Saturday, February 6, 2016

Kanye West - College Dropout

I need to preface this review by pointing out that I've never really been into rap or hip-hop. Once upon a time I thought Eminem was kinda funny, and there was this mashup of Tupac's "Starin' Through My Rear View" and Phil Collin's "In the Air Tonight" that I downloaded once off of Napster or Kazaak a long time ago. And I guess you can count some Gorillaz tracks as hip-hop thanks to Del the Funky Homosapien.

Otherwise, the genre has been mostly impenetrable to me, partially because I like to sing along to music, and rap isn't exactly singalong stuff in my experience. The other problem is generally the subject matter: I'm not going to suggest that it's the case for all or even most rap, but much of what I've heard on the radio is about sex, drugs, violence, drinking, partying, and other things that generally don't interest me as musical subject matter. As a result, I've never spent much time listening to the genre.

That said, Tupac's "Starin' Through My Rear View" gave me a glimpse of something else rap music could do, though I never followed up on it: it gave someone from a very different life than my own a chance to explain what their life is like. It's not just beats and words; it's a story, or a perspective. And if you can tell that story or give that perspective in a compelling way, then you've made compelling art. It's poetry.

"College Dropout," I contend, is compelling poetry.

The album kicks off with "We Don't Care," a song that appears at first to simply be about dealing drugs. However, Kanye quickly begins to explain how, as a kid growing up in some neighborhoods, how could you not look up to the drug dealers? They were the only people who weren't broke. The song is complex, touching on the apathy black communities have for how white people see them, the struggle to make ends meet in poor neighborhoods in the city, and kids dealing with the clash of expectations between these neighborhoods and public education.

Next is "All Falls Down," a really lovely song about being self-conscious and hiding a lack of self-esteem under layers of material desires you can't really afford. There's some really powerful lyrics in there that I'd quote here if I thought they'd seem even half as profound out of context. Suffice to say, though, that after "We Don't Care" caught my attention, "All Falls Down" hooked me for the rest of the album. Definitely a high point.

"Spaceship" is about Kanye dealing with working in retail while dreaming of what he'll be in the future, struggling to break into the career he wants. It's a pretty personal song, which makes it very relatable even if the dream career he's talking about (rapping) isn't the career I was dreaming about while I put in my retail hours at the mall.

"Jesus Walks" takes an interesting turn, bringing up several points that I imagine you just don't hear much in hip-hop. In short, it's about Kanye's struggle to remain Christian in the environment he was raised in; not his home life, but on the streets and in his career. He points out how messed up it is that you can't rap about Jesus and expect to get airtime, but rapping about "guns, sex, lies, [and] videotape" is okay.

"Never Let Me Down" continues the religious theme started by "Jesus Walks," this time in a collaborative track between Kanye, Jay-Z, and J-Ivy (the latter of which I've never heard of, but his verse is really good). It's basically about how, as per Christian tradition, what's good in their lives and what gifts they have can be attributed to God. In particular, I love this track's music and the way the chorus interacts with the verses.

"Get Em High" is, well, about sex and drugs. I mean, I guess the honeymoon wasn't going to last forever. Still, there's some clever wordplay in there, but it's not so much my cup of tea.

"The New Workout Plan" is also about sex and giving bad advice to women about how to get men to notice them. Kinda funny but, again, a bit of a letdown after several interesting, strong tracks.

"Slow Jamz" is about sex as well, but specifically its about setting the mood with proper music. It's also just less goofy than the previous two songs, with a nice chorus and good music to go along with it all. I mean, it's still goofy in a way, but it doesn't feel that way. Or maybe that's just how it seems given the tracks that surround it.

"Breathe In Breathe Out" is about girls giving blow jobs.

"School Spirit" brings us out of the goofy middle tracks of the album. I mean, "School Spirit" is also kind of goofy, but it's about how kinda useless college can be, even if you're not planning to be a rapper. As someone who knows quite a few college graduates working retail at best, it's hard to argue.

"Two Words" snaps us back out of goofiness altogether with a march-sounding song about racial profiling, I believe. I'm not sure, though, since I don't entirely follow the song yet.

"Through the Wire" is a song about an accident in which Kanye fell asleep at the wheel and nearly died in the ensuing car crash. In the hospital he reflects on his career and his aspirations, and apparently this song was recorded while his mouth was still wired shut after the reconstructive surgery they had to perform on his face. In the end, it's about coming face to face with his mortality and refusing to waste the second chance he'd been given. The result, apparently, is this album that sparked Kanye's career.

"Family Business" is, basically, about Kanye interacting with his family: the conversations that always pop up, family that's been lost, memories of being a kid with his cousins, and so on. Basically, another personal track that feels relatable because it hits notes that many people have in common.

Finally, "Last Call" is about how Kanye got his record deal after shopping his tracks around and trying to catch the eyes of different labels. He's also impressively reflective in the song, acknowledging that he's arrogant, and that he had to be arrogant to keep shopping his tracks around after being repeatedly told that he just doesn't have what it takes to be a rapper. Otherwise, he would have gotten discouraged and gone home, but that arrogance proved to be well-founded.

Anyway, suffice to say that I found more to appreciate about this album than I expected to. The first several tracks are especially well-crafted, and I recommend them. I'm glad I took a chance on it.

Now I've just got to find a surprisingly good country album and I'll have truly become a disappointment to my 16-year-old self, adamant at the time that I'd never get into rap and country music.

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