Over at Billboard, I wrote a review of Kanye West's debut LP, The College Dropout, which was released 10 years ago this week (Feb. 10, 2004). Despite the piece being something like 2,000 words, I found myself still pressed for space, and had a bit more to say about what the record meant to me, specifically.
When The College Dropout was released, I had just turned 22, and was in my senior year of college. Despite not being black, I was raised lower middle class, in a broken home, and was deeply entrenched in hip-hop culture. What's more, I was already involved in the music business. I owned a small recording studio, produced for other artists and released independent albums/mixtapes.
I wasn't very successful, but I was getting by. I was like any other aspirational kid in their early twenties. Somewhat confused, but ultimately convinced that there was a better life out there for me. Like Kanye, I was a dreamer.
And because I was about to graduate college, was unsure about my future, and was aspiring to become someone, it felt like The College Dropout was just for me. The best art always does that. Becomes a singular experience, something you see yourself in.
The album dropped just a few months after my mother had passed away, and a year after I'd broken up with a girl I'd been with for six and a half years. With most of my emotional life up in flames, I was searching for some sort of direction, and I took my cues from most accessible thing there is; something that never talks back and never tells you you're wrong -- pop culture. I took my cues from The College Dropout. I'm glad I did.
One of the reasons why the album was so good was because its lead character didn't live in a fantasy world. A lot of hip-hop back then either glorified the life of a luxury that the music industry afforded its artists during the record business's heyday -- back when records still sold -- or it occupied a gritty street-level existence that may have been true on some some level, but often seemed all too extreme. It was like artists were either mega moguls or super hustlers. It was much like America today. No middle class.
And that's why the project resonated so much. It told a story about a normal kid who wasn't a super hustler or a mega mogul. Kanye was somewhere in the vast space that exists between the uber elite and the hopelessly destitute. Sure, he had a few advantages, but he still struggled with things that the system couldn't fix. Like institutional racism, classicism, a broken home, family issues, consumerism, religion. These are things plaguing a lot of people -- just as much now, if not more than -- 10 years ago. They'll continue to plague many of us, because well, that's just life.
But I think there was a lot to gain from knowing that there was someone out there who could be a voice for the voiceless. That wide swath of people who are seemingly doing everything right, and yet still hopelessly stuck in an endless rut. Whether it's the false hope that a college education is a way to get ahead, the temporary comfort we find in buying expensive products, unknowingly praying to Jesus, or looking to change our lives through fad workout plans, The College Dropout is a satire of every hidden agenda that has been packaged up and sold to us. It takes the mediocrity of settling for those experiences and calls them out for what they are -- a bunch of bullshit. It rejects the American Dream, and commands us to ask, search and work for more.
Ten years later, we're still asking, still searching and still working. Maybe the answers haven't been found yet, but at least we haven't settled. At least there's still a restlessness in our souls and an ever-present beating in our hearts. I'm not saying it wasn't there before The College Dropout. I'm just saying the album helped us feel it a little more.
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