In 2002, I left home and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the prestigious and historically black, Morehouse College. An institution that produced men like Martin Luther King, Jr., filmmaker Spike Lee, theologian Howard Thurman, and the first African-American mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson. “There is an air of expectancy at Morehouse College”, that neither I nor my then-classmates understood yet. Some of us were the first in our families to attend college and others came from a legacy of family who had achieved degrees in higher education. We were young men from all over the country and of various backgrounds, but we were all a part of a culture that was growing more mainstream and influential than ever before. Hip-hop music had grown from the block parties of the New York streets in the 70’s, to a mass marketed product that reached and touched an entire generation. The culture was thriving and artists from the south, Atlanta in particular, were key in expanding the culture into the mainstream.
During what’s considered the “golden age” of hip-hop music, there was surplus of diversity, quality, innovation, and influence. Of course, there were some outliers and artists that didn’t represent the culture the best. But overall, there was a level of consciousness present during that era. Artists like Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and the collective Native Tongues were pushing the envelope and introducing new styles and sounds to hip-hop music. By the turn of the century, those days were long gone. By the spring of our freshman year, hip-hop had become monotonous and was dominated by crunk music. Atlanta was beginning to emerge as a city that would produce some of the most popular artists in the genre.
Although the south was beginning to establish itself as a mainstay in the industry, there was an artist out of New York that was making his presence felt. “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”, the debut solo album of 50 Cent, could be heard bumping through the speakers of every car that passed and by December 2003, it had sold six million copies in the United States. With the legendary producer Dr. Dre’s backing, he took the west coast gangster rap sound and blended it with an aggressive, yet refreshing New York delivery. And despite the success of the major players like Jay-z, Nas, Eminem, and even the somewhat alternative album released by Outkast, there was still a void in hip-hop music.
There was a voice that wasn’t being represented – African-American students that attended liberal arts colleges like mine, filled with musicians and poets, future lawyers, doctors, teachers, and political figures. We were young men and women with not so distant memories of television shows like “A Different World” and “The Cosby Show”. We refused to fall in line with the stereotypes that had been placed on our community. Although we could appreciate the different styles, we demanded balance, and hip-hop did too.
On February 10, 2004, Kanye West delivered the critically acclaimed debut album “College Dropout”. At the time, mixtapes were slowly making their way from street corners to the internet. Online communities like Okayplayer emerged in the late 90’s and file sharing was becoming a major force on college campuses. Prior to its release, several mix tapes released, showcasing some of West’s production credits, new recordings, and some unfinished records from his forthcoming album. Two stand-out records from the early sessions were the original “All Fall’s Down” which contained an interpolation of Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity” and “Through The Wire”. The latter, West wrote and recorded with his jaw wired shut after a near fatal car accident in October 2002. Taking into consideration these new recordings, his past work, and his recent guest verses, the anticipation for the album was beginning to rise.
College Dropout diverged from the then-dominate gangster persona in hip-hop. West’s lyrics on the album contained themes of self-consciousness, family, religion, and personal struggle. Records like the aforementioned “All Falls Down, “Never Let Me Down”, and “Family Business” were a change from the typical materialism centered content and braggadocio raps. There were bold songs like “Jesus Walks” that were unlike anything heard from an artist of his caliber. Holding to the title, the album was laden with skits mocking higher education. As a member of my school’s speech team, there were many references to these skits in the acting and interpretation events the following semester. There were also records like “Get Em’ High” and “Two Words”, which showed West’s lyrical prowess alongside underground hip-hop’s elite like Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. Not only was Kanye West lyrically coming into his own, but some of his best production was present on this album.
College Dropout is kind of a multilayered collage of diverse musical elements: reinterpretations of vintage soul records; recycled and original drumbeats; all forms of live instrumentation and even guest appearances from the Harlem Boys Choir. Of course, Kanye West was not the first to engage in extensive reuse of old records. There were producers that had come before West, like the legendary J Dilla, and contemporaries like 9th Wonder that mastered the style of soul sampling. Kanye also mastered the art, but there had not been a rapper/producer with that level of lyricism, style, and wit since maybe Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. For example, a gospel hymn with doo-wop elements “I’ll Fly Away” precedes “Spaceship”, a relaxed beat containing a soulful sample of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover”. This record serves as an interesting blend of spirituals of the past and the contemporary working world.
Ten years later, some of my friends have moved back to their home towns and others are traveling around the country, and some the world. They are now successful lawyers, teachers, engineers, and businessmen. My peers and I never considered dropping out of school, but the overall theme of the album meant more than that. It called for us to think critically about the purpose and importance of higher education. It spoke to what people expect to gain from school and what wasn’t promised to any of us after graduation. It was about chasing your dreams and West provided an example of someone like us, who achieved that dream. Those ideas hold the album together as an extended look at the choices people make in life, and the reasons behind them.
As graduation approached we were beginning to understand what being Morehouse Men meant. That “air or expectancy” was ingrained in each and every one of us. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the sixth president of Morehouse College once said, “It must be borne in mind that the tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.”
College Dropout is a classic hip-hop album. It has stood the test of time and influenced the lives of a generation of young people. Kanye West accomplished something very few artists are able to do, and that is to let their vision serve as a catapult for not only themselves but the world around them.