or heard. As I lay down on my bed, lonely and without any real hope for the future, “The College Dropout” was perfect in relating to my frustrations and letting me know there was always hope.
That said, anyone else wonder why Miri Ben-Ari had to have her violin on almost every track? Nothing’s wrong with the violin but it gets distracting. What happened to her anyway? Was the “Hip-Hop Violinist” thing just a phase or what?