It is hard to believe it, but Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout is celebrating its 13th anniversary. Released on February 10, 2004, the world is still feeling the aftershocks of West’s sonic earthquake, one that forever transformed and altered the course of hip-hop music and culture.
We knew we had to celebrate its birthday, but we were at something of a loss on just how to do it. Ranking its songs seemed impossible. How could one possibly begin to choose a winner from a showdown between something like “Jesus Walks” and “Through the Wire”? Charting the album’s subsequent influence could sustain a university syllabus, let alone a listicle, and the story behind its creation is gospel to anyone remotely familiar with West’s story.
So we turned to what immediately jumps to mind whenever we reminisce about this masterpiece: it’s fantastic lyrics. From verbal dexterity to intimate storytelling to laugh-out-loud non-sequiters, Kanye juggles all with ease. So here they are, our 13 favorite lyrics from The College Dropout.
13. “The New Workout Plan”
That’s right put in work, move your ass, go wizzerk
Eat your salad, no dessert
Get that man you deserve
It’s Kanye’s workout plan
As the finale to the silliest song on the album, the oft-repeated closing mantra of “The New Workout Plan” is a perfect summation of the absurdity that precedes it. And the image of Kanye chanting this like some sort of rap game Jane Fonda is second to none.
12. “Through the Wire”
And just imagine how my girl feel
On the plane, scared as hell that her guy look like Emmett Till
Kanye says himself at other points on this album how, unlike most rappers, he is weaving the saga of the black experience and the history of civil rights into his work. This reference is one that would easily slip past those unfamiliar with it, but his devastating comparison to the brutal murder of Emmett Till to his own severe injury serves not to equate their respective experiences but to reintroduce the story of Till to a whole new generation.
11. “Never Let Me Down”
But I can’t complain what the accident did to my left eye
’cause look what an accident did to Left Eye
First Aaliyah, now Romeo must die
I know I got angels watchin’ me from the other side
Anyone with ears was clued into the fact that Kanye is deeply religious through the benediction of “Jesus Walks,” but this stanza of pure poetry from “Never Let Me Down” is able to convey his spirituality along with shouting out the legends of hip-hop that became angels far too soon, all thanks to his own close scrape with death.
10. “The New Workout Plan”
Give head, stop breathe, get up, check your weave
Don’t drop the blunt and disrespect the weed
Pick up your son and don’t disrespect your seed
The above three lines are a perfect exercise in just how many disparate notions Kanye can cram into a brief handful of seconds. It combines a few of the raunchier steps in his workout plan, his love for marijuana and the importance of commitment in childcare in a single rhyme scheme. It’s economical, to say the least.
9. “Family Business”
I’m talkin’ ’bout three by the head and three by the leg
But you ain’t have to tell my girl I used to pee in the bed
Much has been written about the revolutionary ways in which Kanye set the standard for rappers to exchange braggadocio for intimate family stories with this record. And is there a more intimate family story one could share over a beat than recalling a family member telling your girlfriend you were a bed-wetter? Say what you will about Kanye, but it takes guts to put something like that on record.
8. “Jesus Walks”
They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played
“Jesus Walks” was a truly monumentous moment in pop culture, and a great deal of its ubiquity came from its overtly controversial nature. Even as the country was nearing the end of the first, inherently conservative Bush administration, it was still shocking to hear a rapper invoke the name of our Lord on Top 40 radio. Kanye, being Kanye, inevitably got his way, and rap would never be the same.
7. “School Spirit”
I’mma get on this TV, mama
I’mma, I’mma put shit down
I’mma make sure these light-skinned n*ggas
Never, ever, never come back in style
The lyrics so nice he used them twice! It says something that Kanye would recycle these lyrics verbatim a few year later in the song “Good Life” from his third album Graduation, and it’s easy to see why. It makes bare his devotion to his mother, his ambition for the spotlight and his fierce black pride, three characteristics he only continues to explore.
6. “Two Words”
Two words, Chi town, raised me, crazy
So I live by two words, “F*ck you, pay me”
“F*ck you, pay me” is in fact four, not two, words. But aside from that jibe, this lyric doesn’t require much explanation, does it?
5. “Jesus Walks”
We eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!”
Huh! Y’all eat pieces of shit?
At this point in his career, it is clear that the films of Adam Sandler are among Kanye’s most profound influences. But it all started here, with an explicit quotation of a joke from Sandler’s 1998 golf comedy Happy Gilmore. Because come on, what else would nerdy little Kanye West making tapes of beats at home have been watching?
4. “All Falls Down”
Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter A-lexus
Easily the great single line on this album, it also stands as a career-best in puns for Mr. West. And all of it delivered as an insult to the heroine of the song “All Falls Down.” Car jokes are clearly Kanye’s forte.
3. “Breathe In, Breathe Out”
Now even though I went to college and dropped out of school quick
I always had a Ph.D.: a Pretty Huge Dick
As far as dick jokes go, this one is about as smart as it gets. Ph.D level, one might say. And bonus points for (almost) shouting out the album title.
2. “Jesus Walks”
I’m just trying to say the way school need teachers
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis that’s the way I need Jesus
Clever rhyming aside, only someone with Kanye’s uniquely niche pop culture orientation would come up with something as audacious as this. He is very clearly a religious man, but how seriously can we take his Christianity knowing that he compares his beliefs to the way in which the much-maligned Kathie Lee needed her daytime-television co-host? Is this sanctimonious or sacrilegious? Crude or inspired? The answer is, clearly, all the above.
1. “Slow Jamz”
She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson
Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson
This couplet is nothing short of pure genius. It is both a stupid joke and a highly-intelligent one. It both admires and lampoons his childhood idol, and it does so with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It is a line so whimsical that Kanye knew he had to include his own barely-suppressed laughter on the master recording. Because it is simply that good.
Stream The College Dropout in full below via Spotify:
For more of our music lists, check out our ranking of every single song in The xx’s catalogue right here.