The College Dropout
The College Dropout is the debut studio album by American rapper and producer Kanye West. It was released on February 10, 2004, by Def Jam Recordings and Roc-A-Fella Records. In the years leading up to release, West had received praise for his production work for rappers such as Jay-Z and Talib Kweli, but faced difficulty being accepted as an artist in his own right by figures in the music industry. Intent on pursuing a solo career, he signed a record deal with Roc-A-Fella and recorded the album over a period of four years, beginning in 1999.
The production of The College Dropout was primarily handled by West and developed his “chipmunk soul” production style, which made use of sped-up, pitch shifted vocal samples from soul and R&B records, in addition to West’s own drum programming, string accompaniments, and gospel choirs; the album also features contributions from Jay-Z, Mos Def, Jamie Foxx, Syleena Johnson, and Ludacris, among others. Diverging from the then-dominant gangster persona in hip hop, West’s lyrics concern themes of family, self-consciousness, materialism, religion, racism, and higher education.
The College Dropout debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200, selling 441,000 copies in its first week of sales. It was a large-scale commercial success, becoming West’s best-selling album in the United States, with domestic sales of over 3.4 million copies by 2014 and was certified triple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) the next year. The album was promoted with singles such as “Through the Wire”, “Jesus Walks”, “All Falls Down”, and “Slow Jamz”, the latter two of which peaked within the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.
A widespread critical success, The College Dropout was praised for West’s production, humorous and emotional raps, and the music’s balance of self-examination and mainstream sensibilities. The album earned the rapper several accolades including a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album at the 2005 Grammy Awards. It has since been named by Time, Rolling Stone, and other publications as one of the greatest albums of all time and credited for popularizing the chipmunk soul and conscious rap subgenres in the 2000s.
Kanye West began his early production career in the mid-1990s, making beats primarily for burgeoning local artists, eventually developing a style that involved speeding up vocal samples from classic soul records. For a time, he acted as a ghost producer for Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie. Due to his association with D-Dot, West wasn’t able to release a solo album, so he formed and became a member and producer of the Go-Getters, a late-1990s Chicago rap group composed of him, GLC, Timmy G, Really Doe, and Arrowstar. The group released their first and only studio album World Record Holders in 1999. West came to achieve recognition with his contributions to Jay-Z’s influential 2001 album The Blueprint. The Blueprint has been named by Rolling Stone as the 252nd greatest album of all time and the critical and financial success of the album generated substantial interest in West as a producer. Serving as an in-house producer for Roc-A-Fella Records, West produced records for other artists from the label, including Beanie Sigel, Freeway, and Cam’ron. He also crafted hit songs for Ludacris, Alicia Keys, and Janet Jackson.
Although he had attained success as a producer, Kanye West aspired to be a rapper, but had struggled to attain a record deal. Record companies ignored him because he did not portray the gangsta image prominent in mainstream hip hop at the time. After a series of meetings with Capitol Records, West was ultimately denied an artist deal. According to Capitol Record’s A&R, Joe Weinberger, he was approached by West and almost signed a deal with him, but another person in the company convinced Capitol’s president not to. Desperate to keep West from defecting to another label, then-label head Damon Dash reluctantly signed West to Roc-A-Fella Records. Jay-Z, West’s colleague, later admitted that Roc-A-Fella was initially reluctant to support West as a rapper, claiming that many saw him as a producer first and foremost, and that his background contrasted with that of his labelmates
West’s breakthrough came a year later on October 23, 2002, when, while driving home from a California recording studio after working late, he fell asleep at the wheel and was involved in a near-fatal car crash. The crash left him with a shattered jaw, which had to be wired shut in reconstructive surgery. The accident inspired West; two weeks after being admitted to a hospital, he recorded a song at the Record Plant with his jaw still wired shut. The composition, “Through the Wire”, expressed West’s experience after the accident, and helped lay the foundation for his debut album, as according to West “all the better artists have expressed what they were going through”. West added that “the album was my medicine”, as working on the record distracted him from the pain. “Through the Wire” was first available on West’s Get Well Soon… mixtape, released December 2002. At the same time, West announced that he was working on an album called The College Dropout, whose overall theme was to “make your own decisions. Don’t let society tell you, ‘This is what you have to do.
West began recording The College Dropout in 1999, taking four years to complete. Recording sessions took place at Record Plant in Los Angeles, California, but the production featured on the record took place elsewhere over the course of several years. According to John Monopoly, West’s friend, manager and business partner, the album “…[didn’t have] a particular start date. He’s been gathering beats for years. He was always producing with the intention of being a rapper. There’s beats on the album he’s been literally saving for himself for years”. At one point, West hovered between making a portion of the production in the studio and the majority within his own apartment in Newark, New Jersey. Because it was a two-bedroom apartment, West was able to set up a home studio in one of the rooms and his bedroom in the other.
West brought with him to the studio a Louis Vuitton backpack filled with old disks and demos to the studio, producing tracks in less than fifteen minutes at a time. He recorded the remainder of the album in Los Angeles while recovering from the car accident. Once he had completed the album, it was leaked months before its release date. However, West decided to use the opportunity to review the album, and The College Dropout was significantly remixed, remastered, and revised before being released. As a result, certain tracks originally destined for the album were subsequently retracted, among them “Keep the Receipt” with Ol’ Dirty Bastard and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” with Consequence. West meticulously refined the production, adding string arrangements, gospel choirs, improved drum programming and new verses. On his personal blog in 2009, West stated he was most inspired by The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and listened to the album every day while working on The College Dropout.
The song “School Spirit” was censored for the album because Aretha Franklin would not allow the rapper to sample her music without censorship being promised. It was revealed by Plain Pat that there were around three other versions of the song, but West disliked them. Pat said in reference to the Franklin sample: “That song would have been so weak if we didn’t get that sample cleared”. In 2011, an uncensored version of the track was distributed online.
West finished recording around December 2003, according to his older cousin and singer Tony Williams, who was recruited by the rapper two weeks before the album’s deadline to contribute vocals. Williams had impressed West by singing improvisations to “Spaceship” during one of their drives together. The singer later recounted recording with West for The College Dropout at the Record Plant: “I get in, go in the booth, start vibing out on ‘Spaceship’ and finished it up. At that point he was like, ‘Ok, Well let me see what you do on this song.’ I think that’s when we did ‘Last Call.’ One song lead to another, and by the end of the weekend, I was on like five songs. Then we did the ‘I’ll Fly Away’ join”. In a January 2020 interview with GQ, West revealed that around 30 to 40 percent of the album was recorded on a Roland VS-1680.
The College Dropout sparked a resurgence of socially conscious rap in the mid 2000s, arriving at a time when pop rap was saturated with songs featuring product placement and intensely violent lyrics, epitomized by rappers like 50 Cent, Nelly, Ja Rule, Ludacris, and P. Diddy. West instead created a space in the mainstream for rappers to express themselves and black identity without resorting to hip hop’s prevalent theme of gang culture. Raul Verma of The Independent said “West is charged with proving mainstream hip hop has a conscience with his nourishing messages of substance flying in the face of the amoral majority perpetuating clichés of guns, girls and bling.” Today commented that “The College Dropout, stood out in the rap landscape because of its atypical prose. It avoided the usual plotlines about sex, money and violence and touched on everything from his faith to his fears of failure and other crises from his life.”
According to DJBooth journalist Brad Callas, the album also “helped solidify chipmunk soul as not only the defining sound of the Roc-A-Fella era but also the most popular sub-genre in hip-hop”. “It feels like that album birthed an entire sub-genre”, Max Weinstein wrote in retrospect for Vibe, going on to say, “The palette of emotions was so broad, the depth of topics so searingly relevant, that it was bound to make an impression on any artist that heard it. RZA might have birthed chipmunk soul, and Black Star perfected smart lyricism for the JanSport bunch, but ‘Ye brought all that to the masses in one single, digestible product, breaking down the divisions between mainstream rap and Rawkus-grade consciousness.” Weinstein also credited The College Dropout with directly influencing 10 albums: Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor (2006) by Lupe Fiasco, School Was My Hustle (2006) by Kidz in the Hall, Don’t Quit Your Day Job! (2007) by Consequence, A Kid Named Cudi (2008) by Kid Cudi, Asleep in the Bread Aisle (2009) by Asher Roth, Kendrick Lamar’s self-titled first EP (2009), Camp (2011) by Childish Gambino, Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011) by J. Cole, When Fish Ride Bicycles (2011) by The Cool Kids, and Acid Rap (2013) by Chance the Rapper.
With the album, West began to develop a following of listeners who could not relate to lyrics glorifying gangster lifestyle but still enjoyed rap music and connected more with his musings on family and love. In 2005, comedian Chris Rock attested to listening to The College Dropout while writing his stand-up material. Music journalists such as Meaghan Garvey, Andrew Barber, and Erika Ramirez also connected to the album during their formative years, with Barber saying in a roundtable discussion for Noisey, “I could identify with this project the most because I was in college at the time, and I felt like an underdog in my own life. I was uncertain of my future. [West’s] words on ‘Last Call’ inspired me to follow my dreams, and motivated me to graduate despite the album title.” In the same discussion, music journalist Eric Sundermann cited The College Dropout as the first in West’s pop rap album trilogy that would be followed by Late Registration in 2005 and Graduation in 2007, while Craig Jenkins called it “a watershed moment in 2000s rap history where the nerds stormed the school to seize control from the jocks, a shift memorialized two albums later when Graduation trounced 50 Cent’s Curtis album in their 2007 sales showdown
- Intro (0:19)
- We Don’t Care (3:59)
- Graduation Day (1:22)
- All Falls Down (3:43)
- I’ll Fly Away (1:09)
- Spaceship (5:24)
- Jesus Walks (3:13)
- Never Let Me Down (5:24)
- Get Em High (4:49)
- Workout Plan (0:46)
- The New Workout Plan (5:22)
- Slow Jamz (5:16)
- Breathe In Breathe Out (4:06)
- School Spirit Skit 1 (1:18)
- School Spirit (3:02)
- School Spirit Skit 2 (0:43)
- Lil Jimmy Skit (0:53)
- Two Words (4:26)
- Through The Wire (3:41)
- Family Business (4:38)
- Last Call (12:40)
- John Legend – vocals (track 3), additional vocals (tracks 2, 6, 7, 11, 21), background vocals (track 8), piano (track 3)
- DeRay – additional vocals (tracks 1, 5, 14, 16, 17)
- Tony Williams – additional vocals (track 5, 6, 15, 17, 21)
- Sumeke Rainey – additional vocals (tracks 9, 11)
- Tracie Spencer – additional vocals (track 12), background vocals (track 8)
- Riccarda Watkins – additional vocals (track 2)
- Candis Brown – additional vocals (track 10),
- Brandi Kuykenvall – additional vocals (track 10)
- Tiera Singleton – additional vocals (track 10)
- Aisha Tyler – additional vocals (track 12)
- Thomasina Atkins – additional vocals (track 20)
- Linda Petty – additional vocals (track 20)
- Beverly McCargo – additional vocals (track 20)
- Lavel Mena – additional vocals (track 20)
- Thai Jones – additional vocals (track 20)
- Kevin Shannon – additional vocals (track 20)
- Tarey Torae – additional vocals (track 20)
- Rude Jude – additional vocals (track 22)
- Terence Hardy – “kids” vocals (track 2)
- Diamond Alabi-Isama – “kids” vocals (track 2)
- James “JT” Knight – “kids” vocals (track 2)
- Keyshia Cole – background vocals (track 2)
- Ervin “EP” Pope – keyboards (tracks 8, 12), piano (tracks 5, 11, 17, 21)
- Glenn Jefferey – guitars (tracks 8, 12, 21)
- Keenan “Kee-note” Holloway – bass (tracks 8, 12), additional bass (track 21)
- Frank Walker – percussion (tracks 3, 8, 12)
- Ken Lewis – acoustic guitar (track 4), sample recreation and performance (track 8), additional instrumentation (track 20), guitar, bass, keyboard, percussion, vocal (track 21)
- Eric “E-Bass” Johnson – guitars (tracks 4, 11)
- Bosko – talkbox (track 11)
- Keith Slattery – keyboards (track 18)
- Scott Ward – bass guitar (track 19)
- Josh Zandman – piano (track 20)
- Miri Ben-Ari – violins production, writing, arrangement and performance (tracks 2, 3, 7, 11, 13, 18, 22)
- Rabeka Tunei – recording (tracks 1, 4–6, 8, 10, 14–17, 20, 21)
- Eugene A. Toale – recording (tracks 2, 3, 7, 11, 13, 22)
- Andrew Dawson – recording (tracks 6, 7, 11, 15)
- Anthony Kilhoffer – recording (tracks 3, 8, 9)
- Tatsuya Sato – recording (tracks 4, 6, 7)
- Rich Balmer – recording (tracks 2, 22)
- Brent Kolatalo – recording (tracks 8, 21), assistant engineering (track 22)
- Keith Slattery – recording (tracks 11, 18)
- Jacob Andrew – recording (tracks 13, 20)
- Gimel “Guru” Keaton – recording (track 8)
- Jacelyn Parry – recording (track 8)
- Michael Eleopoulos – recording (track 9)
- Dave Dar – recording (track 9)
- Jason Rauhoff – recording (track 13)
- Marc Fuller – recording (track 18)
- Carlisle Young – recording (track 18)
- Francis Graham – recording (track 19)
- Manny Marroquin – mixing (tracks 1–10, 12–17, 19–21)
- Jared Lopez – mixing (track 11)
- Mike Dean – mixing (track 18)
- Ken Lewis – mixing (track 22)
- Eddy Schreyer – mastering
- Danny Clinch – photography
- Eric Duvauchelle – art direction and design
- Mike Godshall – art direction and design
- Jim Morris – art direction and design
- Stephanie Reynolds – art direction and design
- Lauri Rowe – art direction and design
- Bobby Naugle – Dropout Bear logo design
- Sam Hansen – Dropout Bear logo design
MUSIC AND LYRICS
The College Dropout diverged from the then-dominant gangster persona in hip hop in favor of more diverse, topical subjects for the lyrics. Throughout the album, West touches on a number of different issues drawn from his own experiences and observations, including organized religion, family, sexuality, excessive materialism, self-consciousness, minimum wage labor, institutional prejudice, and personal struggles. Music journalist Kelefa Sanneh wrote, “Throughout the album, Mr. West taunts everyone who didn’t believe in him: teachers, record executives, police officers, even his former boss at the Gap”. West explained, “My persona is that I’m the regular person. Just think about whatever you’ve been through in the past week, and I have a song about that on my album”. The album was musically notable for West’s unique development of his “chipmunk soul” production style, in which R&B and soul music samples were sped up and pitch shifted.
The album begins with a skit featuring a college professor asking West to deliver a graduation speech. The skit is followed by “We Don’t Care” featuring West comically celebrating drug life with lines like “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25, joke’s on you, we still alive” and then criticising its influence amongst children. The next track, “Graduation Day”, features Miri Ben-Ari on violin, and vocals by John Legend.
On “All Falls Down”, West wages an attack on consumerism. The song features singer Syleena Johnson and contains an interpolation of Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity”. West called upon Johnson to re-sing a vocal portion of “Mystery of Iniquity”, which ended up in the final mix. Gospel hymn with doo-wop elements “I’ll Fly Away” precedes “Spaceship”, a track with a relaxed beat containing a soulful Marvin Gaye sample. The lyrics are mostly critical of the working world, where West muses about flying away in a spaceship to leave his boring job, and guest rappers GLC and Consequence add comparisons to modern day retail environment with slavery.
On “Jesus Walks”, West professes his belief in Jesus, while also discussing how religion is used by various people and how the media seems to avoid songs that address matters of faith while embracing compositions on violence, sex, and drugs. “Jesus Walks” is built around a sample of “Walk With Me” as performed by the ARC Choir. Garry Mulholland of The Observer described it as a “towering inferno of martial beats, fathoms-deep chain gang backing chants, a defiant children’s choir, gospel wails, and sizzling orchestral breaks”. The first verse of the song is told through the eyes of a drug dealer seeking help from God, and it reportedly took over six months for West to draw inspiration for the second verse.
“Never Let Me Down” is influenced by West’s near-death car crash. The song features Jay-Z, who rhymes about maintaining status and power given his chart success, while West comments on racism and poverty. The song features verses by spoken word performer J. Ivy who offers comments of upliftment. “Never Let Me Down” reuses a Jay-Z verse first heard in the remix of his song “Hovi Baby”. “Get Em High” is a collaboration by West with two socially conscious rappers, Talib Kweli and Common. “The New Workout Plan” is a call to fitness to improve one’s love life. “Slow Jamz” features Twista and Jamie Foxx and serves as a tribute to classic smooth soul artists and slow jam songs. The song also appeared on Twista’s album Kamikaze. On the song “School Spirit”, West relates the experience of dropping out of school and contains references to well-known fraternities, sororities, singer Norah Jones, and record label Roc-A-Fella Records. “Two Words” features commentary on social issues and features Mos Def, Freeway, and the Harlem Boys Choir.
“Through the Wire” features a high-pitched vocal sample of Chaka Khan and relates West’s real life experience with being in a car accident. The song provides a mostly comedic account of his difficult recovery, and features West rapping with his jaw still wired shut from the accident. The chorus and instrumentals sample a pitched up version of Chaka Khan’s 1985 single “Through the Fire”. “Family Business” is a soulful tribute to the godbrother of Tarrey Torae, one of the many collaborators in the album. The song “Last Call” is about West’s transition from being a producer to a rapper, and the album ends with a nearly nine-minute autobiographical monologue that follows the song “Last Call”, however, is not a separate track.
- Track #2 contains a sample from “I Justa Wanna Stop” by Jimmy Castor Brunch.
- Track #4 contains an interpolation of “Mystery Of Iniquity” by Lauren Hill.
- Track #6 contains a sample of the recording “Distant Love” by Marvin Gaye.
- Track #7 contains a sample of “Walk With ME’ by Arc Choir.
- Track #8 contains a sample of “Maybe It’s The Power Of Love” written by Michael Bolton and Bruce Kulick.
- Track #12 contains a sample of “A House Is Not A Home” by Luther Vandross.
- Track #15 contains a sample of “Spirit In The Dark” by Aretha Franklin.
- Track #18 contains a sample of “Peace And Love (Amani Na Maperzi)-Movement III (Time)” by Mandrill.
- Track #19 contains a sample of “Through The Fire” by Chaka Khan.