Some great albums take their time to creep up on you. Kanye West's The College Dropout is not one of them. From note one, Dropout comes on stronger than a Broadway musical, with instant melodies, taut story lines, sped-up vocal loops, manic violin solos, multiple gospel choirs and a lead character so desperate to narrate his rhymes-to-riches story that, a few weeks after he nearly dies in a car wreck, he grabs a mike and raps about having his jaw wired shut while it's still wired shut.
That character, of course, is West, 27, and the urgency of his desire to be well known and extravagantly paid is not what makes him unique. Nor is the fact that as a producer, he's tops in his field, having churned out dozens of hits for people like Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. What elevates West is the influence of his medium (when Iraqi kids are scrambling for 50 Cent posters, does anyone doubt that hip-hop is the language of global youth?) as well as the complexity of his message. The song Jesus Walks mixes spirituality with skepticism and rap with gospel; Spaceship, about working at the Gap, has flashes of humor (when West is conveniently trotted out for black customers) and moments of petulance (he compares the store to a slave ship); All Falls Down calls out the "single black female addicted to retail," while West himself covets anything that shines.
The contradictions are so obvious that even West can't shy away from them which is precisely the point. By baring his flaws and being self-critical and daring his listeners to do the same West makes message music you can dance to. The last artist to pull off the trick as successfully was Lauryn Hill, way back in 1998. Word is she's working on a follow-up. You'll never guess who's producing.
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