Versus: Kanye West

Versus is a series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In our second installment, we examine Kanye West’s debut The College Dropout and last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and we ask: which do you think is the better album?

The College Dropout (2004)

Innovating a genre defined by its well-established traditions is easier said than done. In hip-hop, MCs boast about “being the best,” but only handful of them live up to the expectations of quality records; not singles. In this respect, Kanye West is extraordinary. Here’s an artist who crosses the boundaries of the genre without succumbing to the prospects of mainstream methodologies or traditional beatmaking.

When Kanye West released The College Dropout in 2004, its immediacy was similar to Outkast’s Stankonia: there was nothing like it. Presenting himself as both rapper and producer, Kanye constructed a collection of songs that radiated themes of far-reaching aspirations vs. college education. It was epic in length, nearly 80 minutes long, filled with social commentary and political thought that sought to bring out the worst in a so-called “land of opportunity.” And its usage of skits was uncommonly intelligent, mocking the significance of college degrees and PhD’s through witty dialogue and sarcastic speeches.

Critics and fans alike also admired Kanye West The Social Protester: a rapper whose debut record wasn’t so much a collection of beats, but a fascinating study on the American dream.

“Man I promise, she’s so self conscious
She has no idea what she’s doing in college
That major that she majored in don’t make no money
But she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny”

The album’s fourth and best track, “All Falls Down,” might as well be considered the album’s centerpiece. Though the guitar-sampled beat ranks among Kanye’s best, it’s the “self conscious” lyrics that ends up capturing the spirit of the album as a whole. Like others, it dares to ask the question, “why go to college at all?” when the tools are right there and ready for you? Though Kanye illustrates himself as the typical boaster allover Dropout, (“Get ‘Em High,” “Breathe In Breathe Out”), he also portrays himself as something utterly unique: a nonconformist.

Unlike My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, The College Dropout puts political thought and social commentary over and above anything else – even more so than the rags-to-riches lifestyles that other rappers conventionally refer to. Instead of relying on the idea of being “hardcore,” Kanye created his own idiosyncratic identity by embracing the troubled society where rappers come from. In this respect, The College Dropout evoked innovative ideas than cliche motifs. Whereas a rapper like 50 Cent initiated his solo career with a single about the club, Kanye released “Through the Wire,” a soulful track that meditated on the harsh realities of a near-death experience. This wasn’t your average MC from the get-go.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy retains the careful attention of its predecessors, but The College Dropout stands out as Kanye’s bravest creation. Sure, Twisted Fantasy amounts to the rapper’s most emotionally-complex work to date – solidifying Kanye’s transformation as a tarnished soul – but Dropout forever raised the bar of what hip-hop albums can do. Like the classics before it, the album provided just as much intellect as it did sheer entertainment.

– Ryan Studer

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

If you’re an old-school hip-hop purist, I’ll probably never be able to sell you on Kanye West’s post-College Dropout work. There’s nothing to knock about that album – it holds up remarkably well seven years after its release, it showed that the man responsible for some classics from Jay-Z and others had actually been saving his best beats for himself the whole time, and it’s the most complete and enduring statement of purpose of any rap debut this century. But to hold it up as his best work in 2011 is to write off the idea that we’re witnessing one of the all-time great stretches for an artist – not just in hip-hop, but in any genre.

And that’s the key here. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the album on which Kanye became bigger than hip-hop. It shifted his peer group radically, to a place nobody from the rap world had ever ascended to. College Dropout and Late Registration are albums that people compare to other rap albums. His competition on Fantasy is Radiohead, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and U2. This is prog-rap, and seeing an album this ambitious in scope and execution achieve the commercial success that it did does a hell of a lot more to make me confident in the future of pop music than an album of straightforward hip-hop tracks that, while artistically unimpeachable, isn’t unprecedented.

This is why Watch the Throne, while containing moments of greatness, felt like a step back for Kanye. Throughout the album, it was apparent that Jay-Z needed this collaboration more than he did, even though Hov is generally considered an all-time top-five MC. Kanye’s walked that ground before. His production style defined a decade of commercial rap, and he’s shown himself to be more than competent on the microphone himself. He has absolutely nothing to prove as a hip-hop artist. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he recognizes this, aims about as high above his genre identity as humanly possible, and damn near gets everything right. The result is an album that music fans and musicians who for whatever reason still don’t take rap seriously as a genre might respect.

– Sean Highkin

Which of these two Kanye West albums do you most prefer? Drop us your vote in the comments below.