The College Dropout: Analysing The Cultural Impact of Kanye West's Debut Album.
A Reflective Essay
‘Global hip-hop has emerged as a culture that encourages and integrates innovative practises of artistic expression, knowledge production, social identification, and political mobilization. In these respects, it transcends and contests conventional constructions of identity, race, nation, community, aesthetichs, and knowledge’ (Morgan, Bennett, 2011, p.177)
By kickstarting the solo career of Kanye West: one of hip hop’s most successful, influential and controversial artists of all time, the iconic album ‘The College Dropout’ (2004), belongs in the argument as one of the most important albums ever released in hop hop, and wider music scene. The ‘College Dropout’ (2004) was also the first of a trilogy of socially important albums including ‘Late Registration’ (2005) and ‘Graduation’ (2007) attacking the American school system: echoing the ‘the voices of students disillusioned with scapegoat politics and higher education’ (Jones, 2018, p.65).
Throughout the album ‘The College Dropout’ (2004), Kanye repeatedly affirms the socio-economic and racial disparities in the USA that inevitably bleed into the education system. This is summarised in a critical theory approach by Sacks: We want our schools, colleges, and universities to be the Great Equalizers that help erase social and economic inequality, not institutions that facilitate the Great Sorting of Americans from the day they enter kindergarten. We prefer to ignore the reality that our schools and colleges in fact reproduce, reinforce, and legitimize inequality (Sacks, 2007, pp. 2-3).
There’s countless statistics that link race, social status and education to lack of opportunity in the USA, with the most negatively affected races being Hispanics and African Americans. 39% of African American, and 33% of Latino children and adolescents were living in poverty as of 2014, in contrast to the 14% of their White and Asian counterparts (Kids Count Data Center, Children in Poverty, 2014). This divide unsurprisingly has negative impacts on those who attend college, with Black and Hispanic 18-24 year olds historically being less represented at college in comparison again to their white and asian counterparts. This lack of educational opportunity is summarised by Kanye on the albums second track ‘We Don’t Care’. West starts the song satirically stating ‘I got the perfect song for the kids to sing’ before rapping in the chorus about ‘drug dealin’ just to get by’ which, from a critical theory standpoint, appears to be in relation to the unemployment rates in America for the working class, more specifically the African American working class. The evidence for this could be the almost doubled unemployment rates for Black Men and Women in relation to their White counterparts (US bureau of Labour statistics, 2021), or the fact that the unemployment rate for recent African American degree graduates (12.4%) is double the rate for all recent degree graduates (5.6%) (Jones and Schmitt, 2014).
This narrative that drug dealing is the working class equivalent to paying for a college degree, or furthermore equalling the monetary opportunity provided by one is taken a step further by West later in the song, where he raps: ‘Sittin’ in the hood like community colleges, this dope money here is little Tre’s scholarship. ‘Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition, and ain’t no loans for sitting your ass at home, so we forced to sell crack, rap and get a job’. The deemed necessity for those in impoverished areas, referred to as the ‘hood’, to sell drugs in order to make money is confounded in the song by Kanye with the lyric ‘As a shorty I looked up to the dope man, only adult man I knew that wasn’t broke, man’. The prevalence of drugs in poor areas that West talks about were extremely relevant at the time of the albums release, and still are. As of 2020, there were 2.2 million people currently being held in the U.S justice system. Of that sum, nearly 500,000 of the people mentioned were detained for drug related charges, with the belief of some being ‘Without reducing poverty- and more specifically, income inequality- as well as racial bias… the United States will not meaningfully reduce its prison population’ (O’Neill Hayes and Barnhorst, 2020).
Having addressed selling drugs as one of the contrasts to a college education, West shows us the other side of the coin on the albums 6th track ‘Spaceship’. This seemingly biographical song, explains Kanye’s experiences working a low paying job in retail. The song's chorus reiterates throughout, the lyrics ‘I’ve been working this graveshift and I ain’t made shit’. The first verse also contains the line ‘Look at my cheque, wasn’t no scratch’. Both of these lyrics indicate the cycle of intergenerational poverty that exists for some in America. As the aforementioned figures suggest- ‘Children’s futures are clearly constrained by a lack of economic resources. Growing up poor moderately reduces children's schooling and substantially reduces men’s adult economic status’ (Corcoran, 1995, p. 249-250). This is what Kanye explained when he mentioned in the song ‘We Don’t care’ about the ‘dope man’ being the only male figure he’d met that ‘wasn’t broke’.
In addition to being poorly paid, Kanye West mentions the racial profiling and stereotypes he encountered, as many African Americans alike would’ve faced. He mentions the profiling he experienced with the lyrics ‘They take me to the back and pat me, askin’ me about some khakis’, insinuating that he was profiled as a thief because of the colour of his skin. Although the connection may seem a slight reach, West leaves no doubt on what he meant with the follow up line: ‘But let some black people walk in, I bet they show off their token blacky’. The experience of racism in the workplace is a widely felt experience for black men and women alike.
A 2007 study by Wingfield on racism in the workplace produced the following findings: ‘Many Black men experienced gendered racism in the form of countering white colleagues’ perceptions of them as threatening, menacing, or overly aggressive… the image of the angry black man’. With findings such as Wingfields on racism in the workplace, and the aforementioned racial disparities in the US education system, it’s not surprising why the topic of drugs and drug selling is so prominent on this album- being mentioned on 9 separate songs.
Above anything, the satirical skits that Kanye includes in the album best represent his discontent for America's collegiate system. In the skit ‘Graduation Day’, Kanye projects his idea that college is a White institution run by White people with the following line ‘I’m tryin’ to get you out here with these white people and this how you gone do me? You know what, yous a nigga’. The problem of White hierarchy and racial segregation in US education is historically documented and still widespread six decades removed from the ‘Brown v. Board of Education’ supreme court ruling 1954, with the lack of integration at lower levels of education creating ‘performance gaps between White and Black students’ and depressing ‘education outcomes for black students’ (Garcia, 2020).
Kanye mockingly questions the value of college degrees, in the ‘Lil Jimmy Skit’. As a man who is successful without a college degree, Kanye overtly deconstructs the ideology that a college degree means financial security and success. He does this through the story of ‘Lil Jimmy’ whose Father has died, using the lyrics ‘My Dad died and left me his degrees’ to further reinforce the notion of a degree not holding monetary value, West later adds ‘All the regular homeless people have newspaper, and look what I have. These are documented’. West goes a step further to finish the skit, suggesting that the class wage structure (Appendix 3), isn’t as indicative of a college degree's success as the statistics may suggest, saying ‘I’m going to get super smart, so I too can die without money. But I’ll be the smartest dead guy’.
As much as the skit is there to challenge the general consensus of Americans that a college degree will acquire a person more money and success, it also serves as a beacon of hope to those who aren’t privileged enough to afford a college degree.
As Kanye’s predecessors NWA had done with their 1988 album ‘Straight Outta Compton’, West presented himself as a relatable figure who resonated with young, predominantly Black, Americans through hip-hop: ‘In the era of No Child Left Behind and Hurricane Katrina, one voice stood out among the rest and provided the best Hip Hop commentary on public administration and contemporary education in America: rap artist Kanye West’ (Jones, 2018, pp. 65). This relatability and transparency throughout made the album a huge commercial success, charting at Number 2 on the Billboard 200 chart and winning Kanye the 2005 Grammy for Best Rap Album.
‘If the Black Church were more vigilant toward the needs, concerns, and desires of its youth and young people during the late 1960s and early 1970s, there probably would be no Hip Hop culture’ (Price III, E, 2012, pp. 11).
Hip Hop and religion have always been intrinsically linked, from acts such as Run DMC, whose founding member Joseph ‘Run’ Simmons is a practising Minister, through to Kanye West. The Black Church and Hip Hop are so culturally intertwined because they both stem from the same thing: expressing Black culture in times of oppression and Racism. When explaining the role of the Black Church in times of racism, Gates Jr (2021) explains ‘Although Black people made spaces for secular expression, only the church afforded room for it to be practised… The Black Church was the cultural cauldron that Black people created to combat a system designed to crush their spirit’. The direct comparison for the creation of Hip Hop is made by Rivas (2014), who states ‘Hip Hop was born out of a lack of opportunities for poor Black and Brown young people. The reality of a lasting white supremicist legacy of shutting people of color out’.
The College Dropout is such an important album because it’s where we first see Kanye West’s relationship with Christianity, through the notorious song ‘Jesus Walks’. The song was a huge success for West, peaking at 11 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The song earned Kanye the 2005 Grammy for Best Rap Song- a category he’d go on to dominate, winning 6 of the awards from 2005-2013. However, West didn’t envisage the song's chart success.
Although ‘Jesus Walks’ generated great commercial success for West, he talks of how Jesus is a taboo subject for a song in Hip Hop: ‘They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus that means guns, sex, lies video tape, but if I rap about God my record won’t get played’. Although it’s difficult to definitively say who Kanye is referring to when he says ‘they’, by using Critical Theory we can infer that ‘they’ might be Christians and members of the Church.
With all the historical links between Hip Hop and Christianity, there are still fundamental differences between the cultures: ‘The Hip Hop I adore… was about being a rebel. It was about breaking rules, pushing boundaries and sometimes being disrespectful. And I’ve always had trouble bridging the gap between these things and my faith’ (Brown, 2012). The backlash that can come from mentioning Jesus in rap appears to come from the lifestyle of the artist in question. Christian rap, a popular genre in the religion, doesn’t historically contain topics that ‘The College Dropout’ does such as Sex, drugs and violence. Because of this, it may be seen as disrespectful by those in the Church to mention Jesus’ name alongside topics that are incongruent with Christianity, opposed to a celebration of god by a practising Christian.
This again is what makes Kanye West and The College Dropout so successful and relatable, as there are many practising Christians who live a lifestyle similar to the one Kanye portrays in his music, leaving them feeling ostracised by the church. These feelings of divide between hip hop culture and Christianity are affirmed by Chrisitan rapper Lecrae, in his 2012 song ‘Church Clothes’ where he states: ‘I walk into Church wit’ a snapback and they tellin’ me that’s a no-no? That’s backwards and I lack words for these actors called Pastors’. Kanye’s ability in ‘Jesus Walks’ to assert the fundamental beliefs of Christianity to bridge the gap between the church and hip hop culture, regardless of the lifestyle, is however celebrated by some: ‘This track should be given the attention it deserves as a song that not only mentions Jesus but makes a very strong and very deep statement about God’s love for even the ‘hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the strippers’... Jesus walks even with the criminals of our society’ (Price III, E, 2012, pp. 40).
Jesus Walks isn’t only important for its cultural impact but for its influence on one of Hip Hops most successful careers. In 2019, Kanye went a step up from devoting a song to Jesus’ name, and created an album celebrating the Holy figure- ‘Jesus is King’. The gospel album pushes West into the realms of the aforementioned Christian rap, as all 11 tracks on the album are about the celebration of Jesus, God and the Christian faith, with no lyrical profanity on any of the songs. As well as an album dedicated to god, Kanye also formed and fronted his own gospel choir ‘The Sunday Service Choir’ the same year. 2019 turned into a year of gospel Christian rap for Kanye as he finished the year by releasing the follow up to ‘Jesus is King’, ‘Jesus is Born’ credited to the ‘Sunday Service Choir’ and aptly released on December 25th.
It would appear that albums like ‘Jesus is King’ represent the future for Kanye, rather than a passing phase as it’s speculated West ‘Will no longer be making secular music and will instead focus on creating gospel music’ (Wallis, 2019). If true, this creates even more of an argument for the importance of the College Dropout as it proves its influence on Kanye West's career arc and the future of mainstream hip hop.
‘The initiation of sampling in Hip Hop is to be seen as the only way people in the poor neighbourhoods of New York City were able to develop their own culture… sampling hence became tradition in Hip Hop representing origins of this culture’. (Zerfas, 2014)
Kanye’s notorious link with sampling came before the release of The College Dropout, when he was a producer signed to Jay-z’s record label ‘Roc-A-Fella Records’. Towards the late 90’s, ‘vocal samples were just beginning to become a staple of Kanye West’s productions’ (Shipley, 2019). The evolution of Kanye’s iconic sound saw him produce for artists such as Jay-z, Lil Kim, Nas and Eminem all before the release of his debut album.
Having been such a successful producer Kanye struggled to be taken seriously as a rapper, something he explains in The College Dropouts final song, a near 13 minute biographical masterpiece ‘Last Call’. Lyrics include ‘Ain’t nobody expect Kanye to end up on top they expected that college dropout to drop and then flop’ with the most obvious lyric being ‘Last year shoppin’ my demo, I was tryin’ to shine every motherfucker told me that I couldn’t rhyme’. This resistance to Kanye being a rapper wouldn’t last long, and West alludes that at this point, he’d already laid the groundwork for the postmodern masterpiece ‘The College Dropout’ in the songs Spaceship ‘You can’t fathom my love dude, lock yourself in a room doin’ five beats a day for three summers’ and Last Call ‘Maybe he stop savin’ all the good beats for himself’.
No song on the album embodies postmodernism more than ‘Thru the Wire’. The song revolves around a vocal sample taken from Chaka Khan’s 1984 Grammy award winning song ‘Through the Fire’. Using technology to sample the vocal, the pitch is shifted up and the tempo slightly increased. The topic of the song is Kanye recollecting his near fatal car crash in 2002, a consequence of which was him having his jaw wired shut due to it being fractured in 3 places. The title of the song is hence a play on words with the Chaka Khan song he's sampling, something he shows us further in the lyrics ‘Make music that's fire, spit my soul thru the wire’.
Throughout the song, West repeatedly references postmodern culture in his lyrics, with the opening lyric to the song referencing 2 drinks brands: ‘I drink a boost for breakfast, an ensure for dessert’. The song heavily references popular television culture, with the mention of Dynasty, MTV and ‘Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky’. The song also mentions the insurance company Geico and former toy store Toys R’ Us.
What West shows us on ‘Thru the Wire’ and throughout the album is the use of semiology, whether it be linguistically or visually. Visually, the album cover contains a picture of a teddy bear, a figure that features on Kanye’s next 2 albums all of which are part of an education based trilogy. This bear has become synonymous with Kanye because of its repeated use and link to his success. The linguistic semiology, however, comes from West’s use of metaphor to embody himself as a sign of hip hop culture throughout the album: ‘Saussure opened the way to analyzing culture… by proposing that structural linguistics was part of semiology, a general science of signs which studies the various systems of cultural conventions which enable human actions to signify meanings and hence become signs’ (Appignanesi and Garratt, 2007, pp. 64). The song ‘thru the wire’ provides the best metaphor to signify Kanye West as a person and musician with the lyric ‘But I’m a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph make music that's fire, spit my soul thru the wire’.
To conclude, the evidence given in this essay proves that Kanye West’s album ‘The College Dropout’ is undoubtedly one of hip hop and musics most significant albums due to its social and cultural impact, with progressive links to religion, race, class, education, postmodernism and technology.
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