“We all self-conscious/I’m just the first to admit it”, spit now-superstar Kanye West on his 2004 debut, The College Dropout. Of course, ten years later, anyone who’s even the least bit familiar with ‘Ye would be hesitant to refer to him as anything but arrogant. It’s more than a little ironic that the self-consciousness that was so revolutionary in the rap game back then was one of the unique aspects of his work that enabled his ego to grow to its current size. If Mr. West weren’t at all unsure of himself back then, he probably wouldn’t have ended up being so infamously sure of himself now. It was one of the weirdest transformations in hip-hop, but it also paved the way for one of the most dynamic careers in recent memory.
How exactly did Kanye get to the top of his genre, you ask? The answer is simple: He possessed an attitude unlike any other. On The College Dropout, it’s easy to tell from the very beginning. While hip-hop at the time was still very much about glamorization, ‘Ye had another direction he wanted to take with his music – he wanted to make it sound real. This no-nonsense approach is apparent throughout the album, whether he’s rapping about the false promises of the American Dream on “All Falls Down” or stealing from his employer on “Spaceship”. Kanye didn’t want to make his road to success, or anyone’s for that matter, sound easy. His goal was to honor the struggle of those who have it harder than most, while enabling the listener to put themselves in those people’s shoes.
Despite his obvious talent on the mic, Kanye started out in the music industry as a producer. Working with artists like Jay-Z and Talib Kweli, he was soon recognized for his warm, soulful style – and on his debut, there’s plenty of it to go around. Tracks like “Slow Jamz” and “Through the Wire” put the groovy samples and poppy drums he originally made a name for himself with to good use. The College Dropout definitely sounds like a pop-rap record through and through, and while this may have benefited it in terms of crossover appeal (the album peaked at #2 on the US Billboard 200), it also managed to lure in those who would initially be turned off by its lyrical content; basically, it helped to introduce the idea of a struggling, self-conscious rapper to the mainstream.
That same struggling, self-conscious vibe is what we’re seeing more of in hip-hop today. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, and Childish Gambino are delivering more and more of something that would have seemed out of place a decade ago: an honest, unfiltered view of the world around them. With The College Dropout, Kanye West opened the door for a new kind of hip-hop, one that doesn’t try to exaggerate and glorify, but instead attempts to connect and empathize. Kanye may no longer be a part of this unique strain of the genre, but the legacy of his debut lives on in the rap community today – and, even ten years later, it continues to thrive.