Rumors of Mos Def and Talib gracing Roc-A-Fella with another Black Star release may be commonplace banter on message boards across the Internerd, but perhaps the architect behind this reorganization of the R.O.C. is Kanye West. The latest development in West’s plan to cross every line that’s been drawn in front of him is The College Dropout. On this, his oft-delayed solo debut, West’s skills are most obvious in his capacity to focus his unbridled energy on wistful rhymes, production, theme and even appearance.
Kanye is the sullen mascot on the album’s cover, slouching forward in underachiever, undergraduate despair. This despair follows West throughout the album’s colorful liner notes, dressed up like a yearbook with pics of Kanye ridin’ the bench at practice and moping behind a chalkboard at the school’s poetry contest. "Senioritis" affects even the best of us, but West has no reason to slouch. He’s looking at things in a new light on The College Dropout, and he’s pushing Roc-A-Fella into a new light as well.
Dropout‘s best moments are numerous and even difficult to pinpoint. Kanye has characterized himself as an outcast, having not finished his college education but eager to publicize his array of talents that he honed outside of the classroom. He dissects a portrait of the underprivileged in "We Don’t Care," an uplifting anthem where a chorus of children sings of beating government statistics: "We weren’t supposed to make it past twenty-five / Joke’s on you, we’re still alive."
This optimism morphs into a brief and unsettling piano/strings interlude called "Graduation Day," hosted mostly by John Legend’s treated-but-just-as-ghostly vocals. Kanye’s ability to represent the urban and disadvantaged is just as keen as his outlook on the part-time dead-end retail work in the waltzy "Spaceship," whereby he simultaneously weaves fantasies of physically uprooting a racist Gap manager and recounting workaholic summers "in a room doin’ five beats a day" to get where he is. The mixtape king and beat (and lyric) maestro is conflicted occasionally, though, in his overwhelming need to flaunt what he’s earned with a looming call to stifle discussion of "money, hoes and rims."
Kanye’s celebration of "money, hoes and rims" is few and far between, but it is here, with Luda and Jay-Z, among others. West squashes the rampant discussion of bling amongst his peers on "All Falls Down": "Man I promise I’m so self-conscious / That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches." In his unique-to-Roc perspective, he balances the need to spend the money he makes to derail severe self-consciousness, an unhealthy byproduct of racist white America: "It seems we livin’ the American dream / But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem."
These are the album’s most passionate moments: his proclaimed attachment to his civilly disobedient mother in "Never Let Me Down," the saintly Harlem Boys Choir backups behind Freeway and Mos Def, his spiritual partnership in "Jesus Walks" and his disenchantment with college’s empty promises on "School Spirit." Kanye’s childlike lens spans an entire culture of apathetic students and non-students alike, though; he’s not only venting about irritating academia. In a complex, comical and comprehensive solo debut, The College Dropout is Kanye’s generous serving of uncommon insight and too many skits. He’s curiously a master of everything here; perhaps he is "saving all the good beats for himself."