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Picture this: the year is 2002. Kanye West's name, as well as the sample-based hits he's been churning out for JAY-Z and others, are buzzing throughout the rap world. The Chicagoan who went from learning the industry ropes from Deric D-Dot Angelettie (of Mad Rapper fame) to being one of the go-to in-house producers at one of the hottest labels in the game has made his arrival. He's a few months away from earning his first major credit as a rap artist with his appearance on "The Bounce," a track from Hov's The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse album. Then, tragedy occurs, forever altering the course of his life.
Most rap fans are well-versed in the story by now. The talented super-producer wrecks his Mercedes Benz in a car accident in Los Angeles and nearly loses his life, only to go on to pursue a rap career and find fame and fortune. Bad night, right place, wrong time. In the blink of a eye, his whole life changed. Those were the words West spat into a microphone weeks after leaving the hospital -- with his jaw swollen and wired shut. The song was "Through The Wire," a single the producer would release and foot the bill for the accompanying music video himself.
The song would catch fire, peaking at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spurring West's induction into the Roc-A-Fella Records family. His debut album, The College Dropout, hit shelves on February 10, 2004 and marked a new day for rap. Meshing the socially conscious undertones of The Native Tongues with the glitz and glamour of the shiny suit era, and the backpacker sensibilities of the Rawkus movement, West presented an amalgam of all things we had come to know and love about hip hop. His career has come with many milestones, peaks and valleys. But, his debut marks the genesis of a true vanguard finding his footing and spreading his wings.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the album that helped shift the playing field in hip hop and birthed an icon, here's a breakdown of The College Dropout, track-by-track. How did your favorite songs measure up?
14. "Breath In, Breath Out"
Even the greatest of albums have their pedestrian moments and this horn-heavy affair happens to be The College Dropout's sore thumb. West's trio of verses are serviceable and include the occasional highlight. But, Luda's hook-work leaves much to be desired, resulting in a lackluster collaboration.
13. "The New Workout Plan"
West gives women a tutorial on how to pull a baller on this frenetic cut, which includes live strings by violinist Miri Ben-Ari and additional vocals from Sumeke Rainey, John Legend and Bosko. The most polarizing offering on the album, this playful tune borders on being sophomoric. But, its positive qualities outweigh the bad.
12. "We Don't Care"
The first selection on The College Dropout, this upbeat salvo opens the album on an exuberant and inspirational note with West giving a P.S.A. to those caught in the struggle of poverty. Featuring background vocals from Keisha Cole, John Legend, and Riccarda Watkins; this song boasts a triumphant vibe and has lyrics filled with words of wisdom.
11. "School Spirit"
Aretha Franklin's vocals from "Spirit In The Dark" get sped-up to a chipmunk pitch on this deep cut, which finds Yeezy basking in his success in spite of not having a college degree. While the track includes nods to various black fraternities and sororities, the content doesn't paint higher education in a particularly flattering light, West's artistic genius aside.
10. "Slow Jamz"
West gave fellow Chi-Town native Twista the ultimate alley-oop with this soulful radio smash, which features a scene-stealing appearance from comedian-turned-R&B singer Jamie Foxx. Different from the radio-edit featured on Twista's Kamikaze, this version includes additional verses from Foxx, and guest vocals from R&B singer Tracie Spencer. Name-checking multiple legendary R&B acts from the '70s and '80s over a soulful sample of "A House Is Not a Home" by Luther Vandross, the trio scored their first chart-topping single as artists with this infectious banger.
Marvin Gaye's haunting wails are matched with percussion on this melancholy dedicated to those grinding the night-shift, legal or otherwise. Accompanied by G.O.O.D. Music affiliates GLC and Consequence, West's opening stanza, which paints a scene of a disgruntled employee, is as visceral as it is relatable.
8. "Get Em High"
Mr. West initiates a cypher with like-minded lyricists Talib Kweli and Common on this free-wheeling selection. Testing his mettle against two of the most respected MCs in the game, West delivers a spirited performance, while his costars round out the proceedings on this rollicking collab.
7. "Never Let Me Down"
Of all of the guest spots on West's debut, JAY-Z's presence on this intense duet was the most anticipated by far, and finds the two pillars of Roc-A-Fella exchanging poignant rhyme spills. Reflecting on racial tensions, economic disparity, the prospect of marriage and his near-fatal car accident; West puts forth his most lyrically dense performance by going toe-to-toe and evoking a masterful closeout verse from the God MC.
6. "Family Business"
Matters close to home are addressed on this solemn selection, which finds West touching on turmoil within his family and reminiscing on simpler times. Rhyming over a piano-driven backdrop, West comes through with a heartfelt offering that resonates with listeners unlike any song on the album, making it one of the premier selections on this landmark debut.
5. "Jesus Walks"
Religion is a topic that has been broached in rap long before the arrival of West. But, his ability to turn such a polarizing subject into an anthem was unprecedented. And that's what he accomplished with this song geared towards Christianity, which dominated radio in 2004. The fourth single released from the album, it peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned Yeezy the Grammy award for Best Rap Song in 2005. Sampling "Walk With Me" from The Arc Choir for the track's hook, The Louis Vuitton Don got theological with this groundbreaking salvo.
4. "Through The Wire"
The song that started it all. There's hunger and perseverance. Then, there's rapping with your jaw wired shut with such a passion that it wins over the hip hop community. Flipping a sample of Chaka Khan's 1985 hit "Through The Fire," the Chicago soul man hooks up the riff with tumbling percussion to create the backdrop where he recounts his traumatic experience. Reaching No. 15 on the Billboard 200, this impassioned salvo is an essential inclusion on The College Dropout and one of the greatest true-to-life stories ever put on wax.
3. "All Falls Down"
Syleena Johnson lends her nimble vocals to this guitar-driven single, which finds West telling a tale of a woman going through a midlife crisis, as well as his own ill-rooted materialism. Built around an interpolation of Lauryn Hill's "The Mystery of Iniquity" and amplified with kicks and snares, this track scored the rapper his first Top 10 hit as a lead-artist in the U.S. It also received a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2005 Grammys. From the accompanying music video to the lyrical content, this song captures the Kanye West that fans first fell in love with.
2. "Two Words"
West cooks up a hard-boiled backdrop with this production, which is further bolstered with strings by Miri Ben-Ari and backing vocals from The Boys Choir of Harlem. Yaasin Bey -- then, known as Mos Def -- leads off the proceedings with an opening sixteen that stands as a call to arms for the disenfranchised. West reps for the Windy City and uses his airtime as an opportunity to take a victory lap, while Freeway swoops in with an electric stanza of his own. From the orchestral factor of the instrumental to the soul-stirring performance by The Boys Choir of Harlem, this album standout is boom-bap on steroids and a quintessential deep cut from West's catalogue.
1. "Last Call"
One of the most important aspects of crafting a debut album is closing it out effectively and West exceeded all expectations with this monumental exit stage left. Following an intro by JAY-Z, the Chi-Town underdog spouts off a string of couplets that are dynamic and rife with musings that revels his overnight success. Recounting his come-up from a struggling boardsman to rap's man of the moment -- and the perseverance that underscored his journey -- Yeezy captures the hearts of listeners with an impassioned speech. Giving a step-by-step account of his rise to glory, "Last Call" encapsulates the essence of who West is as a creative and why we came to champion him as the people's champ fifteen years ago.
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