Kanye West has made his name by letting his production — not his voice — do the talking for him. As the man behind Jay-Z‘s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and Scarface’s “Guess Who’s Back,” he has perfected a warm, almost sentimental brand of hip-hop, using bright, soulful beats and melodic choruses to humanize otherwise chilly gangsters.
His debut as a rapper on College Dropout might do the same thing for Jigga’s Roc-A-Fella label. “Wasn’t talking ’bout coke and birds,” he fesses on his plaintive debut single, “Through the Wire.” “It’s more like spoken word.” West revels in odd juxtapositions — “Get Em High” could be the only song ever to reference both Beck and Pastor Troy. West has got something to prove on Dropout: The half-serious twelve-minute monologue “Last Call” details the hard knocks he suffered to make the album a reality, and there are several skits — part comedy, part pure bitterness — about the uselessness of higher learning.
West isn’t quite MC enough to hold down the entire disc; carefully sprinkled A-list guests such as Jay-Z and Mos Def help. His ace in the hole is his signature cozy sound — dusty soul samples, gospel hymns, drums that pop as if hit for the very first time. He has also succeeded in showing some vulnerability behind a glossy mainstream hip-hop sheen. On “All Falls Down,” he says, “We all self-conscious/I’m just the first to admit it.” Let’s hope he’s not the last.