Though by no means perfect, Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout, changed rap and pop music in so many and such fundamental ways that we’re still seeing its effects play out almost six years later. Lyrically it was at once self-deprecating and self-mythologizing, club- and radio-ready yet full of introspection and doubt, often all in the same verse. Rapping over his own beats, West’s admittedly inconsistent flow and lyricism created some moments of true beauty and insight. And those instrumentals—which attentive listeners had had their ears tuned to ever since hearing West’s dramatic organ and piano arrangement on the title track from Beanie Sigel’s 2000 album The Truth—were better, catchier, more moving, creative and sophisticated than anything else on the charts. The rap music that had been dominating the pop world for the last eight years suddenly looked just as staid and conventional as it had let itself become. Perhaps most importantly, West offered an alternative to gangsta rap right when it was most badly needed, and in the process set the stage for hip-hop culture’s next evolution.
From the first single, there was no denying that he was refreshingly different, alternately prone to earnest admissions of uncertainty and insecurity, and the kind of boastful over-compensations that he’s since become notorious for. Compare “Through the Wire” to other debut rap singles of equivalent cultural significance—Eminem’s “My Name Is,” Biggie’s “Juicy,” Ice Cube’s “Who’s the Mack,” Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B. Is President”—and it stands out as possibly the most complex, confessional and heartfelt introduction to the world any rapper has created. West talks over a tweaked Chaka Khan sample through the choruses, then sets the stage for his lyrics with sudden flurries of drums. On the first verse he addresses his new audience like we already know him, talking obliquely about an accident, his mother, his hospital diet and Biggie.
[Listen to “Through the Wire”:]
As if suddenly coming to, he regroups and opens the second verse with what basically amounts to his thesis for the ensuing trio of college-themed records: “What if somebody from the Chi that was ill got a deal/on the hottest rap label around/but he wasn’t talking bout coke and birds it was more like spoken word/except he’s really puttin’ it down.” Beginning urgently and evolving into a teasing drawl where “down” gets stretched out into “dowwww…”, it’s the kind of thoughtful and carefully executed song that became more scarce on West’s subsequent records, probably because he hasn’t had time to sit still since getting out of that hospital. Of course, using the car accident that left him rapping “through the wire” as his origin myth was just more proof that West was something else. Biggie talked about dealing crack, Tupac concealed his ballet school and poetry-writing days under swaths of gangsta rhetoric, 50 Cent got shot, Eminem got really high, and Kanye West got his jaw broken in a car accident. But he never sounds worried about how this unglamorous, confessional style might sit with the traditional rap fan base, most of whom were already on board for the phenomenal beats anyways. West courted crossover audiences unabashedly from the get-go, which became even clearer on College Dropout‘s second single.
With “Slow Jamz” [below], West proved he could work with a formula as well as any other producer or rapper in pop music. More than just the token slow jam of its title, the track, which is also featured on Twista’s album Badunkadunk and includes a tongue-in-cheek introduction and chorus by Jamie Foxx, pokes fun at its delicious, syrupy sweetness, just as it enshrines itself among R&B royalty, name-dropping everyone from Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight, to Sly and the Family Stone and Luther Vandross (whose voice the song samples). Though Twista’s trademark speed-rapping easily overshadows West’s clumsy lyrics (“She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson”), the fact that both Chicagoans can rap in their spectacularly disparate cadences over the same beat is a testament to the producer’s terrific craft.