The College Dropout is the debut studio album by American rapper and producer Kanye West. It was released on February 10, 2004, by Roc-A-Fella Records and Def Jam Recordings. In the years leading up to release, West had received praise for his production work for rappers such as Jay-Z and Talib Kweli, but faced difficulty being accepted as an artist in his own right by figures in the music industry. Intent on pursuing a solo career, he signed a record deal with Roc-A-Fella and recorded the album over a period of four years, beginning in 1999.

The production of The College Dropout was primarily handled by West and showcased his “chipmunk soul” musical style, which made use of sped-up, pitch shifted vocal samples from soul and R&B records, in addition to West’s own drum programming, string accompaniments, and gospel choirs; the album also features contributions from Jay-Z, Mos Def, Jamie Foxx, Syleena Johnson, and Ludacris, among others. Diverging from the then-dominant gangster persona in hip hop, West’s lyrics concern themes of family, self-consciousness, materialism, religion, racism, and higher education.

The College Dropout debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200, selling 441,000 copies in its first week of sales. It was a large-scale commercial success, becoming West’s best-selling album in the United States, with domestic sales of over 3.4 million copies by 2014 and was certified four-times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 2020. The album was promoted with singles such as “Through the Wire”, “Jesus Walks”, “All Falls Down”, and “Slow Jamz”, the latter two of which peaked within the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.

A widespread critical success, The College Dropout was praised for West’s production, humorous and emotional raps, and the music’s balance of self-examination and mainstream sensibilities. The album earned the rapper several accolades, including nominations for Album of the Year and Best Rap Album at the 2005 Grammy Awards, winning for the latter. It has since been named by numerous publications as one of the greatest albums of all time, including Rolling Stone and NME, who ranked it at 74 and 273 respectively on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time lists, and is credited for popularizing the chipmunk soul and conscious rap subgenres in the 2000s.

Kanye West began his early production career in the mid-1990s, making beats primarily for burgeoning local artists, eventually developing a style that involved speeding up vocal samples from classic soul records. For a time, he acted as a ghost producer for Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie. Due to his association with D-Dot, West wasn’t able to release a solo album, so he formed and became a member and producer of the Go-Getters, a late-1990s Chicago rap group composed of him, GLC, Timmy G, Really Doe, and Arrowstar. The group released their first and only studio album World Record Holders in 1999. West came to achieve recognition with his contributions to Jay-Z’s influential 2001 album The Blueprint. The Blueprint has been named by Rolling Stone as the 252nd greatest album of all time and the critical and financial success of the album generated substantial interest in West as a producer. Serving as an in-house producer for Roc-A-Fella Records, West produced records for other artists from the label, including Beanie Sigel, Freeway, and Cam’ron. He also crafted hit songs for Ludacris, Alicia Keys, and Janet Jackson.

Although he had attained success as a producer, Kanye West aspired to be a rapper, but had struggled to attain a record deal. Record companies ignored him because he did not portray the gangsta image prominent in mainstream hip hop at the time. After a series of meetings with Capitol Records, West was ultimately denied an artist deal. According to Capitol Record’s A&R, Joe Weinberger, he was approached by West and almost signed a deal with him, but another person in the company convinced Capitol’s president not to. Desperate to keep West from defecting to another label, then-label head Damon Dash reluctantly signed West to Roc-A-Fella Records. Jay-Z, West’s colleague, later admitted that Roc-A-Fella was initially reluctant to support West as a rapper, claiming that many saw him as a producer first and foremost, and that his background contrasted with that of his labelmates.

West’s breakthrough came a year later on October 23, 2002, when, while driving home from a California recording studio after working late, he fell asleep at the wheel and was involved in a near-fatal car crash. The crash left him with a shattered jaw, which had to be wired shut in reconstructive surgery. The accident inspired West; two weeks after being admitted to a hospital, he recorded a song at the Record Plant with his jaw still wired shut. The composition, “Through the Wire”, expressed West’s experience after the accident, and helped lay the foundation for his debut album, as according to West “all the better artists have expressed what they were going through”. West added that “the album was my medicine”, as working on the record distracted him from the pain. “Through the Wire” was first available on West’s Get Well Soon… mixtape, released December 2002.At the same time, West announced that he was working on an album called The College Dropout, whose overall theme was to “make your own decisions. Don’t let society tell you, ‘This is what you have to do.'”

West began recording The College Dropout in 1999, taking four years to complete. Recording sessions took place at Record Plant in Los Angeles, California, but the production featured on the record took place elsewhere over the course of several years. According to John Monopoly, West’s friend, manager and business partner, the album “…[didn’t have] a particular start date. He’s been gathering beats for years. He was always producing with the intention of being a rapper. There’s beats on the album he’s been literally saving for himself for years”. At one point, West hovered between making a portion of the production in the studio and the majority within his own apartment in Newark, New Jersey. Because it was a two-bedroom apartment, West was able to set up a home studio in one of the rooms and his bedroom in the other.

The College Dropout diverged from the then-dominant gangster persona in hip hop in favor of more diverse, topical subjects for the lyrics. Throughout the album, West touches on a number of different issues drawn from his own experiences and observations, including organized religion, family, sexuality, excessive materialism, self-consciousness, minimum wage labor, institutional prejudice, and personal struggles. Music journalist Kelefa Sanneh wrote, “Throughout the album, Mr. West taunts everyone who didn’t believe in him: teachers, record executives, police officers, even his former boss at the Gap”. West explained, “My persona is that I’m the regular person. Just think about whatever you’ve been through in the past week, and I have a song about that on my album”. The album was musically notable for West’s unique development of his “chipmunk soul” production style, in which R&B and soul music samples were sped up and pitch shifted.

The album begins with a skit featuring a college professor asking West to deliver a graduation speech. The skit is followed by “We Don’t Care” featuring West comically celebrating drug life with lines like “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25, joke’s on you, we still alive” and then criticizing its influence amongst children. The next track, “Graduation Day”, features Miri Ben-Ari on violin, and vocals by John Legend.

On “All Falls Down”, West wages an attack on consumerism. The song features singer Syleena Johnson and contains an interpolation of Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity”. West called upon Johnson to re-sing a vocal portion of “Mystery of Iniquity”, which ended up in the final mix. Gospel hymn with doo-wop elements “I’ll Fly Away” precedes “Spaceship”, a track with a relaxed beat containing a soulful Marvin Gaye sample. The lyrics are mostly critical of the working world, where West muses about flying away in a spaceship to leave his boring job, and guest rappers GLC and Consequence add comparisons to modern day retail environment with slavery.

On “Jesus Walks”, West professes his belief in Jesus, while also discussing how religion is used by various people and how the media seems to avoid songs that address matters of faith while embracing compositions on violence, sex, and drugs. “Jesus Walks” is built around a sample of “Walk With Me” as performed by the ARC Choir. Garry Mulholland of The Observer described it as a “towering inferno of martial beats, fathoms-deep chain gang backing chants, a defiant children’s choir, gospel wails, and sizzling orchestral breaks”.The first verse of the song is told through the eyes of a drug dealer seeking help from God, and it reportedly took over six months for West to draw inspiration for the second verse.

“Never Let Me Down” is influenced by West’s near-death car crash. The song features Jay-Z, who rhymes about maintaining status and power given his chart success, while West comments on racism and poverty. The song features verses by spoken word performer J. Ivy who offers comments of upliftment. “Never Let Me Down” reuses a Jay-Z verse first heard in the remix of his song “Hovi Baby”. “Get Em High” is a collaboration by West with two socially conscious rappers, Talib Kweli and Common. “The New Workout Plan” is a call to fitness to improve one’s love life.”Slow Jamz” features Twista and Jamie Foxx and serves as a tribute to classic smooth soul artists and slow jam songs. The song also appeared on Twista’s album Kamikaze. On the song “School Spirit”, West relates the experience of dropping out of school and contains references to well-known fraternities, sororities, singer Norah Jones, and record label Roc-A-Fella Records. “Two Words” features commentary on social issues and features Mos Def, Freeway, and the Harlem Boys Choir.

“Through the Wire” features a high-pitched vocal sample of Chaka Khan and relates West’s real life experience with being in a car accident. The song provides a mostly comedic account of his difficult recovery, and features West rapping with his jaw still wired shut from the accident. The chorus and instrumentals sample a pitched up version of Chaka Khan’s 1985 single “Through the Fire”. “Family Business” is a soulful tribute to the godbrother of Tarrey Torae, one of the many collaborators in the album. The song “Last Call” is about West’s transition from being a producer to a rapper, and the album ends with a nearly nine-minute autobiographical monologue that follows the song “Last Call”, however, is not a separate track.

Graffiti depicting the Dropout Bear.

The album’s title is in part a reference to West’s decision to drop out of college to pursue his dream of becoming a musician.This action greatly displeased his mother, who was a professor at the university from which he withdrew. She later said, “It was drummed into my head that college is the ticket to a good life… but some career goals don’t require college. For Kanye to make an album called [The] College Dropout it was more about having the guts to embrace who you are, rather than following the path society has carved out for you”.

The artwork for the album was developed by Eric Duvauchelle, who was then part of Roc-A-Fella’s in-house brand design team. West had already taken pictures dressed as the Dropout Bear – which would reappear in his later work – and Duvauchelle picked the image of him sitting on a set of bleachers, as he was attracted to the loneliness of what was supposed to be “the most popular representation of a school”. The image is framed inside gold ornaments, which Duvauchelle found in a book of illustrations from the 16th-century and West wanted to use to “bring a sense of elegance and style to what was typically a gangster-led image of rap artists”. The inside cover follows a college yearbook, with photos of the featured artists from their youth.

The College Dropout was originally scheduled for release in August 2003, but West’s perfectionist habits producing the album led to it being postponed three times. It was first delayed to October 2003, then to January 2004, before finally being released to stores on February 10, 2004.

In its first week of release, the album sold 441,000 copies and debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 chart, being held off the top spot by Norah Jones’ second studio album Feels Like Home. The College Dropout remained at the second spot behind Feels Like Home for two consecutive weeks, with 196,000 units sold in the second week and 132,000 in the third week, respectively. In 2004, The College Dropout ranked as the twelfth most popular of the year on the Billboard 200. The album had sold 2.3 million units in the United States by November 2004. By June 2014, the album had become West’s best-selling album in the US, with domestic sales of 3,358,000 copies. On November 23, 2020, The College Dropout was certified four-times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). On the UK Albums Chart, the album peaked at number 12, and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) had certified it double platinum by November 25, 2004; this indicated shipments of 600,000 copies. As of 2018, The College Dropout is the fourteenth highest selling rap album in the UK in the 21st-century. The album has sold over 4 million copies worldwide.

Four of the singles released in promotion of the album became top-20 chart hits: “Through the Wire”, “Slow Jamz”, “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks”. “The New Workout Plan” was the fifth and last single. “Spaceship” was planned to be the sixth single, but Def Jam decided to move on from The College Dropout’s promotional campaign to begin marketing West’s next album, Late Registration (2005). At one point, “Two Words” was also intended to be released as a single, and a video for the song was filmed, and later uploaded by West online in 2009.

The College Dropout was met with widespread critical acclaim. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from professional publications, the album received an average score of 87, based on 25 reviews.

The record was hailed by Kelefa Sanneh from The New York Times as “2004’s first great hip-hop album”. Reviewing it for The A.V. Club, Nathan Rabin observed in the music “substance, social commentary, righteous anger, ornery humanism, dark humor, and even Christianity”, calling it “one of those wonderful crossover albums that appeal to a huge audience without sacrificing a shred of integrity”. The staff of Mojo said its exceptional hip hop production was miraculous during a time when hip hop’s practice of sampling was becoming “increasingly litigious”, and those of Urb deemed it “both visceral and emotive, sprinkling the dancefloors with tears and sweat”. Dave Heaton from PopMatters found it “musically engaging” and “a genuine extension of Kanye’s personality and experiences”, while Hua Hsu of The Village Voice felt that his sped-up samples “carry a humble, human air”, allowing listeners to “hear tiny traces of actual people inside”. Fellow Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote that “not only does [West] create a unique role model, that role model is dangerous—his arguments against education are as market-targeted as other rappers’ arguments for thug life”. In the opinion of Stylus Magazine’s Josh Love, West “subverts cliches from both sides of the hip-hop divide” while “trying to reflect the entire spectrum of hip-hop and black experience, looking for solace and salvation in the traditional safehouses of church and family”. Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Endelman elaborated on West’s avoidance of the then-dominant “gangsta” persona of hip hop:

West delivers the goods with a disarming mix of confessional honesty and sarcastic humor, earnest idealism and big-pimping materialism. In a scene still dominated by authenticity battles and gangsta posturing, he’s a middle-class, politically conscious, post-thug, bourgeois rapper – and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Some reviewers were more qualified in their praise. Rolling Stone’s Jon Caramanica felt that “West isn’t quite MC enough to hold down the entire disc”, though claimed that West’s “ace in the hole is his signature cozy sound”,[71] while Slant Magazine’s Sal Cinquemani observed “too many guest artists, too many interludes, and just too many songs period” on what he considered a “chest-beatingly self-congratulatory” yet humorous, deeply sincere, and affecting record.[26] It was regarded by Pitchfork critic Rob Mitchum as a “flawed, overlong, hypocritical, egotistical, and altogether terrific album”.[3] The staff of Rolling Stone were more receptive in a retrospective review than Caramanica was previously for the publication, calling the album “a demonstration that hip-hop—real, banging, commercial hip-hop—could be a vehicle for nuanced self-examination and musical subtlety”

The College Dropout was voted as the best album of the year by The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of American critics.[79] The album elsewhere topped year-end lists by Rolling Stone,[80] Spin,[81] Vibe,[82] and PopMatters.[83] Dutch magazine OOR named it the seventh best album of 2004.[84] Billboard named The College Dropout the second best album of 2004.[85] Rhapsody named it the seventh best album of the decade and the fourth best hip hop album of the decade.[86][87]

In 2005, Pitchfork named it No. 50 in their best albums of 2000–2004.[88] In 2006, the album was named by Time as one of the 100 best albums of all time.[89] In its retrospective 2007 issue, XXL named it one of the magazine’s “XXL”-rated releases; this perfect rating had previously been given by the magazine to only sixteen other albums.[90] In 2012, Complex named the album one of the classic albums of the last decade,[91] and the 20th best hip hop debut album ever.[92] Dagsavisen listed the album eleventh in its list of the top forty albums of the 2000s decade.[93] The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.[94] NME placed the album at 273 on its 2013 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,[95] while Rolling Stone ranked it at 74 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2020.[96]

As a young black kid, especially one who got to walk the line between some dangerous environments and some much better ones, Kanye was this beautiful means to be true to both sides of me. I remember listening to The College Dropout on the bus from a Leadership Broward event where I was selected as one of the leaders of tomorrow or whatever. I remember listening to it as I walked by two black mothers in bed slippers fighting in the street. I remember listening to it on my way to catch the bus to go to a school out of my zone, so that I could get a better education. … ‘Spaceship,’ ‘All Falls Down,’ ‘Never Let Me Down,’ ‘Jesus Walks,’ ‘Family Business.’ Those were anthems of mine that I kept in the back pocket of my heart as I walked the line between black people finding me too white or proper and white people clamoring for me to be their ‘black friend.’

—Aundre Larrow, Chicago Reader (2014)

The College Dropout sparked a resurgence of socially conscious rap in the mid 2000s, arriving at a time when pop rap was saturated with songs featuring product placement and intensely violent lyrics, epitomized by rappers like 50 Cent, Nelly, Ja Rule, Ludacris, and P. Diddy. West instead created a space in the mainstream for rappers to express themselves and black identity without resorting to hip hop’s prevalent theme of gang culture. Raul Verma of The Independent said “West is charged with proving mainstream hip hop has a conscience with his nourishing messages of substance flying in the face of the amoral majority perpetuating clichés of guns, girls and bling”, while Vibe senior editor Noah Callahan-Bever argued that West’s infusion of “pop sensibility” into his otherwise progressive hip hop had “bridged the gap” and encouraged rappers to gravitate more towards the center between mainstream and alternative forms. Today commented that “The College Dropout, stood out in the rap landscape because of its atypical prose. It avoided the usual plotlines about sex, money and violence and touched on everything from his faith to his fears of failure and other crises from his life.”

According to DJBooth journalist Brad Callas, the album also “helped solidify chipmunk soul as not only the defining sound of the Roc-A-Fella era but also the most popular sub-genre in hip-hop”. “It feels like that album birthed an entire sub-genre”, Max Weinstein wrote in retrospect for Vibe, going on to say, “The palette of emotions was so broad, the depth of topics so searingly relevant, that it was bound to make an impression on any artist that heard it. RZA might have birthed chipmunk soul, and Black Star perfected smart lyricism for the JanSport bunch, but ‘Ye brought all that to the masses in one single, digestible product, breaking down the divisions between mainstream rap and Rawkus-grade consciousness.” Weinstein also credited The College Dropout with directly influencing 10 albums: Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor (2006) by Lupe Fiasco, School Was My Hustle (2006) by Kidz in the Hall, Don’t Quit Your Day Job! (2007) by Consequence, A Kid Named Cudi (2008) by Kid Cudi, Asleep in the Bread Aisle (2009) by Asher Roth, Kendrick Lamar’s self-titled first EP (2009), Camp (2011) by Childish Gambino, Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011) by J. Cole, When Fish Ride Bicycles (2011) by The Cool Kids, and Acid Rap (2013) by Chance the Rapper.

With the album, West began to develop a following of listeners who could not relate to lyrics glorifying gangster lifestyle but still enjoyed rap music and connected more with his musings on family and love. In 2005, comedian Chris Rock attested to listening to The College Dropout while writing his stand-up material. Music journalists such as Meaghan Garvey, Andrew Barber, and Erika Ramirez also connected to the album during their formative years, with Barber saying in a roundtable discussion for Noisey, “I could identify with this project the most because I was in college at the time, and I felt like an underdog in my own life. I was uncertain of my future. [West’s] words on ‘Last Call’ inspired me to follow my dreams, and motivated me to graduate despite the album title.” In the same discussion, music journalist Eric Sundermann cited The College Dropout as the first in West’s pop rap album trilogy that would be followed by Late Registration in 2005 and Graduation in 2007, while Craig Jenkins called it “a watershed moment in 2000s rap history where the nerds stormed the school to seize control from the jocks, a shift memorialized two albums later when Graduation trounced 50 Cent’s Curtis album in their 2007 sales showdown.”

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