Declaring an album a “classic” is a meaningless exercise that I will leave for the writers at Pitchfork. Glowing reviews, no matter how abundant or how laudatory, are ultimately irrelevant—an album reaches that magical pinnacle when it strikes a chord for you alone, bringing you back time and again.
A few weeks ago, I revisited Kanye West’s commercial debut effort, The College Dropout. I had completely forgotten how this album formed a defining moment in my life, switching me from a naïve middle-school nerd who liked Blink-182 to a badass 9th grade nerd who was into hip-hop. My deepest assessment of the album at the time? “This is really cool.” Returning eight years later to look at one of the best hip-hop albums of the 2000s showed me its complexity for the first time, and what it has done for rap since.
Having created four monstrously profitable albums since College Dropout, Kanye has molded himself into one of the 21st century’s megastars, readily exemplified through his work with Jay-Z on Watch The Throne. His beginnings as a stellar producer on Roc-A-Fella Records releases were quickly overshadowed by his effect on the rap industry as a whole. On College Dropout, Kanye stealthily alternates between his classic chipmunk soul production style and a sly, honest humor with a surprisingly conversational tone. Humor and thought-provoking stories personalize songs like “Breathe In Breathe Out” and “Two Words.” Technical rap talent was clearly never his to claim—instead of channeling a blistering pace like Twista, featured on “Slow Jamz,” or using intricate wordplay, Kanye infused every song with his worldview. As confusing and contradictory as his philosophy may be, Kanye’s charisma is central to his message. With amazing dexterity and fueled by braggadocio, tribulations, and shameless self-promotion, Kanye crafted more of a persona in one album than many rappers have in their entire career.
Regardless of where The College Dropout ends up on the charts 50 years from now, it will always hold one of my personal top spots. And it’s not because of the literary praises that any magazine or myself could extol on the album. It is because of the musical metamorphosis the entire hip-hop industry went through—and that I experienced firsthand—after hearing this excellent record. Be it Hey Arnold as a kid, or College Dropout as a goofy high-schooler, the moment on which you are able to look back and recognize the significance that popular culture has had on your life is powerful. Kanye’s public antics are balanced by his genuine, if puzzling, sincerity. In some twisted reality, it is comforting to identify with an immensely successful rapper marred by the relationship mistakes most people associate with normal life, and who is not directed by the controlling hand of a public relations expert.
It is because of The College Dropout that I write this column and passionately read music blogs. When I am preparing to get overly competitive for an intramural basketball game, the five songs from “Get Em High” to “School Spirit” are my anthems of choice. I will brazenly plug Kanye West to any friend who has yet to experience what I believe is absolute gold, and one of the greatest musical endeavors of the past ten years. It might seem over the top to feel so strongly about one album, and I might even be able to scour my own music library for something better. However, the satisfaction of sharing a definitive musical success with a new friend or rediscovering an album in your closet that was lost, whether it be from Kanye West or Aretha Franklin, is unbeatable.
Despite the legacy he will leave behind due to a towering ego and consistent public miscues, hip-hop needs Kanye West. An unforgettable producer and a genre innovator, his debut album will be remembered as the inflection point between the machismo gangsterisms of 50 Cent and the electro-whininess of Kid Cudi. The College Dropout is the hip-hop album that changed me into a music aficionado. At the end of the day, reviews are meaningless—it’s about what you take from the album. Kanye West, thank God you dropped out of college.