An audacious stunt that only one with his towering ego would dare attempt.
Louis Pattison 2010
Hard to believe, but there was a time before Kanye West – an age where we had to make do without this unshakably confident MC/producer, with his grand media pronouncements, goofy Twitter philosophy, and reliably excellent hip hop records. That Kanye today is perhaps hip hop’s most high-profile face is a lot to do with 2004’s The College Dropout.
At the time of its release, Kanye was probably best known as a producer, his pitched-up soul samples and gleaming synths gracing numerous records from Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella label (most notably, Hova’s own career high water mark, The Blueprint). Here, though, Kanye pulled off an audacious stunt that only one with his towering ego would dare attempt: to transform himself not just into a rapper, but a mainstream hit-maker, with a career plan – from dropout to graduate, and beyond – sketched out in front of him.
That he pulls it off is a lot to do with his peculiar proximity to mainstream hip hop culture. Sure, the opening We Don’t Care boasts a chorus that nods to the hard-knock ghetto narrative – “Drug-dealing just to get by / Stacking money ‘til it gets sky high” – but it does it with bright horns and a sunny, sing-song hook. As a couple of School Spirit skits make crystal-clear, Kanye is no thug: he’s preppy, God-fearing, a lover not a fighter, and his ingenious rhymes and easy charm come like a breath of fresh air.
So, Jesus Walks and Through the Wire balance laid-back beats with frightening confidence; the latter finds Kanye relating the aftermath of a near-fatal car crash over a helium-treated Chaka Khan hook, as if convinced of his own invincibility. Slow Jamz, with Twista and Jamie Foxx, pays tribute to the boudoir-friendly tunes of Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross. And while West himself shows little sign of flagging, guest spots from the likes of Jay-Z, Ludacris, Common and Mos Def ensure it’s a treat from start to close.