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Not Fade Away: Kanye West’s ‘College Dropout’ Turns 10

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(Def Jam)

(Def Jam)

By Matthew Ruiz

With Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Today we look back on Kanye West’s debut album College Dropout, which turns 10 today.

In the 10 years since Kanye West released his debut LP, College Dropout, he has transcended the traditional notion of a recording artist, bombarding our consciousness through almost every form of media available. Even people who are only casually aware of pop music know the name Kanye West, and maybe even that he has declared himself “a God” and christened his latest album Yeezus.

The creation myth of College Dropout is well-documented. West wasn’t going to wait 10 years for Billboard to collect sound bites from everyone who touched it, recording the oral history of his own origin story on the album’s final track, “Last Call.” Early in the Bette Midler-sampling, nearly 13-minute interview track, he talks of his deal with Capitol Records that never was, killed in the zero-hour by an unnamed executive.

While it might be fun to ponder what a Capitol-backed Kanye West album might have sounded like, it’s more interesting to think about how the entire process may have influenced his career. It’s easy to think about Kanye being able to do anything he wants during an age in which he is praised for a song about infidelity that samples a song about lynching. But in 2003, that freedom was a pipe dream.

Kanye always saw himself as a rapper, but for a while, no one else saw it that way. It may have had something to do with the pink polos and Louis Vuitton backpacks that he would wear to the studio to play beats for established “gangsta” rappers like Ludacris and Jay-Z. It may have had to do with his very un-gangsta upbringing, his collegiate studies, or his professor mother.

Is that why the deal with Capitol was killed? Only one man knows, and no one seems to want to ask him. But it’s certainly why Damon Dash was so hesitant to sign him to Roc-A-Fella. Dash & Jay-Z’s imprint was built upon gritty street personas, and those were the records dominating local airwaves in New York and the hip-hop charts nationwide.

Black artists have been fighting against stereotypes in America since there was such thing as a black artist in America. When Duke Ellington was first composing American classics for his white audiences at the plantation-themed Cotton Club, it was billed as “jungle music.” It would be decades before bebop would free the best black musicians from playing the music they wanted to hear, free of convention and expectations.

And while the deal Kanye ultimately struck with Roc-A-Fella hinted at a different industry climate in 2003, was it really that different? The stereotype of the “gangsta” rapper was still the established voice for a black MC. Kanye got his deal as a rapper not because he could sell his image to the public, it was as insurance. His talent as a producer was so valued that Dash couldn’t afford to let him leave—he needed the beats.

And the beats are what powered Kanye for the last decade. Whatever his perceived faults, it is his unparalleled skill at drum programming and fearless slicing and dicing of classic soul samples that has everyone chomping at the bit. His Chaka Khan sample on “Through the Wire” left jaws on the floor, even as his was wired shut from his near-fatal car accident. He name-checks Luther Vandross while twisting “A House Is Not A Home” into the absurd “Slow Jamz” sample that wannabe producers are still trying to reverse-engineer.

It must have been confusing to a young Kanye, so certain of his greatness yet consistently stymied by music executives and personal idols. But the underdog struggle began to define him and the record’s success validated everything he ever put on wax. It redeemed his transparent, unapologetic contradictions. It’s why he’s still trying to paint himself as an underdog, millions of album sales later. It’s why his rapidly expanding ego needs new fields of art and commerce to conquer.

Kanye West’s hunger for recognition is insatiable. And College Dropout was his first taste.

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