This Week in Hip-Hop/R&B History: Kanye West Released his Debut Album, The College Dropout, 14 Years Ago Today

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— Back in 2004, Roc-a-Fella Records’ in-house producer, Kanye West made his rap debut with his classic album, The College Dropout. 

Kanye West would forever change the scope of Hip-Hop culture when he emerged on the scene as a performing artist in 2004. Prior to that, hip-hop fans across the world were familiar with his production work (whether they knew it or not) from major collaborations with Jay Z, Cam’Ron, Foxy Brown, Ludacris, Alicia Keys, and more. However, because of his immense talent as a producer and the belief that the “gangster” image was necessary to thrive in the hip-hop industry, Kanye was constantly doubted and was repeatedly denied opportunities to grow as a rapper. But, as we all know, Yeezy’s self-belief and borderline stubbornness trumps all.

The College Dropout was recorded over a four-year period beginning in 1999. Despite his difficulty being accepted as a rapper, Kanye West made a breakthrough after his involvement in a near fatal car crash. The necessary reconstructive surgery for West’s shattered jaw left it wired shut, but the experience inspired him greatly. Two weeks after being admitted into the hospital (and still with his jaw wired shut), Kanye hit the studio and composed his debut single, “Through the Wire” which was met with critical acclaim. Through the release of his debut single, Kanye West had finally begun to convert his skeptics into believers while laying the foundation for what would become, The College Dropout.

Back in 2002, when discussing the title and theme of the then unreleased album, Kanye stated,

“All that’s saying is make your own decisions. Don’t let society tell you, ‘This is what you have to do.’ Society told me, ‘Man, don’t move from Chicago.’ People told me to stay in school, this music is this, this music is that. I listen to John Mayer, and his song ‘No Such Thing’ is exactly what my [philosophy] is about, but in different words.”

The College Dropout did just that and beyond. All over astonishing production that he had been cultivating for his entire career, Kanye West tackled a multitude of topics that are rarely discussed among mainstream Hip-Hop artists. From his troubles with materialism detailed on “All Falls Down” (said to have been written in 15 minutes) to his battle with organized religion described on “Jesus Walks”, West was able to deliver an album full of hits while providing lyrical depth and staying true to his soulful musical production. Kanye West also touches on topics like self-consciousness, institutional prejudice, family, and living on minimum wage.

Kanye West recruited top tier talent to be a part of The College Dropout album as well. Some of these artists include fellow Chicagoans Common, Twista, Syleena Johnson, and Consequence. Other collaborators such as The Boys Choir of Harlem and poet, J. Ivy are a bit more surprising, while Jay Z, Jamie Foxx, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Freeway, and Ludacris earned their placements for obvious reasons.

Kanye West also looked to many greats for inspiration in regards to production. Chris Lundy’s “Walk with Me” was sampled for Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” while “Through the Wire” sampled Chaka Khan’s 1985 single “Through the Wire”. Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin, John Legend, Marvin Gaye, Michael Bolton, and Aretha Franklin are amongst the long list of artist credited as writers on The College Dropout.

As most of us here already know, The College Dropout went on to become a huge success, often being regarded as one of the best Hip-Hop albums of all time. In fact, Rolling Stone ranked The College Dropout at number 298 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, Phoenix New Times called it the second best rap album of the decade, and Entertainment Weekly called it the fourth best album of the past 25 years. Kanye West also earned 10 Grammy nominations for The College Dropout winning Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for “Jesus Walks”. As of June 2014, The College Dropout has sold over 4 million copies worldwide.

Check out the full album and the music videos above.

Written by Simo Haier