“The first ni**a with a Benz and a backpack.”
That’s a line that launched a thousand reviews. Nowadays, it’s weird and heady to look back at the initial impressions of College Dropout. Kanye West seems like he’s been with us forever, like an Ozymandius who delightfully refuses to wear away. Just as contemplating the time before your birth makes you queasy, it’s somewhat uncanny to think about the world of music without Kanye West.
Rolling Stone’s Jon Caramanica was almost alone in not mentioning the line (though the magazine fixed that omission in its decade-capping write-up of the album). Along with virtually every other review, though, Caramanica noted the heterodox nature of Kanye’s debut: “‘Get Em High’ could be the only song ever to reference both Beck and Pastor Troy.” Many reviewers seized on the same sonic touchstones: sped-up soul samples were, of course, de rigueur critical mulch. But who noted which sample varied as much as, well, the album’s samples themselves: some cited Chaka Khan, others Gaye and Bolton. Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum was the only one to mention Mandrill, I think.
Another aspect of College Dropout that’s (maybe just to me) under the radar these days, but was notable in 2004, is the guest cast on the album. Jamie Foxx, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Ludacris, Jay-Z: these were not only some of the best artists of the day, but it’s also a motley crew. Back to that backpack angle, who would have thought Talib Kweli and Common would be on a song about getting chicks high to fuck them? And that Ludacris, just a few tracks later, would do therefore follow in their footsteps? Or that Kanye would be outgunning Jay on the mic almost from the start?
Paradox, self-contradiction, incoherence, chipmunk soul, a sleigh of sounds, guest verses out the ass — these all made up the main critical talking points on College Dropout. It was the rare album where the constituent parts corresponded perfectly with its overarching narrative: a super producer makes tracks for the industry’s finest, gets a record deal, and calls in some favors to get a great supporting cast. He uses his hot beats to make, well, a hot record.
I mean, in hindsight this seems obvious maybe, but College Dropout was extremely well received. Like, right off the bat. When My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy got a highly visible 10.0 on Pitchfork, it seemed like maybe people thought Kanye had finally arrived. But College Dropout was itself a wildly successful and well-received album. It got a (then) rare XXL rating from the titular mag. It was BNM’d by Pitchfork, and it was Stylus Magazine’s album of the week. For whatever its worth, the album was nominated for 10 Grammys. The album was also a springboard for a lot of heady discussion (don’t say ‘thinkpiece’).
In the Village Voice, Hua Hsu asked a prescient question:
Is hip-hop—captor of hearts, minds, and the attention of presidential candidates—finally facing up to the awesome responsibility of its power?
Christgau, of course, said something very perceptive about West’s 2004 iteration:
His Alicia Keys and Talib Kweli hits are pretty bland, and neither his voice nor his flow could lead anyone into sin. So he’d better conceptualize, and he does.
In The New York Times, Kelefa Sanneh goes further and calls College Dropout a concept album (which it never really feels like, even though once you hear someone say it, it obviously is). Pop Matters’s Dave Heaton invited us to call the album “over-ambitious”, and the AV Club’s Nathan Rabin said the album “boasts enough conceptual ambition to make Mr. Lif jealous”. Outsized ambitions are no stranger to our conception of Kanye West, so it’s fun to see critics confronting these without a preexisting expectation of them. When Stylus’s Josh Love says, then,
Most importantly, you find Kanye trying to reflect the entire spectrum of hip-hop and black experience
he doesn’t have to make any qualifying handwaving gestures that apologize in advance for enjoying West’s high artistic aim.
College Dropout marks another key intersection in music: let’s pause for a moment and look at those names: I don’t think it’s meta-critical obsequiousness to say that Rob Mitchum, Kelefa Sanneh, Hua Hsu, Nathan Rabin, Jon Caramanica, and many other reviewers of the album are, you know, pretty successful too. Maybe none of them wrote a perfect piece on College Dropout, maybe their reviews were just one of many pieces they filed that week, but they all went on, like Kanye, to keep turning out good stuff. College Dropout marked the beginning of a golden age of writing about music on the internet, and especially rap. At this point, the outsized musical personalities musico-cultural trends became almost more interesting to talk about than the music itself. It’s not like Kanye started that, but let’s say that it’s similar to how Harold Bloom argued that Shakespeare invented the modern human. I’d argue that Kanye West helped invent the modern music critic.
I wrote in my first essay about being a basically pseudo-poptimist from the get-go, and that I might still be. Well, if anyone was going to appeal to someone like me, it’s Kanye West. There’s something essential to Kanye West and his aesthetic that breaks down (largely artificially discursive) walls between rock and pop.
It’s both sort of funny and also myopic to think that having a “Benz and backpack” is some game-changing move in rap music. Right now we have a dude like Gucci Mane who raps about driving around in Ferraris; at the same time, he obviously suffers from some form of mental illness that stamps him as sad and vulnerable in ways backpack rap still barely touches. And right from the beginning, as Jay-Z says in Decoded, Ice-T, KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions, NWA — the forefathers of rap — made “songs [that] were exciting and violent, but they were also explicitly ‘conscious,’ and anti-hustling.” It’s sort of scary to me that people seem to forget that rap is intrinsically a social consciousness movement. There’s a strand of thought that seems to lead to condemning violent music, and then there’s another one that concludes with Cam’ron, Clipse, and trap rap being a real ethical stance against a whitewashed, conservative America.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but there’s a passel of charged assumptions about authenticity, race, and culture tied up with breaking down the Benz/backpack dichotomy. Just look again at Tom Breihan’s ‘defense’ of rap music in the Village Voice:
Indie-rock supposedly prides itself on open-mindedness and liberalism and independent thought, not knee-jerk antipopulism and received wisdom and genre gatekeeping. So it’s deeply troubling to see people who love this stuff unwilling to look outside their shitty little ghetto and consider the merits of art made by people who don’t share their experiences.
This is a smart observation that cuts to the core: I think Kanye probably exaggerated the importance of his backpack pedigree — it’s not like De La Soul and Black Star were either 1) unknowns or 2) widely disliked circa-2004. I also think College Dropout’s rock music signifiers (guitar hooks, melodic bass lines, recognizable vocal samples) contributed more to his far-reaching cultural accession than his socially conscious lyrics. You shouldn’t forget that Ye follows up the Benz and a backpack line by saying, “Always said if I rapped I’d say something significant/ But here I am talking about money , hoes, and rims again.”
The thing about Kanye West that helped create contemporary music discourse is on the one hand obvious: 2004 to 2006, the early phase of his career, coincided with a boom in contemporary music blogging, and the new generation of rap-minded critics all mentioned above. The predominance of rock-minded criticism waned, probably, as the genre itself started showing its age: who wants to read another Lester Bangs-esque disquisition on the Velvet Underground’s influence on Pavement, The Strokes, or The Arcade Fire? Kanye was the perfect emblem for a change in musical taste — someone who might be a certified genius-level musical talent (a rockist trope) who happened to make ostensibly socially conscious music (so you can file it in between *3 Feet High And Rising* and *Under The Table And Dreaming*). It’s no wonder this was the angle publications mostly took.
If Kanye made four more albums that were sort of like *College Dropout*, he’d be, who, Common basically? It’s a good thing West really is a genius-level musical talent. The interesting thing to me, here, is that the Kanye West of today is both leagues ahead of 2004’s Louis Vuitton Don, but he’s not perceived that differently either. At some very recent point, his talent sort of overwhelmed his social image — but I wonder how much Kanye acclaim still comes from the slightly overblown idea that his was the main hand in popularizing socially conscious hip-hop.