The College Dropout is a carefully built house of cards. Paul Thompson picks apart the jokers.
I dropped out of college. My break from formal education was short and ill advised—I was back in school only weeks later—but it was defiant. I snaked my way through the University of British Columbia’s Buchanan buildings’ endless, Escher-drawn maze of student election fliers and fluorescent lights, ready to turn in my papers. After all, I grew up thinking this was cool.
Last week, Kanye West’s The College Dropout turned ten. The album has been discussed endlessly, as it should be. It might be a song too long and is certainly heavy on the skits, but Dropout became the blueprint for the next decade of mainstream rap. Beyond that, it stands as a definitive work for the era’s most overexposed artist. After famously tricking Dame into thinking he was making a compilation, Kanye pulled back the curtain on the beats he wouldn’t give to Jay—and then outrapped him on one.
A few things have been sadly overlooked: “We Don’t Care” is weirder than it gets credit for; “School Spirit” is better. For all the hysteria around the album’s release, the first guest rapper is a complete unknown from Chicago, who cedes the mic to that kid who was on Beats, Rhymes, and Life. The album is usually described as a personal manifesto from a rapper who was mocked for owning collared shirts, but it’s much bigger than that. If “We Don’t Care” is the celebration of any-means-necessary survival (a choir of kids sings “drug dealing, just to get by/stack your money ‘til it gets sky high”), “All Falls Down” is its hyper-self-aware counterpoint. Dropout is about the tension between these two worldviews. Kanye wanted “to be on ‘106 & Park’, pushing a Benz”, but he worried how it would look.
Articulating this was a challenge, no doubt. Fortunately, The College Dropout is a precise, exact record. Where someone like late-period Nas contradicts himself too often to be sympathetic, Kanye’s hypocrisies lean carefully on one another. The album is a house of cards (and models, and mothers, and Benzes, and backpacks). But we live in the age of the internet, and the Roc-A-Fella vaults allow us to cast a glance into Kanye’s editing process. Here are three notable songs that almost made the cut.
Keep The Receipt (feat. Ol Dirty Bastard):
Kanye West is known for many things. Restraint is not one of them. His appeal is that of a man equally controlled by and aware of his id, his career the struggle between what’s right and what feels good. Played out in front of rap fans and middle America and fundraiser phone banks, Kanye’s public life is part Greek myth, part skit-before-a-Cam’ron-song. But it is orchestrated; he occasionally snaps and lashes out, but he always returns to string pulling, continuing the arc from sensitive Chicago kid to the messiah-slash-outcast he is now.
That “Keep The Receipt” was left off The College Dropout is Exhibit A in myth building by exclusion. The song is a brash, aggressive, lashing of Kanye’s doubters—not exactly out of his wheelhouse. But this is the Dropout-era song with the clearest traces of a kid who grew up imitating gangsta rap. It paints Kanye as the tough guy, something that his debut album is now notable for sidestepping. It also doesn’t help that some of the writing is broad (“your broke-ass mama couldn’t afford that abortion/so tell me, how the hell she gon’ afford that coffin?”). “Keep The Receipt” is the kind of song you make if you’re Beanie Sigel reaching for radio, not if you’re pressing Polos for your first MTV interview.
Identity crisis aside, a lot of it works beautifully. ODB’s cameo—recorded little over a year before his passing—is delightfully unhinged, culminating in sincere advice (“go kill yourself!”) for all rappers. Kanye does some price-range flossing (his beats are “forty grand if you ain’t fam/I mean, if you ain’t Hov, if you ain’t Cam”). The outro teases the guitar-Autotune convergence that would be fully realized half a decade later on “Runaway”. What’s left is a good song—just not a great Kanye West song.
“My Way” might be the best possible distillation of Kanye’s signature sound. The crackling soul loop is small and intimate during the hook and triumphant, unstoppable during the verses. For a man defined by his ambitions, this is what comfort sounds like. Kanye reminisces about the days “back before Benzes when we could afford Jettas”, fondly recalling “back in ’96, we was livin’ like kings, dawg”.
Unlike “Keep The Receipt”, “My Way” is written with the voice Kanye presented to the world with The College Dropout. Hustling was very much a part of his backstory, but his relationship to it was tangential, borrowing from the project window vantage point Nas had occupied a decade earlier. From the song’s first verse: “now all the blacks cooking up that almost-white/’cause getting green make ‘em treat us like we almost white/almost”. The track plays like a long-awaited victory lap, and it’s a shame it didn’t make the retail version. (It was presumably cut simply because it was included in the ’03 leak.) Had it made Dropout, it would almost certainly be one of Kanye’s essential cuts.
While “Gossip” feels a bit unfinished—especially on its bare hook—so did the early versions of other songs that made The College Dropout. The track’s voice is of the disaffected kid, the archetypal college dropout. In fact, in the most frenzied moment, he addresses his street cred head-on: “you gotta kill at least one person, at least!”.
“Gossip” is where that self-awareness—the rapper as an outsider, intruding on something he isn’t cut out for—runs squarely into his unshakable confidence. Interestingly, this is Kanye’s implied rejection of the post-backpack underground. The College Dropout and Late Registration boasted cameos from Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, and Consequence, sure, but Kanye’s hubris here makes his intentions painfully clear. There were more than enough rappers who were hot on the Okayplayer forums; Kanye was going to take over the world.
The beat is irresistibly buoyant, moving forward relentlessly. We also get a first look at some of Kanye’s most famous lines: the “told ‘em I finished school, and I started my own business/they said ‘oh, you graduated!’ no, I decided I was finished” passage that eventually made it into “School Spirit” and the dick/swallowers turn that would later anchor “New Slaves”. Actually, his Yeezus-era (and Taylor Swift-era, and George Bush-era) turn as a lightning rod is foreshadowed here with “they hate on your relationship, then break your marriage up/can’t kill your dreams, so they assassinate your character”. But on the next verse, Kanye scales back down, trading existential doubt for skeptical rappers. “And I’m through spitting these rappers my most heartfelt flows/’cause they be like ‘yeah, that’s cool…you got some beats for me, though?’” is a sentiment Kanye was stuck on at the start of his career, and “Gossip” is where he expresses it at his most desperate. And with ODB’s sampled voice chiming in, who could stop him?
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