Ok, so look. I understand cliche conversations. “What’s the most complete album?” comes to mind when it comes to Kanye West. The GRAMMY award winning producer on the mic took the world by storm with 2004’s College Dropout and has made himself topic of discussion with each and every album since. Fast forward to his 9th opus (7th solo), 2016’s The Life Of Pablo, and a sold out premiere in New York’s Madison Square Garden, the question still comes about…is this album Yeezy’s best work?
“College Dropout (2004)
Remember when Kanye took us to church? This was 2005, before he was conflating his name with Jesus’, back when he was content to jump out from behind a pew wearing a black suit and a wide white satin tie and rap the entirety of “Jesus Walks,” begging for guidance and forgiveness in front of God and the Grammys.
It wasn’t that “Jesus Walks”-era Kanye was any humbler than the iterations that would follow, but much of College Dropout is about explicitly defining and systematically disabling the expectations and structures he’d defy once successful. It’s about rapping If I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh? and then a year later constructing a black church setpiece onstage at music’s biggest awards ceremony, complete with a preacher, hymnals, and stained glass.
At its heart, College Dropout is an act of defiance, or more accurately, an act of many defiances—a blueprint for the kind of large-scale drama we now expect from Kanye, and a foreshadowing of the kind of wokeness and outspokeness we now demand from pop icons.
Much of the album’s lyricism reacts directly to the gauzy gangster mythology that pervaded successful early 2000s rap. College Dropout isn’t about calling out individuals as much as systems, and Kanye addresses this directly on “We Don’t Care.” Asked to do a “beautiful song” for “this kids’ graduation,” Ye instead crafts a devastating picture of the underfunded programs and government mismanagement that set the lower class up for failure. When you stop the programs for after school/ And they DCFS, some of ‘em dyslexic/ They favorite 50 Cent song “12 Questions.” Having given up on systemic reform, Dropout finds strength in its uncomfortable honesty, in being a hard pill coated in the sweetest candy.
Contrastingly, tracks like “Slow Jamz” and “The New Workout Plan” keep the album from hewing too close to Mos and Kweli (prolly). Against a modest but pounding beat on “Breathe In Breathe Out”—no Harlem Boys Choir here—Kanye brags about “money hoes and rims again,” about getting head while driving some girl back to her car in the shittiest parts of Chicago. It’s a track that apologizes for contributing more of that bullshit ice rap, before smiling and delivering some of the nastiest verses on the whole album.
On College Dropout, Kanye hadn’t yet anointed himself a saint, hadn’t yet earned the kind of artistic credibility that allows him to stage his albums in stadiums with choreography by Vanessa Beecroft as Twitter waits with bated breath. But it’s a vision of that future, the template for that kind of greatness. Beyond his verbal dexterity, his impeccable production, Kanye’s hyper-perceptive intelligence is his biggest strength as a rapper. And while it can be dizzying to follow his back and forth, his lapses and prayers for forgiveness, there’s nowhere that awareness is bigger or more evident than on College Dropout, The Best Debut Album Of All Time. —Liz Raiss
In 2007, I was a senior in high school. That was the year we all got cars. I paid for mine—a homely, raddish-colored Subaru from the early ‘90s—with paychecks from my part-time job bagging groceries at a local supermarket. It was also the year Kanye West released Graduation, his third and best full-length, on the sixth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. By the following week, the disc had made itself at home in every one of our cars’ CD players. In my case, it had to be loaded onto my scroll-wheel iPod and then plugged into a cassette tape adaptor. We listened to it everywhere we went for months, but I remember hearing “Flashing Lights” most clearly, its slick, celebratory synths scoring destination-less night drives down empty country roads. By commencement in June, we knew every word.
Even after just a few spins, pretty much every song on Graduation felt like a classic. It was probably Kanye’s most off-the-bat accessible project, glowing with sticky samples and genre-distorting production, each element streamlined by Kanye’s lucid confidence. He samples Can on a seasick anti-party track called “Drunk And Hot Girls,” and Daft Punk on “Stronger,” the LP’s glitchy first single. “I Wonder,” with its twinkling keys and hiccuping breakbeats, is maybe the album’s most timeless artifact; its hook comes from a romantic track by ‘70s British songwriter Labi Siffre. In a way, Kanye made a not-corny mash-up album in the age of corny mash-up albums, and it seemed to click with everyone, just like a 17-year-old me liked to imagine Kanye himself would.
Graduation has occasionally been criticized for not being as inward-looking as Kanye’s earlier stuff, and maybe that’s true. But its appeal was unprecedented, and it reflected a new era for the tireless shape-shifting auteur; he wasn’t rapping or singing about reaching for the stars, he was making summery pop music about existing amongst them. It’s the best Kanye album because it’s enduring and triumphant, filled with transportive hip-hop that has the power make anyone, even a small-town teenager in a beat-up sedan, feel like a champion. —Patrick D. McDermott”
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