Westworld: A debut for the history books

Producer Kanye West launches his solo career with 2004's "The College Dropout"

West+College

Braden Hajer, Copy Editor & Columnist

TL;DR

Though occasionally unpolished and musically discongruous, “The College Dropout” is a fantastic project with great songs and lyricism.  Some songs do get tiring after a while, and the project is overall a bit too long for what it brings, but when you’re in the mood for it, it’s a wonderful musical journey. The list of favorite tracks is small because I find the album’s quality to overall be highly consistent, making it difficult to choose particular standouts.

Rating: A (ratings explained in chart below)

Favorite Tracks: “We Don’t Care,” “Jesus Walks”

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The debut album is a balancing act. Artists are essentially expected to both display their own unique, defined sound while also not looking like a one-trick pony. The dichotomy of variety and sonic definition feels impossible to manage, but it’s definitely been done — the debuts of YBN Cordae and Billie Eilish are two great examples just from 2019. 

That being said, the raw talent Kanye West brought to the table in 2004 on “The College Dropout” is baffling. On his first ever project, West dropped one of the most influential and important albums of the 21st century, though it definitely isn’t perfect.

The album clocks in at 76 minutes and 21 tracks, though seven of these are interludes or skits. The length is actually one of my largest complaints with the record, but we’ll get to that later.

From the very first track, Kanye West makes a symbolic statement that would reflect much of the rest of his career. On “Intro,” a staff member at a college asks West to write “something beautiful, something that the kids is goin’ to love when they hear it” and asks him if he could “do something for the kids for graduation to sing.” 

Kanye’s response? That he’s got the “perfect song for the kids to sing!” This is the track “We Don’t Care,” a phenomenal track whose chorus (which is sung by actual children from the second chorus onward) includes the lines “Drug dealing just to get by” and “We wasn’t s’posed to make it past 25/jokes on you, we still alive!” The beat is dynamic and lush, the lyrics insightful, the flows catchy… there is no better introduction to Kanye West than this song.

So much can be learned from this one moment. Beyond just being a showcase of his abilities, this track shows that Kanye is legitimately rebellious, in both a creative and personal sense.

There’s one more track I want to spotlight individually, and that’s the legendary “Jesus Walks,” an anthem of militaristic melancholy. The song is simultaneously empowering and harrowing, both compositionally and lyrically. Ultimately, though, the song just slaps. Near the end, West laments that “you can rap about anything except for Jesus. That means guns, sex, lies, video tape but if I talk about God my record won’t get played… huh?”

Oh, the beautiful irony in those words. On the one hand, this has become one of Kanye West’s most famous songs. On the other hand, well… remember this in about six weeks or so.

Several of the album’s other tracks are compositionally very much related: “All Falls Down,” “Never Let Me Down” and “Slow Jamz” are grand but tonally light. The choruses are all led by powerful female vocals and the beats are very much fluid.

Then you have the opposite. “Get Em High,” “The New Workout Plan” and “Breathe In Breathe Out” are basically just club bangers with varying degrees of textural depth — “The New Workout Plan” is far more dynamic than “Get Em High.”

I don’t think Kanye strikes the perfect balance between these two extremes. I like all of these songs to varying degrees, notably preferring the former collection, but it is a little jarring to jump back and forth between these two groups.

As good as all of the individual songs generally are on the album, the largest detriment of “The College Dropout” is that it’s his first album, a fact you can definitely hear. One prime example of the unpolished nature can be seen in the track “Never Let Me Down,” where in the middle of Jay-Z’s verse the chorus comes back in alongside it, with Jay-Z continuing to rap. Focusing on both of these is awkward and impossible. 

Tracks 14-17 are another signal that Kanye is still a budding artist. Tracks 14 and 16 are skits, bookending their related song “School Spirit.” Track 17, though, is also a skit. It’s simply a strange organizing of the tracklist, a mistake Kanye will never make again.

There’s a strange quality to the beats on this record that makes me grow tired of them faster than the beats on any other Kanye West album. I cannot pinpoint exactly why this is, and it certainly doesn’t apply to every song, but I simply become bored with songs faster than I perhaps should. “All Falls Down,” “Spaceship” and “Slow Jamz” are the main offenders here. 

Considering one third of the tracks are about a minute or less, this leaves us with 14 tracks spanning about 70 minutes. Combined with the aforementioned beat-fatigue one can easily experience, this can ultimately make listening through the entire album in one sitting much less reasonable than all of Kanye’s other projects.

kanyeranks
“The College Dropout” receives an A ranking. An explanation of this ranking system is available in Hajer’s Westworld introduction piece, linked above. Graphic by Braden Hajer

In spite of all of this, “The College Dropout” is still a fantastic project. As a debut, this project is mind-boggling in how refined many of its aspects are. Great tracks, great social commentary and lots of variety (even if it sometimes feels discombobulated) add up to a great listening experience, an even better introduction to Kanye West and a worthy jumping-off point for our Westworld journey. If you haven’t yet, be sure to give it a listen.

Agree with me? Disagree? What are your favorite tracks? Tweet me @bhajerCT @centraltimes and use the hashtag #KanyeWestworld in your response.

Be sure to join me Friday for my review of “Late Registration.”

Happy listening!

 

Audio and video clips contain explicit content and are property of Universal Music Group, 2004.