In February, Kanye West's debut album, The College Dropout, will turn ten years old.
Let that marinate for a second.
If you look at Kanye now, you can see that his mind is certainly in a different place than it was a decade ago. In a mental sense, he is now a far cry from the guy who had just gotten his chain from Damon Dash and Jay-Z. Sonically, he is the same man, though the sound has morphed ever-so-slightly since his first record dropped.
Going back to Kanye circa-2004 is, essentially, like sitting at the top of a roller-coaster (all-cheesiness intended). By all means, he was innocent and bright-eyed, even after a near fatal car accident and a relentless effort to finish producing and recording the album. The sound, which has become a signature sound of his, was built around soul samples and interpolations of choruses from songs you probably had never heard, or simply never imagined being used in a rap song. It was vastly different from what was being produced at the time, when ringtone rap was rising and massive, bass-heavy club bangers were ruling the industry.
The lead single was Through the Wire, a track highlighted by the piercing Chaka Khan sample and Kanye's muddled verses. Through jaws wired shut, post-accident, Kanye told his story (which he goes into more depth later on the album with Last Call), one about his rise through the ranks of producers and relative nobodies to become the golden child of Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam. It was an introduction to a guy who most thought would only amount to one of Jay-Z's right hand men, a la Memphis Bleek or Beanie Sigel.
The next singles were Slow Jamz and All Falls Down. Both great in certain ways (the latter happens to be one of my favorite rap songs ever), but pale in comparison to the impact that the fourth single had on hip-hop, content and Kanye's career.
Jesus Walks was released on May 24, 2004 as a single and its video companions soon followed; three of them, in fact. The track quickly came to define who Kanye West was, and would become, as an artist. Its oddly indicative of the path Chicago would go down as a hip-hop city, foretelling the drill music and restlessness of the gang culture in music that has become pretty common in the Midwest over the last couple of years. It was even more indicative of the self-proclaimed god that would manifest itself out of constant creative changes and media attention.
Much of The Dropout becomes a blueprint for what Kanye's career would look like fleshed out. Though it obviously lacks the hyper-production that is characteristic of each of his last four solo efforts, this album's message and overall voice continues to ring true ten years later. It has its swag rap moments (All Falls Down, Last Call), its conscious views on black culture and society (We Don't Care, Two Words), anti-establishment riffs (Spaceship), and he and Jay going back and forth (Never Let Me Down). The only thing missing from (a majority of) his albums are skits (which are arguably my favorite bits of the record).
What makes this elapsed time so unbelievable, to me at least, is the shelf-life Kanye has achieved. In hip-hop, long lasting careers are so hard to come across. Most times guys release records, singles that live on the Billboard charts for a month, cash checks and disappear until they show up on a Complex post about underrated songs from the 00s. In ten years, no other person in the game has reinvented and coined a sound quite like Kanye has. Each album following The Dropout and his sophomore follow-up, Late Registration, has sounded so different from the last, that it constitutes a biennial renaissance.
More importantly, it launched a thousand ships, or careers rather. It opened the door to countless numbers of producers and rappers who embraced the neo-classics and began sampling and cutting records into beats that became the background to an explosion of consciousness in the years that proceeded it.
So, while not everyone can embrace the current iteration of Kanye, it's still easy to reflect on the one of the past. The one from ten years ago, who was intelligent without being abrasive and not yet outspoken.