Best Album Ever: Kanye West's The College Dropout

Best Album Ever: Kanye West's The College Dropout
Courtesy of Def Jam

[Editor's Note: Best Album Ever is a column where critics talk about their favorite records and what was happening in their lives when they got into them.]

The Northern Tennessee breeze was crisp that December afternoon as I rode shotgun with my stepfather toward Hardee's when Twista's "Slow Jamz" came on the radio. What may seem like a pithy couplet from a guest on the song -- "She got a light skinned friend look like Michael Jackson, got a dark skinned friend look like Michael Jackson" -- nonetheless hooked me. At the tender age of 12, I was ready to join team Kanye West. But I wasn't yet truly moved by his gospel.

See also: Sorry, But Kanye Is the GOAT

In the summer of 2004 I moved from Clarksville, Tennessee to Fort Hood, Texas with my parents. The car was a maroon Nissan Sentra, and my stepdad was an Army man. I wasn't ready to leave yet another place and another set of friends.

For the majority of this trip it was just me and The College Dropout in the back seat. I listened to it non-stop partly because of the absolute boredom of the 12 hour drive, but mostly because it demanded my attention.

When we arrived in Fort Hood we spent a week in a hotel waiting for the military to issue us out little duplex. My 13th birthday, my onset of manhood, was also spent there, listening to The College Dropout ceaselessly. My "Hava Nagila" was "Get Em High."

West's deeply personal, witty and intelligent work stuck out during the height of 50 Cent's stardom and crunk's surge, and it's not a stretch to say The College Dropout gave me the courage to be an individual. As the new kid at school in the eighth grade I never really fit in. Fort Hood is America's largest military base, and we ended up in the neighboring town of Killeen, which has about 130,000 people, but not many offbeat characters like myself.

My interests, from the sartorial to the cultural, were different from the norm, which led to much mocking from classmates. Sadly, in a southern city of that size much of your identity is ascribed to ethnicity and race. The false dichotomy of talking, dressing, thinking and acting Black evaded me; after all, I never received the Handbook of Blackness in the mail. (Maybe it was sent to me the hotel?)


I saw myself in Kanye West -- his post-blackness, his malleability. He wasn't the caricature of thuggishness that my acquaintances aspired to be. He was merely a man that existed to make great art. The divergent nature of Kanye West's place in hip-hop resonated with me. I didn't want to be any ol' person in yet another town. Just like Kanye was adamant that he wasn't just any ol' rapper.

Kanye West was a guide through my adolescence -- through my parents' divorce at 16, through teenage heartbreak at 17 and leaving for college at 18.

The track "Spaceship" in particular helped get me through a number of low-paying-high-stress-jobs: A McDonald's inside of a Wal-Mart; a collections agency, at the height of the recession; a retail store with scarce hours, cheap clothes, and hellish Black Fridays; a chain restaurant with simple co-workers and heated managers.

I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit/ I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly, past the sky

I'd turn "Spaceship" on after a rough day at work and start musing.

I've watched Kanye West grow from the scrappy new kid in school to hopping in his metaphorical spaceship and becoming the astronaut cultural figure he is today. And I've always seen a bit of myself in Kanye: the drive, the uniqueness, the dreams of excellence. Call him egotistical -- call him whatever you want, really -- but he's my inspiration.

See also: Sorry, But Kanye Is the GOAT

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