Interior, 11 AM, South-Side Chicago. The camera tracks into a small bedroom, the blinds are wonky and they let the late morning sun stream in sweaty to make the dust dance. Sounds of a busy street bustle into the sedentary room, it is messy but homely. There is a desk and a bed. The dregs of last night's coffee turn milky on the wooden surface alongside a college diploma repurposed as scribbled notes, a phone-book and an Akai MPC. Strewn across the floor are battered, second hand records whose cardboard dog-ears and peels: they are the kings and queens of soul - Aretha, Nina, Otis - and on the walls are posters of their prodigies: Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot, Outkast and Jay Z.
The light guides the camera to what it spotlights: the head of a felt, mascot bear. Its owner is snoring on a single bed, over-sized paws hanging pins-and-needles off the side. Pan up. And picture this. He dreams of music, but he has no idea of the power it will unlock. He has no idea about all of the lights that will be turned onto him, no idea about the things he will say and the things others will say about him. For now, he is just trying to give the kids something to sing. Wake up Mr. West.
THE COLLEGE DROPOUT sat for a long time on a demo tape. As Kanye West adorned beats for Jay Z with soul, he took any opportunity he could to stop and rap for him over songs that had been rejected for years. It was the height of the bling era and despite Kanye's affinity for jewelry and fashion, it was impossible to imagine the songs' creator wearing any chain unless a crucifix dangled from the end. Kanye was not Jay Z: Jay Z sold crack, Kanye worked at GAP.
But when he finally got signed, it was clear that his headstrong vision paid off. Nominated for countless Grammys and multi-platinum selling, THE COLLEGE DROPOUT offered gospel heralded anthems for the new generation of hip-hop, those that were scholars of the pioneers, who sat in bedrooms with the radio loud and excitedly observed the dawn of a genre that offered a voice for the people. They involved themselves as it etched its way into popular culture and themselves. And then Kanye decided to squeeze himself into its wave, needed to. But wouldn't announce himself quietly. Although it is decidedly 2000s (one only needs to listen to Slow Jamz again to hear that bouncy sheen and cheese), it is also an album that sees Kanye West proudly present himself as canon in hip-hop, as opposed to wildly attempting to stretch beyond and defy it as later in his career.
It is an irrefutably smooth album with weighted, springy drums that any protege of 'Dilla would chase and songs like All Falls Down and Jesus Walks hold that oak-y, neo-soul spin that Lauryn Hill and Biggie could tap into: songs that sound like rummaging through old record crates. It is also still very Kanye, also from Slow Jamz:
"She got a light-skin friend looking like Michael Jackson.
She got a dark-skin friend looking like... Michael Jackson."
His penchant for controversy and playful, middle-finger humour was evident even here from the very first track and perhaps that consistent self awareness is what has kept him relevant despite the characteristics of his music changing over and over again. Before his debut album, Kanye West had been pigeon-holed as a producer and he refused it, and now the space he occupied was only about to get wider. THE COLLEGE DROPOUT plays like a contrarian manifesto: anti-school, anti-establishment, anti-opinion, anti-category...