Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Kanye West -- The College Dropout
Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam; 2004

If you go to (a site I recommend for anyone) and type in Kanye West, you get a bio, a list of influences, and a laughable picture. The dude is dressed in some pretty average clothes, has his Roc-A-Fella necklace on, and a backpack. Not any ordinary backpack, mind you, but a Louie-freakin'-Vuitton backpack. I'm positive of the persona West is trying to show us here: he's a totally hot producer/rapper that can afford any number of luxurious things, and yet he's still an emotional, everyman backpacker. You know, down with the underground. Unsurprisingly, that's exactly what West's solo debut The College Dropout presents as well; the synthesis of which makes for a fantastic album.

The College Dropout is the first time many people get to hear West actually rap. Although "Through the Wire" is all over the radio, truthfully it's one of his weakest songs -- even if the subject matter of having one's jaw wired shut is kind of heavy. On "All Falls Down," West addresses the self conscious nature of hip hop culture with an easy-going flow, much like latter day De La Soul material. West teams up with Mos Def and Freeway on the album's first standalone single, "Two Words," and it's a barnburner. While Def sounds like he's ready to punch the mic, West is a bit more reserved -- almost like he's plotting revenge while he rhymes. Kanye's blood-boiling testament on law enforcement versus the streets solidifies "Jesus Walks" as the album's finest track, especially with the call-to-arms beat perfectly setting the tone.

As with all Kanye productions, the real meat of the album lies in the production, which on The College Dropout is as diverse as a 28 ham buffet. "All Falls Down" is carried by the sugary wails of guest vocalist Syleena Johnson and some nimble blues guitar -- breaking new ground for West. The most "out there" track on The College Dropout is easily "The New Workout Plan." Packed tightly with a gajillion propulsive bass hits and hyper fiddles, the song abruptly pares down to a simple big beat and synthesized voice a la Daft Punk. Talk about mixing it up!

Still, many songs use West's patent calling card of a sped up soul sample over stammering drums and thick basslines, and yet it never seems to lose effect. Even though "School Spirit" might not bring the goods lyrically, the song still takes flight, lifted by the charming piano and Aretha Franklin's chirpy vocal sample. The ridiculously popular "Slow Jamz" utilizes the same sample trick, dropping in Luther Vandross alongside Jamie Foxx and -- unfortunately -- Twista. It's bad enough that Twista's a gimmick rapper to start, but why let him taint such a great, cheeky song?

What West struggles with on The College Dropout is choosing tracks that will be attractive commercially and represent his underground roots. Songs like "Jesus Walks" and "Two Words" are awe-inspiring tracks all around, but aren't exactly club bangers or pop star vehicles. It's because of this that West includes the pointless "Breathe In Breathe Out," kept especially stupid by Ludacris's ho-hum hook. Even Jay-Z's guest track "Never Let Me Down" is rote, providing yawns musically and snores lyrically.

Thankfully, the small missteps of The College Dropout are greatly outshined by Kanye West's fresh, soulful production and surprisingly adept MC skills. The album proved that he's not just a producer/wannabe-rapper like Jermaine Dupree; he's got talent in both domains. At the same time, he kept up his persona of being the now-rich everyman by offering heartfelt songs about the streets that he's loved and experienced. I have a feeling this is just the first of a number of fantastic achievements yet to come from Roc-A-Fella's newest talent.

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