Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Kareem "Biggs" Burke (exec.), Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter (exec.), Damon "Dame" Dash (exec.), Evidence, Kyambo "Hip Hop" Joshua (exec.), Kanye West (also exec.)
Features: Syleena Johnson, GLC, Consequence, Jay-Z, J. Ivy, Talib Kweli, Common, Twista, Jamie Foxx, Ludacris, Mos Def, Freeway, Boys Choir of Harlem
Sales: 3.1 million copies
Say what you will about the skits, about Kanye's drums, about the "New Workout Plan." The College Dropout was a great album. It wasn't just that Kanye West proved himself as a solo artist with the vision to become a major star. It was the moment of impact that would create a sea change in hip-hop and open the floodgates for entirely new approaches to what rappers rapped about.
He'd already shifted the sound of hip-hop on The Blueprint, blending soul music history with contemporary pop instincts; now it was time to rewrite the rules of lyrical content in hip-hop, reaching the intersection of the streets and the classrooms, the backpackers and the ballers, the underground and the pop charts. As he said on "Family Business," "A creative way to rhyme without using nines and guns."
Many of his followers focus on the latter part, but the first part—creativity—was key, too. In retrospect, it's harder to see how radical his first record really was; The College Dropout opened up a number of lanes that artists rushed to fill, and as a result, its thematic novelty is harder to see through the thicket of history. But it remains a startlingly unique, diverse record, and one of the most relatable records ever made. Funny, flawed, and emphatically human, The College Dropout may not have fully expressed what made Kanye who he was. But it created the space for him to do it. —David Drake