Album: Kanye West

The College Dropout, Roc-A-Fella
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The Independent Culture

Two years ago, Kanye West was starting to make waves in hip-hop circles, primarily as the producer of Ludacris. He had even made the first, tentative step into mainstream pop, with a production credit for Britney Spears. Though essentially a backroom boffin, he started to live the life of bling: the plush car, the smart clothes, the brandy-fuelled nightlife. And then, one night in 2002, it all came to a halt, when he crashed his car and found himself hooked up to a drip in "the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died".

At the time, he had been trying to secure a deal of his own as a rapper/producer, and the publicity surrounding his accident helped to pique A&R interest. "It's funny how there wasn't nobody was interested," he notes, "till the night I almost killed myself in my Lexus." The first single from his debut album for Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella label, an account of his tribulations called "Through the Wire", was recorded mere weeks after the accident, while West's mouth was still wired shut.

Though the track is hardly typical of the material on The College Dropout, the close brush with mortality seems to have made him reassess his priorities, resulting in a fresh, frank outlook on the hip-hop lifestyle and black culture in general. A college dropout, West has a somewhat jaundiced attitude to the benefits of staying in school, sardonically noting, in "School Spirit", how black graduates still face a higher-than-average chance of ending up working at The Gap or waiting on tables.

He develops the theme further in "All Falls Down", focusing on the plight of a "single black female addicted to retail", who "has no idea what she doin' in college/ That major that she major in don't make no money", coming eventually to the conclusion that the materialist urge is a large part of the problem, and condemning the "things we buy to cover up what's inside/ 'Cause they made us hate ourself and love they wealth." Clearly, however much West disdains higher education, he has managed to pick up the rudiments of Marxism from somewhere.

It's not all social commentary on The College Dropout. Despite his noble aspirations, West is prey to the sensual desires that fuel most twentysomething rappers, and his guilt is made more painful by his Christianity. "I want to talk to God, but I'm afraid/ 'Cause we ain't spoke for so long," he frets, frustrated that if he raps about God rather than the usual hip-hop-outlaw staples, his record won't be played on the radio. Not that God is the only one pricking his conscience here: at one point, he chastises himself for "rappin' about money, hos and rims again", and feels he ought to apologise to Talib Kweli and Mos Def, both of whom appear as guests on the album, along with Common, Jay-Z and Ludacris. For gangsta and "conscious" rapper alike, peer pressure clearly remains a significant motivating force in hip hop.