Editor's Note: This story originally ran in February 2014 for the 10-year anniversary of College Dropout.
Some lines will be well known, others I just grew to truly appreciate after really listening to them, even a decade or so after I first memorized them. And I'm skipping all the skits because I can't literally devote my entire life to this; songs only.
Alright, let's put on some Ready for the World and get ready for some action.
"We Don't Care"
You know the kids gon' act a fool / When you stop the programs for after-school / And they DCFS, some of em dyslexic / They favorite 50-Cent song '12 Questions'
Really just everything we love about a 'Ye rap in four lines. There's some serious commentary about a racist educational system that fails Black youth, closed out by a pretty good dyslexic "21 Questions" joke. And for the record, if you don't know and/or are too lazy to Google it, DCFS = Dept. of Child and Family Services.
"All Falls Down"
It seems we living the American dream / But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem / The prettiest people do the ugliest things / For the road to riches and diamond rings / We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us / We trying to buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper, look how low we a stoop / Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe
It's kind of crazy to hear this verse now; it pretty much describes 2014 Kanye West perfectly. For all the talk that he changed, and considering everything he has said in recent "rants," he already said a decade earlier much more powerfully. Only now he's married to one of the prettiest people who's done almost everything for the road to riches and diamond rings.
"Couldn't afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis [A Lexus]"
This has to be in there for best line on the album too—at least it's the one that really stuck in my head.
Lock yourself in a room doing 5 beats a day for 3 summers / That's a Different World like Cree Summer's / I deserve to do these numbers / "The kid that made that deserves that Maybach!"
The five beats a day for three summers line has become a classic, but honestly, until just now, I never really bothered to look into Cree Summers. What can I say, I just wasn't really in the "A Different World" demographic growing up. Also, worth noting that Kanye went from deserving a Maybach to trashing one in a video.
And having one of my co-workers say "Yo, you look just like / This kid I seen in an old Busta Rhymes video the other night"
And another thing I never bothered to really look into: I always just heard that line and thought, "Oh, clearly Consequence was in a Busta Rhymes video," but which one? The internet says "Woo Ha," but I can't seem to spot him. Who out there can actually place Cons in a Busta Rhymes video?
They be asking us questions, harass and arrest us / Saying "we eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast" / Huh? Y'all eat pieces of shit? What's the basis?
No rapper has ever transitioned so smoothly from talking about police brutality to "Happy Gilmore" jokes, which he also does with the "The way Kathie Lee needed Regus, that's the way I need Jesus" line. Feeling pretty old right now realizing anyone who hears that line now probably has no fucking idea who Kathie Lee is. Let's move on...
"Never Let Me Down"
Nothing sad as that day my girl's father passed away / So I promised to Mr. Rainey I'm gonna marry your daughter / And you know I gotta thank you for the way that she was brought up / And I know that you were smiling when you see the car I bought her
Actually what had happened was....I broke up with your daughter Mr. Rainey, and then I fucked this bald chick for a while, and then I married this other girl who was in a Ray J sex tape. This has to go down in the Well-Intentioned At The Time But Would Later Turn Out to Be Completely Wrong Rap Lines Hall of Fame, along with Jay's "not for nothing, never happen, I be forever mackin." And speaking of which, how dope is Jay's verse here? This is why I can't take anyone who thinks his verse on "Pound Cake" was anything less than wack seriously.
"Get 'Em High"
N-n-n-n-n-now who the hell is this / E-mailing me at 11:26? / Telling me that she 36-26, plus double-d / You know how girls on Black Planet be when they get bubbly / At NYU but she hail from Kansas / Right now she just lamping, chilling on campus / Sent me a picture with a feelin' on Candice / Who said her favorite rapper was the late great Francis / W-H-I-T-E, it's getting late mami / Your screen saver say tweet, so you got to "call me"
Really just a fantastic and hilarious verse on so many levels. First off, these technology references are great. We get an email—with a pic attached, sexting didn't exist yet—Black Planet and a screen save nod. PLUS, it's a nod to a time when Ye could have conceivably used Talib Kweli to get women, PLUS what's going on Tweet? Call me.
Just good times all around.
"The New Workout Plan"
Um.....you know, I'm not mad at "Workout Plan" at all, it's a pretty good times jam made for radio, it's funny in its own way, but....really thinking about it, I don't know if there are really any lines worth highlighting here. The SARS reference? "Thank you, God Bless, good night, I came"? They can't all be worthy of a breakdown. Let's get to the slow jamsz.
She be grabbing / Calling me Biggie like Shyne home
Let's be honest. At first, I was a little embarrassed to admit I don't really understand this line, but then I threw it out on Twitter and it turns out no one actually understands it, so I feel a little better about myself. Yes, I get that she's grabbing his wang, and it's big, so she's calling him Biggie. And ok, Shyne sounds enough like Biggie that people made fun of him for it. But how are those two things LIKE each other? Why is she calling him Biggie like Shyne home? What does Shyne being home or in prison have to do with anything?
As close as I can figure out, a literal translation of this line would be something like, "She be grabbing, calling me Biggie...and also, on a related note, remember how people thought Biggie and Shyne sounded alike? Shyne's in jail right now." If you can actually explain that line to me, I'd love to know it.
She got a light skinned friend look like Michael Jackson / Got a dark skinned friend look like Michael Jackson
Could this be the best-known line on the entire album? It has to be up there.
"Breathe In, Breathe Out"
Golly, more of that bullshit ice rap / I got to 'pologize to Mos and Kweli / But is it cool to rap about gold If I told the world I copped it from Ghana and Mali? / First nigga with a Benz and a backpack
Like "All Falls Down," this is one of those verses that means even more when you look at where Kanye is at now. In fact, I'd argue that "Benz and a backpack" sums up every contradiction and inconsistency and complication in Ye's music, from College Dropout to Yeezus.
Now even though I went to college and dropped out of school quick / I always had a Ph.D.: a Pretty Huge Dick
I have to give credit where credit is due, I dropped out of college (for real) and used this line repeatedly when asked why. Closing note, in retrospect how disappointing is it that we didn't get a full verse from Luda on this? He was at the height of his powers here, that could have really taken things to the next level.
Crack my head on the steering wheel and I ain't even dead / If I could go through all that and still be breathing / Bitch bend over, I'm here for a reason
One of those lines that I didn't really notice in all the times I've listened, but looking more closely; goddamn, that might actually be one of the rawest, most fucked up lines Ye's ever spit. Otherwise, like "Workout Plan" this is one of those songs I enjoy, but just doesn't make much of a lyrical impact.
So I live by two words: "fuck you, pay me"
Real hip-hop heads know that, along with the "A Lexus" line and the "light skin/dark skin Michael Jackson" line, this is one of the album's most memorable. In summation, Mos Def absolutely nails the concept because, surprise, Mos is was an incredible emcee. Kanye pretty much nails it, and Freeway doesn't really bother with it (calling himself "slightly retarded" in the process). So how about we close by paying tribute to the brilliance of Mos?
Two words, United States, no love, no breaks / Low brow, high stakes, crack smoke, black folks / Big Macs, fat folks, ecstasy capsules / Presidential scandals, everybody move
"Through the Wire"
There's been an accident like GEICO / They thought I was burnt up like Pepsi did Michael
This is exactly why I wanted to do this lyrical breakdown. Maybe it's just because I'm so familiar with it, and it's hard to truly appreciate something you're so familiar with, but lyrically this song is just amazing. A perfect blend of punchlines and emotion and serious shit. Really, if you haven't lately, I recommend going back and (re)reading all the lyrics. On a closing note:
In the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died
I might have to do a full story on Cedar Sinai hospital in L.A. Biggie died there, Kanye had his accident there, Pimp C died there, Kanye's baby North was born there and, perhaps most importantly, I had my appendix removed there.
This is family business / And this is for the family that can't be with us / And this is for my cousin locked down, know the answer's in us / That's why I spit it in my songs so sweet / Like a photo of your granny's picture / Now that you're gone it hit us / Super hard on Thankgiving and Christmas, this can't be right / Yeah you heard the track I did man, This Can't Be Life / Somebody please say grace so I can save face / And have a reason to cover my face / I even made you a plate, soul food, know how Granny do it / Monkey bread on the side, know how the family do it / When I brought it why the guard have to look all through it? / As kids we used to laugh / Who knew that life would move this fast? / Who knew I'd have to look at you through a glass? / And look, tell me you ain't did it then you ain't did it / And if you did, then that's family business
I was going to just pick and choose lines from this song, but now that I'm really going over it, goddamn this whole verse is ill. As in "I don't really see this verse get brought up in the Best Kanye Verses discussions, but now it might actually get my vote." And I'll go a step further and put it up there with "T.R.O.Y." (although not quite there) as one of the best nostalgic songs in hip-hop history.
And there were still people saying Kanye couldn't rap after hearing this? Get the fuck out of here.
My money was thinner than Sean Paul's goatee hair
This is actually kind of a hard song to break down lyrically because so much of its impact depends on that closing monologue, which I'll get to in a minute. But before I do, can we all take a minute to laugh at Sean Paul's goatee hair? At the time it was at least relevant, but now it's even more hilarious.
Ok, moving on. Just like Kanye did on the album, it seems only right that I close out this insanely detailed breakdown of the College Dropout lyrics with his closing monologue. Really, out of all the Kanye interviews people have done over the years, all the oral histories of College Dropout that have come out, really, almost everything you need to know is in that monologue.
And I got evicted at the same time. So I went down and tracked the beats from him, I took that money, came back, packed all my shit up in a U-Haul, maybe about ten days before I had to actually get out. So I ain't have to deal with the landlord cause he's a jerk. Me and my mother drove to / [Mother: "Come on, let's just go"] Newark, New Jersey. I hadn't even seen my apartment. I remember I pulled up, I unpacked all my shit. You know, we went to Ikea, I bought a bed, I put the bed together myself.
I don't want to give false hope to rappers putting together Ikea beds right now and dreaming of fame, but if the lyrics in this album are about anything—except for having sex with groupies and golddiggers—it's about getting out your dreams. Act accordingly.