This week 10 years ago, an anxious producer from Chiraq (Chicago), Illinois had just released his debut into the rap arena, College Dropout. Heavily manipulating the hip-hop scene musically, stylistically, and socially even at the time, a far more subconscious Kanye West went on to gain international acclaim, travel through uncharted musical terrains, and become the voice of America's uncertain middle class youth.
But what if Kanye listened to that Roc-A-Fella Records A&R who suggested he put down the mic and stick to being a producer? What if the Yeezus of today, was never able to turn a mayonnaise-colored Benz into a miracle whip? What if we lived in a world without the culture constructing College Dropout?
Stylistically, College Dropout's imagery was crafted as the anti-popular rap album. Everything common in hip-hop prior to 2004 was taken and given a tailored touch of pastel polos, velvet blazers, designer backpacks and backpack rappers. Without the polished hip-hop style introduced by College Dropout, I think we'd still be stuck in an era of metallic denim suits, artificial platinum chain fantasies, and a rainbow of bedazzled bandanas. Hip-hop might have no style. Who knows? There might be no visually driven A$AP MOB, no Odd Future and Jay-Z could be a middle-aged tall-t-wearing bachelor never following his own advice to mature and change clothes.
Musically, College Dropout featured West at the height of his production powers, merging the soulful percussion of the '70s, social consciousness of early '90s rap and the melodic core to jazz and gospel. Lyrically, the album presented updated narratives of masculinity, race relations and commercialism. College Dropout helped us move past a time where post-gangsta rap ceased to reach the headphones of the masses. Rap might still be genre where emotions could only be expressed alongside Teflon bullets. There'd be no Drake. Kendrick Lamar might have become the founding member of N.W.A II, G-Unit might rule hip-hop, and there might be no televised reminders that beneath the grit, hip-hop still had rich roots and a soul.
Socially, College Dropout introduced the world of hip-hop to narratives of middle-class America. These weren't just verses that Black America could connect with but a storyline that was blasted in rooms with Backstreet Boys and Korn posters. The album presented Kanye's middle class American experience in a way that spoke of street violence, education deficits, and general inequality without an aggressive tone riddled with angst.
College Dropout helped update hip-hop to fit a postmodern American standard transcending rap stereotypes. It spoke to an entire generation that felt no one understood their part-time job struggles with an insulting manager. They would still feel because they didn't fit into the typical rap mold, they could never tell their stories or represent any sort of political consciousness as a teen.
That could have meant having to say farewell to today's Childish Gambino, Hannah Montana trap raps and the respectability of Diddy's "Vote of Die" campaign to rally youth participation in the 2008 presidential election.
And who knows what might have become of our culture! Let's speculate wildly: Without Kanye's disruptive rise to VMA infamy, Taylor Swift would have announced her departure from music to pursue a career in relationship counseling. Anna-Nicole Smith would be a restless zombie roaming the Earth because she never fulfilled her life dream of being a rap video girl. And Roc-A-Fella Records would cease to exist, following the bankrupting tour of Jay-Z and R-Kelly's 2004 joint album, Unfinished Business . The world as we know it and see it televised would not exist.
As an album, College Dropout reformatted mainstream rap to be a genre that could step outside of hardcore imagery, be authentic to everyday struggles, appreciate Ralph Lauren, and prove "you can still love ya man and be manly dog." As a narrative, the album showcased a young America that was allowed to be apprehensive toward the future but motivated by a new American paradox. As a breath of fresh air, College Dropout saved hip-hop.
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