Try to recall just how embattled hip-hop was just a decade ago. Starting at the end of the ‘90s and hitting a fever pitch by the mid-2000s, the story was that Puff Daddy and his shiny-suit shenanigans had made a mockery of real rap, while a then-burgeoning underground scene savvy enough to market itself as the stalwart alternative — never forget that king-making backpack-rap label Rawkus Records was started by Rupert Murdoch’s son! — was fighting the good fight for lyricism and social responsibility and all that good stuff.
But when Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout, arrived on February 11, 2004, it loudly announced what plenty of rap heads who preferred neither faction were already whispering to one another: Neither side’s got it right! The record revealed that hip-hop’s culture wars were fueled by the narcissism of small differences: It just took a true narcissist to call everybody out and bridge the gap. His production style? The over-the-top Michael Bay boom-bap of Puff himself mixed with the crate-digging classicism of Pete Rock-informed classicist beat-makers like J. Dilla. Declaring himself the “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack,” the visionary producer — and incredibly clever and charmingly clunky MC — seemed to get a sick thrill out of pairing, say, Mos Def with Freeway. (Because they sounded great together, but also because they secretly weren’t all that different.) He also got a then fairly impervious-on-record Jay-Z to do a goofy guffaw on the final track, threw a downright goofy AutoTune breakdown (in ’04, mind you) onto a track about female body image that took plenty of cheap shots at women’s bodies itself, and rapped about Jesus and middle-class struggles and blowjobs with equal aplomb.
To mark the 10th anniversary of The College Dropout, SPIN has asked a different writer to take on each track (grouped together with the skits where appropriate), affording this knotty record — one famous for skirting easy answers — the multifaceted, often contradictory celebration it deserves. Enjoy.