by Ryan Busse
The early 2000s was a time before Kanye West was the controversial, absurd character we know him as today. The year 2004 was a full year before Kanye’s first high-profile outburst, the unexpected but ultimately somewhat sympathetic speech that culminated in declaring, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live charity television following Hurricane Katrina. It was also five years before the famous VMA incident that would cause the Taylor Swift beef that continues to this day, and well over a full decade before all of the horribly misinformed political ramblings of the past year that found Kanye allying himself with far-right figureheads and alienating a large part of his fanbase. Before all of this, Kanye was known almost exclusively as a producer affiliated with Jay-Z, and people were skeptical about his ability to make it as a rapper in his own right.
In that year, his debut record, The College Dropout, found Kanye expanding on the chipmunked soul sample production style he was known for already and contained some of the best beats from that era in his career. Samples like Chaka Khan on “Through the Wire” and the choir on “Jesus Walks” have become iconic and instantly recognizable in the years since the album’s release. Production was, and still is, the most consistent aspect of Kanye’s discography.
This album also finds Kanye as a still personable and likable character. The ego that would eclipse all other aspects of his personality is there, but not yet overwhelming. The immature sense of humor seems more appropriate and witty coming from the young, new artist that Kanye was. Mostly we find a young artist desperate for success, culminating in the tale of his career so far that he tells on the over-12-minute closing track “Last Call.”
This record sets the stage for Kanye’s ability to push pop music forward as a trendsetter over the next decade. We see this record and the follow-up Late Registration perfecting his original soul sampling sound. Graduation sees Kanye becoming a pop star, adding bombastic stadium elements to his sound. 808s & Heartbreak, a record that was divisive upon release, would spawn the emotional rap that has been dominant this decade. All of these elements came together on what many would consider Kanye’s magnum opus, 2011’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This is a grand, indulgent record with immaculate production that combines aspects from all of his previous records.
To revisit The College Dropout today, we find an entirely different character than the one we now know, but also present are the beginnings of aspects of Kanye that would become apparent over his long discography and public life.