Monday, March 2, 2009

The College Drop Out: 5 Years Later

When Kanye West released “The College Drop Out” on February 10th, 2004 radio and video were dominated by southerners getting “crunk” and screaming about booze and strippers, Hip-Hop fashion was limited to throwback jerseys or white-T’s and Air Force Ones and the general public was fascinated by a super thug from Queens that rapped endlessly about selling drugs, getting shot 9 times and being a bad a**.  Five years later kids are meticulously matching their scarves with limited edition Nike Dunks and “Emo Rappers” (more on that phrase later) like Kid Cudi and Charles Hamilton are enjoying commercial success, so much has changed because of the release of this album and the subsequent rise of Kanye West as a superstar that it is hard to argue with his claim of being “the voice of this generation.”  And while his overwhelming hubris is evident in his behavior at award shows and in statements like “I’m the most credible and commercially successful artist of my time”  (while this quote makes him seem like an arrogant a**, it’s pretty difficult to refute the claim), the vulnerability and insecurity expressed in his music and his efforts to express himself as a human being as opposed to a “character” conceived by record executives is the reason why his music connects with fans of almost all ages, backgrounds and musical tastes. 

While Kanye West The Producer was known to Hip-Hop fans since 2000, starting with his first commercial beat placement on Beanie Sigel’s bangin’ “The Truth” and subsequent contributions to such high profile artists as Scarface (“Guess Who’s Back?), Ludacris (“Stand Up”) and Talib Kweli (“Get By”), not to mention providing about half the beats for Jay-Z’s 2001 opus “The Blueprint.” However, Kanye West The Artist was not a known entity until the fall of 2003 when he released “Through the Wire,” which detailed his near fatal car accident and the ensuing recovery over a soulful Chaka Khan sample. This heartfelt, somber and ultimately triumphant personal tale was somehow fighting for chart positioning with raucous club anthems like Lil’ Jon’s “Get Low” and The Ying-Yang Twins “Salt Shaker” and proved to be the first warning shot in a sea change for Hip-Hop music and culture.

Kanye followed up “Through the Wire” with “Slow Jamz” and this simultaneously sexy and humorous song introduced the world to three budding stars all on the verge of blowing up. Kanye established himself as a witty, funny , articulate lyricist in his flirtatious verse where he attempts to entice a female to come home with him with lines like “She’s got a dark skin friend that at looks like Michael Jackson/She’s got a light skin friend that looks like Michael Jackson.” The following verses are provided by Twista and showcase the MC’s talent for saying extremely long and complicated rhymes with mind-bending speed and accuracy, while Twista had seen some success before “Slow Jams,” mainly as part of the Speed Knot Mobstas and being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s fastest rapper under the moniker “Tongue Twista,” he was viewed as somewhat of a novelty in most Hip-Hop circles until this song was released.  Following this collaboration Kanye continued to work with Twista and produced hits like “Overnight Celebrity” and “Girl Tonight,” while this marked the first time West would use his notoriety to help a Chicago favorite become a national star, it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  The memorable chorus was sung by Jamie Foxx, who was a respected and bankable actor, but by this time most had forgotten he was also an aspiring R&B singer that released an all but forgotten album in the mid-90’s.   Foxx’s soulful lyrics not only sang the names of great R&B singers and groups of the past , introducing a whole new generation to classic artists like Sly & the Family Stone and Smokey Robinson, but it propelled him into the public consciousness as a viable singer and would pave the way for a string of successful R&B albums and a collection of singles in heavy rotation on urban radio. Very rarely does a single have this kind of impact, the song was recorded by relative unknowns that went on to be three of the biggest artists of the decade.  “Slow Jams” provided a fun party song that was the soundtrack of clubs and house parties in the winter of 2004, introduced the general public to three future superstars and raised the buzz around Kanye West’s debut album to deafening levels. 

When fans listened to the “The College Dropout” they were instantly made aware that the two lead singles were no fluke and that this was going to be far superior to the typical compilation albums put out by most producers.  The album had a cohesiveness rare in modern Hip-Hop, this was truly a unified work of art and not a collection of singles produced by the hottest producers of the day with guest appearances by the most popular MC’s the label could afford.  The fact that Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam gave an untested artist of questionable commercial appeal this kind of artistic freedom to make an album free of the typical cookie-cutter “Rap Album Recipe” is a testament to the vision of those executives and the faith they had in West to make his singular vision not only a hit album, but the road map for the future of Hip-Hop.   In addition to the previously mentioned singles they album contained songs ranging from the pitfalls of materialism (“All Falls Down”), the indignities of working in retail (“Slave Ship”), the questionable value of higher education (“School Spirit”), the importance of family (“Family Business”), his rise through the music industry (“Last Call”) and opportunistic females (“New Workout Plan”).  

While the album was impressive from beginning to end (even if there were a few too many skits) the biggest departure from typical Hip-Hop protocol was “Jesus Walks,” a huge, gospel inspired, firestorm of a record where Kanye proudly proclaims his allegiance to Jesus Christ.  Most MC’s wouldn’t include this track on their album out of fear of being branded a “gospel rapper,” which makes the fact that this was released as a single with three video treatments and  achieved heavy radio and club rotation even more impressive.  No song sums up West’s appeal as succinctly as “Jesus Walks : The beat in undeniable to the point where staunch atheists can’t resist bobbing their heads and the lyrics are concurrently deeply personal and amusingly humorous.  While proclaiming is love for Jesus, he somehow works in references to Kathy Lee & Regis and actually quotes Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore.”  This dichotomy is what makes Kanye West palatable to a wider fan base than any other “conscious rapper,” just when you think he’s taking something too seriously or feeling himself too much, he lets you off the hook with a wink or funny lyric to let you know he’s still a regular guy that’s not that far removed from his audience, which allows him to rap contemplatively about religion, relationships, education and racism without becoming preachy and losing listeners.  This ability is exactly why A Tribe Called Quest achieved much more widespread acclaim than Native Tongue counterpart De La Soul, while both groups presented complex concepts and did not spoon-feed fans, De La lacked the “every man” appeal of Phife Dog, while Q-Tip was rhyming about abstract concepts, Phife was spitting about New Balance Sneakers, his height and sports, which allowed the group to connect with more fans than their less accessible counterparts.  West took this idea to the next level by combining the talents of Q-Tip and Phife into one man and truly lived up to his rhyme “The fans miss A Tribe Called Quest/And all they got now is this guy called West.”  

“The College Dropout” was released at a unique time in Hip-Hop, Jay-Z had just “retired” with the stellar “Black Album” (itself containing several tracks from West), the artists that dominated the early part of the decade like Eminem, Nelly, Ludacris, DMX, Ja Rule and Outkast were starting to slow down their creative output, the new sound from the south, “Crunk,” was starting to feel dated and wearing out its’ welcome only a few years after its explosion on the pop charts and the entire industry was dominated by 50 Cent and his “Bad Guy” persona.  The fact that West emerged from this set of circumstance to become the biggest Hip-Hop star on the planet is a testament to how the pendulum swings in Hip-Hop from one extreme to the other.  

In the early years of commercially available rap music major labels signed acts like The Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow that combined the imagery and good time vibe of R&B and disco with lighthearted rhymes, however when fans grew tired of this type of Hip-Hop, Run-DMC was embraced with open arms when they came out with rock-influenced beats, aggressive rhymes and an image that was more street than show business.  Similarly, when fans became tired of the artists of the mid-80’s they gravitated towards politically conscious artists like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions until the pendulum swung the completely opposite direction with Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” While this “Pendulum Swinging” has been witnessed several times in the past few decades, including the shifts from the glossy pop-rap of Puffy and Missy Elliot to the darkly personal rhymes of DMX and Eminem to the happy-go-lucky ringtone ready rap of Nelly and Ludacris, the change from 50 Cent and “Crunk” to Kanye West and rappers crying ranks up there with the biggest aesthetic shifts in Hip-Hop history.  While Kanye did not invent this version of Hip-Hop and it was obviously pioneered by the Native Tongues in the late 80’s, continued by “underground” artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli in the 90’s and popularized by the N.E.R.D./Skateboarder persona of The NeptunesKanye brought it the masses in a way that had a massive impact on how Hip-Hop heads dressed, thought, spoke and expressed themselves and while this change was not overnight (kid’s didn’t trade in their throwbacks for pink polo’s the first time they heard “Slow Jamz”) listening to radio, watching videos or observing the overall disposition of today’s  young Hip-Hop fans reveals Kanye West’s unmistakable influence. 

The other major factor that made Kanye West’s debut success so remarkable was his unwillingness to be classified in a typical sub-genre like “Street,” “Commercial” or “Underground.” As a producer his beats were as suited for Freeway as they were for Mos Def and he continued this genre-bending aesthetic on “The College Dropout” by featuring guest appearances from commercial favorites like Jay-Z and Ludacris,  established conscious MC’s like Mos Def and Talib Kweli , street cats like Freeway and underground favorites like Consequence and GLC, and somehow blended this all into one cohesive album that was off the hook from Intro to Outro.  This not only exposed many of the featured artists to much larger audiences, but established Kanye as a “Renaissance Man” that would become the new ideal in the music industry as genre lines continued to blur.  West’s influence can be seen in artists as diverse as Gym Class Heroes, Akon and  Lil’ Wayne in the way that they blend several genres and sensibilities to appeal to wide audience without sacrificing their own individual swagger.  

While Kanye West had an indelible effect on Hip-Hop music, his contributions to Hip-Hop fashion should not be overlooked.  Before “The College Dropout” urban fashion was dominated by baggy jeans, jerseys and oversize T-Shirts, today’s decidedly more fitted look and emphasis on couture-influenced pieces, along with the current explosion of “Street Wear” (limited editions, artist collaborations, etc) can be directly attributed to the influence of Kanye West. 

Finally, Kanye West is often credited with pioneering “Emo Rap” and being the direct forefather of current “Emo” MC’s like Kid Cudi and Charles Hamiltion. While he obviously injected a ton of emotion into his music, he was not the first to do this.  First of all, all music expresses some kind of emotion, anger and aggression are emotions, so is Onyx  an “Emo Rap” group?  Secondly, if “Emo” is limited to emotions like sadness, loneliness and insecurity, LL was getting choked up about needing love, Ghostface Killah was damn near crying on records and Eminem was baring his soul way before Kanye got his heart broken or touched and 808.  While “The College Dropout” deserves credit for bringing this to the pop charts, it’s inaccurate to say he created it.

Following the release of his debut album Kanye West continued his ascent to the top of the music industry by releasing the ambitious “Late Registration” a year later, producing two classic albums from previously overlooked Chicago rapper Common, produced dozens of hits for other artists and appeared on numerous memorable collaborations and remixes.  On September 11th 2007 he released his third album, “Graduation” the same day as 50 Cent’s Curtis and outsold “Curtis” by a 3-to-2 margin.  This victory proved to the masses what anybody paying careful attention knew for quite a while, the game had changed and Kanye was the new king. 

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