VAULT: A letter from VAULT + Kanye West’s 'The College Dropout'

VAULT is a review series run by Ansel Wakamatsu (that’s me!). I’ll be checking out music, film and television, whether they be new releases or old favourites.

 

FOREWORD: Back in June, I messaged UTSoC's Publications Director, Cameron McCormack, to pitch an idea for The Comma. It was a weekly review series written by yours truly, tackling the latest and not-so-latest releases in music, TV and film.  

The dream turned into a reality; throughout the mid-semester break and the first two weeks of semester, I wrote a total of five articles and also produced one podcast. In VAULT’s future, I foresaw a growing audience. More and more contributors. Passionate opinion-sters busily typing away at their computers at my Silicon Valley home, whilst I wallow around in my boxers and my bath robe. My chimney being yanked off my roof because one of my contributors attached a zip-line to it. Trading in my best friend for Justin Timberlake. My now ex-best friend suing me for 600 million dollars. You know, the usual story.

 Unfortunately, pipe dreams are just pipe dreams. Soon after uni began, I realised something; I, too, must oil the cogs of the great machine we know as capitalism (shout out to my new employers, JB Hi-Fi). Also, I know trimester discourse is stale as two-week-old bread but…seriously, trimesters.

So VAULT took an extended hiatus due to my busyness (laziness), but I’m back for two weeks to finish this semester off strong. But before we get into it, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has supported me throughout this short endeavour. Specifically, I wanted to thank Cameron McCormack for making VAULT happen on The Comma, and also my girlfriend Amy Tong who acted as my editor/grammar-checker during the first half of VAULT’s lifetime. Also I wanted to thank anyone who had said kind words about my various articles.

 Below is the very first article I ever wrote for VAULT. It’s a review for Kanye’s debut album The College Dropout. It remained unpublished because right before I submitted it, Kanye came out with his Famous video, which I thought demanded some discussion. Subsequently, my first article became this one. Now things are wrapping up, I thought I would share this with ya’ll. Enjoy!

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2016 has been a big year for Kanye West. If this was any other review, this next sentence would detail all the outlandish happenings which had occurred in the past six months. However, I am supremely confident that innumerable publications have already covered Kanye’s antics, and thus I don’t feel the need to revisit them here. His endless supply of clickbait-friendly rants make for a fantastic spectacle, but I often find myself worrying that the spectacle detracts from the artistry. Hence, I have written this piece in the hopes that people who have dismissed him due to his perpetual controversies/feuds/meltdowns etc. can reconsider him as a musician and an artist (and not a PR nightmare on legs).

 

At first glance, Kanye’s 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, might seem like a strange choice for VAULT’s first ever review. It was a big deal at the time, peaking at number two on the Billboard charts and earning Kanye a number of Grammy’s including Best Rap Album. But it would be fair to say that the album’s influence has waned. Here’s the deal; this year, I want to bring attention to great new releases, but I also want to reach back into the past and pluck out oddities which may not be part of the current zeitgeist. Oddities like The College Dropout, which is easily my favourite Kanye album as it represents everything good about his music. It is sharp, smart, funny as hell, and even has some profound moments. If I had to prescribe an album to the Yeezy skeptics, The College Dropout might be it.

 

Kanye bursts out of the gate with eight tracks which begin and conclude the first half of the album. In the first track, ’We Don’t Care’, Kanye West spits verses about the detrimental effects of minimum wage and laments the closure of after-school programs; wait, is this really the same guy who proposed to Kim with a ninety-piece orchestra and a ring worth a cool $1.6 mil? (For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the video) The following song, ‘All Falls Down’, explores the nuanced relationship between poverty, materialism, and self-esteem issues. Built on wonderfully organic production, this cut may be one of the finest on the album. These two tracks, along with ‘Spaceship’, demonstrate Kanye’s potential for social commentary. His observations are sharp and idiosyncratic. Kanye does not opt for explosive and encompassing declarations about the state of race and class relations in the U.S.; instead, he prefers to flesh out autobiographical, sometimes even mundane, incidents which illuminate a world mired in systematic prejudices, compulsive spending, and financial hardship.

His treatment of religion on The College Dropout is also deeply engaging. In it’s no-holds-barred honesty, ‘Jesus Walks’ shares common ground with great tracks like ’No Parties In L.A.’ and ‘POWER’ in it’s ability to seamlessly combine menacing bravado with vulnerability. This track also features some of the best production on the record, with a brooding, muscular beat that showcases Kanye’s killer ear for percussion. ‘Jesus Walks’, along with J. Ivy’s verse from the following track ‘Never Let You Down’, demonstrates a lack of pretence when tackling the subject of God. Kanye is direct and open, and even relishes in his subversion of ‘coolness’ when he delivers the lines ‘They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?’. Listening to the first half of the album, one can assume Kanye West is an artist who doesn’t compromise. Herein lies the most fascinating trait of Kanye; the man is an auteur. His voice and vision rings clearly through the music he makes, for better or for worse.

Most great hip-hop revolves around autobiography, and The College Dropout is no different. Even now, Kanye opens himself up and let’s his audience access deeply personal areas of his life through his music. Take a gander at ‘Through The Wire’. It is one thing to write a song about a near-fatal car crash, but to record it while your broken jaw is still held together with wires? If that doesn’t sum up creative tenacity, I don’t know what does. Kanye passionately mumbles into the mic on the grooviest beat of the album, which heavily features a chipmunked version Chaka Khan’s ‘Through The Fire’. The crucial lines are ‘But I’m a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph/Make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire’. Born out of trauma, the song would eventually become Kanye’s first ever charting single and be responsible for kickstarting his career; if The College Dropout is an album about rags to riches, ‘Through The Wire’ is the centrepiece.

 

Am I claiming this is a perfect album? No way. Not even close. It’s way too long, and the second half comprises of a confounding mix of unnecessary fodder, numerous (although relatable) skits, and too many songs which proclaim ‘I made it!’, especially for a debut album. It also contradicts itself; Kanye tries to set himself up as a socially conscious rapper who doesn’t sing about ‘coke and birds’ but errs closer to ‘spoken word’ (‘Through The Wire’). If you listen to the second half of this record, it becomes apparent that this claim is pointedly untrue. But I forgive all of it’s shortcomings, because it is a project which renders the future as a blank, white canvas. The final line of the entire album is a question; Kanye brims with excitement as he wonders what lies ahead after successfully finding his feet in the mainstream music industry. The College Dropout is already conscious of it’s status as a non-magnum opus. Instead, we get the sense that things are just beginning. And with that, he dives headfirst into the zeitgeist; he has been making waves ever since.

 

Next week: My 10 Most Played Albums in 2016, As Recorded By last.fm Which Is Still A Totally Relevant Website, Guys

 

Ansel is a second-year undergrad studying Communication (Media Arts & Production and Creative Writing) and International Studies (Japan). He is an award-winning writer (NAPLAN English 2006, Distinction) and has recently completed his LMusA on air drums.