Musical Blind Spots: The College Dropout

By Alex Johnson
amjohnson@lc.edu

I love music. Who doesn’t? I’m always looking for something new, even if it’s only new to me. Sometimes it’s hard to move out of my comfort zone with music though. I want to use this feature to explore artists, genres and albums I’ve never given a chance. I want to step out of my comfort zone, check the blind spots and see what I’ve been missing.  

Kanye West. I’m sure just reading that name made half of you groan. It seems, these days especially, that Kanye West is in the news more for what he’s said rather than his music. From suggesting slavery was a choice to announcing (again) that he’s running for president, it seems West’s big musical successes are often overshadowed by his bigger personality. But no matter what Kanye West says or does, someone will always slap back with “yeah, but he did make Dropout”.

That got me curious. I had never listened to a Kanye West album and, before this, couldn’t have even named a song. I know about all his faux pas, but what about what actually made him famous in the first place?

I chose The College Dropout for my introduction to West’s music for two reasons; one is simply that I like to start at the beginning, the other is it is still praised as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time.

So, what did I think?

I think I’m one of those people who’s going to be saying “Yeah, but he did make Dropout” now.

This album has so much depth, both lyrically and musically. The use of traditional instruments, such as bass guitar, provides an almost 80s hip-hop feel at times; the way it’s layered, though, makes it feel fresh and modern (even though I’m listening to it 16 years late).

The songs “All Falls Down” and “Spaceship” are excellent examples of this modern/classic hip-hop mash-up. The bass line in “All Falls Down”, in particular, is phenomenal and the way it’s paired with the drum machine, synthesized beats and Syleena Johnson’s vocalization is chilling. “Spaceship” uses a very classic R&B/funk bass line that almost sounds like something Bootsy Collins would have played.

Then there are the more aggressive songs that sound more like classic mix tapes. “Get ‘em High” stands out for using a simpler beat (in comparison to the rest of the album) and letting the vocals carry the rhythm.  

Lyrically, the message is consistent: you have to be yourself and take your own path. I’m sure we’ve all started going in the wrong direction at one point or another; doing what we thought we were supposed to do instead of what was actually right for us. I can tell you from experience that gets you nowhere. Kanye West has always come across as overly arrogant to me, so it was interesting and unexpected to make a connection like this with him through his music.

There weren’t really any low points in this album for me and I never found myself hoping for a song to end (although there were some I liked more than others). “Last Call”, the closing track, is more of a spoken story told to music with occasional singing. I can’t believe I’m making this comparison, but it reminded me of Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie in the way it was structured. It’s not my favorite, but it’s not bad. I also had a bit of a disconnect with some of the more religious elements of the album, but that has more to do with my personal issues with religion. It never overshadowed the rest of the album.   

I’m sure most of you have already heard The College Dropout. It was number 2 on The Billboard 200 and won the Grammy for best rap album in 2005. But I also know I’m not the only one who’s had trouble seeing past the artist to appreciate the art. I get it, it’s especially hard to do with music considering how personal of an art form it is. If you’ve never given Dropout a chance just because you don’t like Kanye West personally, I’d highly recommend you set that aside and give it a chance; you might be surprised at not only how great it sounds, but the emotional connection you’ll make with it.

 

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