"I'mma Get On That TV, Mama": Kanye West's 'The College Dropout' Turns 15
A look at the inspiration behind the album from the people who lived it.
Today marks the 15th anniversary of a seminal piece of Chicago music history. The College Dropout, the 2004 debut album from Kanye West exposed the producer-turned-rapper to a new audience. Backed with a strong co-sign from his Roc-A-Fella bosses, Jay-Z and Damon Dash, the record went on to sell more than 400K records in its first week.
The College Dropout has amassed 3.3 million copies in the U.S. (still his best-selling album overall) and propelled West to international acclaim. The nuts-and-bolts story of the College Dropout's creation has been told (one can create a pretty exhaustive oral history of the album simply by piecing together Billboard and Complex’s 2014 pieces). This aims to shine light on the larger cultural factors that went into the album’s creation, from themes to local impact. Along the way, we’ll feature quote from people who were around Chicago and West at the time, as well as words from West himself.
“Never think that I'm not from Chicago for one second”
Kanye West's story is one that cannot be extracted from the cultural story of black America. He's the direct product of slavery and its effects (despite his best efforts to "evolve" us into a new line of thinking) ofnorthern migration, the policies of Jim Crow, soul music, and educated black Americans reaching middle-class wealth for the first time in history. Add to that the complex legacy of Chicago, a city and culture West describes in unflinching detail in a must-read interview from 2002:
“In Chicago you’re going to do one of three things. You’re either going to be sports—straight basketball or football—or you’re going to be hip-hop, like really focus on hip-hop and the culture—or you going to be gangbanging. You might be doing all this and gang-banging at the same time because 99 percent of people in Chicago is gangbanging. We was gangbanging in kindergarten. We was on the school bus throwing up gang signs like, 'Which gang sign was which again?' Perpetrating and shit. Moving our hats to the whatever side, and when the Starter coats came out, 'I’ma get the Bulls and I’ma do this, this, this.' And if you wasn’t none of that, you was just a fucking lame and shit. That’s how Chicago is. This gangbanging shit is so real that you not going to front whatsoever. Once you grown and you see niggas getting their heads chopped off and you going to funerals, you either going to take it to the fullest or you going to be like, 'Nah, it’s not for me.' I know it’s not for me. I know that. So basically, my main focus became music.”
When John Monopoly, Kanye's manager at the time, met him in 1991, Ye was rapping in a group called State of Mind and producing at the time. "I was a producer too, and we connected through that. I started managing him off and on from 1993 through 2008," he told Red Eye Chicago in 2014. "There was a crew outta Chicago named Dem Dere. Those guys heavily influenced 'Ye's style. It was a group of fly creatives that were doing progressive stuff in the hip-hop space. It was a dude named Twilite Tone [Common's DJ], a guy named ReggieKnow [Reginald Jolley, the guy behind those Sprite hip-hop commercials in the early '90s], this dancer named Klato and some other guys. They really influenced all of us, especially Kanye. He showed them love by taking their influence and putting his own style on it.”
Monopoly went on to manage West again in 2018, which he recounts in a recent interview with ItsTheReal, but 15 years ago, the two set out to change the Chicago hip-hop scene. Fake Shore Drive's Andrew Barber spent a lot of time with 'Ye's early production and his mixtapes, Get Well Soon and I'm Good."Kanye was still very much an internet thing at the time, even in its primitive stages compared to today," Barber says. "I'd scour Kazaa and Limewire looking for any loosies or unreleased joints I could find. In the various Roc-A-Fella album insert ads, they'd always have The College Dropout listed with that famous picture of Kanye and the Louis backpack, but it was always like the smallest ad of the bunch. I really didn't think it would ever come out, just based on the lack of promotion he'd received from the label up until that point."
When Kanye's debut single, "Through The Wire," was serviced to BET, MTV, and a number of radio stations in Chicago, it created a buzz almost instantenously. "It resonated with people for whatever reason," Barber says. "And once I found out he'd spent his own money to promote it, shoot the video, and service it to radio; I was really cheering him on. Everything lined up perfectly. Then I started seeing posters for The College Dropout all over Chicago—it was the art that Kanye had hand drawn himself. It so unique compared to what everyone else was doing at the time, and I think people were drawn to that. Promotion started to pick up, and a few months later both he and Twista exploded with 'Slow Jamz.' The song went No. 1 and the rest was history. It was a beautiful thing to witness as a fan who hadn't yet entered the industry. The music, especially 'Last Call' really pushed me to follow my dreams of working in the music industry. That album for sure changed my life, and is still my favorite Kanye project to date."
Why do we care about this album 15 years later? What connected with the audience then? Some will tell you it's the album's subject material—despite containing the very same sophomoric bars that would be roundly criticized in West's later works—that focused on universal themes like ambition. Not to be outdone, the production style of The College Dropout is a signature masterclass in West's oft-imitated yet never truly duplicated sound.
Those factors added to legend of The College Dropout legend but a large reason we still talk about it rests with the album's ability to represent the American middle-class psyche, depending on if your psychological studies begin and end with Freud. The id, with its primitive instincts for sex and power, the super-ego’s moral conscience, and the ego just trying to mediate the two and keep people dancing at the same time.
West himself understood the psyche more than anyone. In a 2003 FADER cover story, West lays out exactly why The College Dropout resonated with audiences and still does to this day: "I get to represent somebody I don't think is getting represented right now," West said. "The regular dude: the guy who believes in God but still likes pussy. You know what I mean? The person that would spend his last [dollar] to try to get a hot car, not the person who says 'Oh, we don't buy, we just lease' or the person who's like 'Oh, I have so many cars I could crash a car every day' and shit."
In his New York Times review of College Dropout, Kelefa Sanneh wrote a foreboding conclusion: “If the album is a success, Mr. West may have to brush some of those chips off his shoulder and adjust to life as a front-runner, not an underdog. O.K., he got even. Now what?”
Since then, we’ve gotten a glimpse at the answer.
Nine albums (seven solo and two collaborations), a family that’s easily one of the most famous on Earth, millions of sales, and global stardom. Regardless of what the man says or does currently, there is a definite value to be gained from the factors that created him and how he got to the position where we're even paying attention to him in the first place.
America makes Kanye Wests every single day and examining why that happened as well as how his music impacted others should serve as inspiration for creatives to come. Kanye West might not ever make another album as good as College Dropout, but the fact that we got it in the first place is worthy of celebration.
Stream Kanye West's The College Dropout on all services now.