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‘College Dropout’ Fails to Astound

Kanye West Debut Falls Just Short of Greatness

By Philip Burrowes

College Dropout

Kanye West

Rocafella Records

Release Feb. 11

College Dropout” is one of those debuts that would be considered a flop if it didn’t do well immediately. This isn’t just because Kanye West has established himself in the past couple of years as the new hot producer for everyone from Alicia Keys to Britney Spears. After all, both of the Neptunes’ albums have been unimpressive sales-wise, and nobody seems to care. Nor is it because the album already has two singles -- “Slow Jamz” and “Through the Wire” -- on the Billboard Top 40. It’s not even because he’s an integral part of Rocafella Record’s post-Jay-Z rebuilding blueprint, if you will.

What makes this the album so heavily anticipated is that, in essence, it’s been out for over half a year. Although the track listing has changed substantially since it was revealed midway through 2003, the album has been floating around in some form since then. Its official incarnation thus has to convince longtime listeners that it’s worth a purchase, which would be difficult regardless in this peer-to-peer age. West himself has been positioning the album as the second-coming of “Tribe Called Quest,” only fueling the fire.

Most of the time he succeeds, avoiding both the self-aggrandizing rhetoric that seems to dominate rap and the reactionary superficially “conscious” rap that hip-pop haters tend to apotheosize. The album thus provides a wealth of entertaining cuts that actually prove even more entertaining upon closer listening. “All Falls Down,” for example, possesses both a genuine head-nodding background (produced by West, like the rest of the album), and a humorous satire of consumer culture among the poor. “We Don’t Care” does the same with the otherwise tired topic of drug dealing, while the oddly titled “Spaceship” mocks the mall-service sector. Best of all is “The New Workout Plan,” which toes the line between misogynistic treatise and lighthearted parody of gold-digging, mostly thanks to a superlatively infectious beat.

Surprisingly, the weaker songs are those featuring rap’s superstars. Jay-Z manages to call himself the Pope on “Never Let Me Down,” which I guess is a step down from J-Hova so maybe he’s mellowing in his old age. Talib Kweli and Common are incredibly uninspired on “Get Em High,” which is exactly what it sounds like. “Breathe in, Breathe Out” -- with Ludacris barking the refrain for some unknown reason -- is one of those songs that attempts to mitigate its generic big pimpin’ lyrics with an admission that the song isn’t as good as it could be. Mos Def and Freeway are the only guests to bring their A-game on “Two Words,” but either way that’s three tracks and four capable artists wasted.

On the flipside, “Jesus Walks” appears out of nowhere as a tribute to West’s supposed Savior. For Christian rap, it’s more than serviceable, but it doesn’t quite fit in with the theme of the album, whatever it might be. That’s the main problem with the album; every time it begins to flow as an earnest story about life in the underclass, it’s interrupted by a throwaway song or interlude. Although some of the interludes are pretty funny, they’re unnecessary filler for an album that would already be over an hour without them. Granted, a great deal of this time is the 12 minute, 40 second overextended obligatory acknowledgments, but anybody who liked West’s rambling in “Through the Wire” should enjoy it. (As an aside for the “Slow Jamz” fans in the audience, there’s about an extra minute of comedians-turned-crooners Jamie Foxx and Aisha Tyler exchanging entreaties.)

My personal peeve lies with the tracks that weren’t included, especially in light of how disappointing the “guest stars” were. “Home,” “Heavy Hitters,” and “My Way” are each superior songs, and the much heralded return of Dirt McGirt (a.k.a. Osiris a.k.a. Big Baby Jesus a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard) on “Keep the Receipt” was apparently never meant to be. In the end, “College Dropout” falls short of the hype not because of West’s heretofore suspect skills; indeed, he proved a more entertaining emcee than producer on some songs. Rather, he did not rely on himself nearly enough.