Like every hip-hop album (even the great ones), Kanye West’s The College Dropout is marred by too many guest artists, too many interludes, and just too many songs period. (I challenge every hip-hop artist working today to record just one album with 12 tracks or less—no skits, no guests, no filler.) Dropout also suffers from an affliction specific to West: It’s no secret that hip-hop is less a single genre than it is one giant cultural pastiche of social observations, exploitations, and appropriations, but musically West’s album is like a hyper-caffeinated cocktail with a few too many sped-up samples that are the musical equivalent of an episode of The Gilmore Girls; Aretha, Chaka, and Marvin just shouldn’t be played at the wrong speed—spinning a 33 at 45 does not render a sample original. That’s not to say West’s choice in samples (homage, if you will) don’t make for some giddy pleasures, and his ability to conjure the past while still sounding distinctly modern is unmatched (see his recent work on Alicia Keys’s “You Don’t Know My Name” and his upcoming single with Brandy). The producer-turned-MC also proves he can flow with the best of them—and he literally does on tracks like “Get Em High” and “Never Let Me Down,” which feature Common and Jay-Z, respectively. “All Falls Down” makes the sad and startling, though not wholly new-fangled, observation that capitalism is both the black man’s salvation and slavemaster (“We buy our way out of jail but we can’t buy freedom”), but West makes no attempt to mask his contradictions (College Dropout t-shirts are for sale on the back cover of the CD). The track borrows from Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged tune “Mystery Of Iniquity,” and West follows in the former Fugee’s path in more ways than one, but unlike Hill, West is in a constant battle with hypocrisy. On “Breathe In Breathe Out,” he boldly declares, “Always said if I rapped I’d say somethin’ significant/But now I’m rappin’ bout money, hoes, and rims again.” Still, shouldn’t this very act of self-examination—or, at least, acknowledgement—be considered “somethin’ significant”? As chest-beatingly self-congratulatory as it may be, The College Dropout is at once laugh-out-loud funny (“The New Workout Plan”), genuinely touching (“Family Business”), and brutally honest (“All Falls Down”). As college degrees slowly become obsolete, the album’s theme is sadly true, but a series of interludes make West just sound bitter and lazy. Seriously, who needs college when you can simply follow in West’s lead and become a multi-platinum powerhouse? Then you can buy a Benz for your girlfriend, too!
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