Once in a while, the sum of hip-hop seems to slow down in anticipation of some buzzed-to-the-heavens release whose content promises to make the blind see, the deaf hear, and 2Pac walk again. Last year, 50 Cent, OutKast, and Jay-Z all occupied that enviable but precarious position, with releases that doubled as full-fledged pop-culture events. This year, all eyes are on Chicago's Kanye West, thanks to a string of brilliant production hits and his single "Through The Wire," a transcendent account of the car crash that broke his jaw and threatened his life and career. A backpacker answer to Bushwick Bill's eerie "Ever So Clear," "Through The Wire" captures and builds on an emotion as wonderful as it is rare: rapturous joy at simply being alive. West has long since established himself as a hyper-soulful A-list producer whose résumé is filled with rap's biggest and/or best. "Through The Wire" transformed attitudes toward West's career shift from "Kanye West raps?" to "Kanye West raps!" He aims high with his lush, substantial, and enormously rewarding The College Dropout, an ambitious concept album that uses West's departure from college as a symbol for his disillusionment with society. Now that he has hip-hop's undivided attention, West seems intent on injecting it with elements far more dangerous, provocative, and rare than the murder, debauchery, and drug use found on many multi-platinum rap albums: The College Dropout instead turns on substance, social commentary, righteous anger, ornery humanism, dark humor, and even Christianity. West raps about jewelry and cars like Jay-Z (who appears on the album, along with Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Ludacris, and Common). But more importantly, he raps vividly and empathetically about being poor like The Coup, takes it to the church like Lifesavas, and discourses eloquently on racism, morality, and societal inequity like Black Star. The disc boasts enough conceptual ambition to make Mr. Lif jealous, but like a lot of great concept albums before it, The College Dropout is burdened by skits and jibber-jabbering—especially the audio autobiography West delivers on the marathon final track—that add unnecessarily to the disc's running time. That tendency is more than offset, however, by music unafraid of raw emotion and tracks that are both personal and strangely universal. With sterling quality to match its massive advance hype, The College Dropout is one of those wonderful crossover albums that appeal to a huge audience without sacrificing a shred of integrity.
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