Two friends turned rivals go head to head in this week's edition of "Who Had The Better Debut Album?"
For the past fifteen years, Jay-Z and Kanye West have united their brilliant minds to deliver an endless collection of classic records. The catalog speaks for itself, with songs like “N****s In Paris,” “Lucifer,” “Never Let Me Down,” “No Church In The Wild,” “Izzo,” “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” “Encore,” “Murder To Excellence” and more. In fact, Kanye West’s production was largely responsible for the driving the revolutionary sonic aesthetic of The Blueprint, arguably Jay-Z’s definitive album. Conversely, Jay-Z’s lyrical prowess drove Kanye to elevate himself as an artist, as revealed on the heartfelt confessional “Big Brother.” Their chemistry was so elite, the duo even formed a group called The Throne, solidifying themselves as two hip-hop kings, enjoying a prosperous reign over an extensive domain.
Yet, like so many classic Shakespearean narratives, the tale was struck by tragedy. The falling out of Jay-Z and Kanye West is well documented, with Kanye’s public rants and callouts immortalized in the infinite realm of Twitter’s cloud storage. Jay’s recent 4:44 album found Hov delivering a few subliminal clapbacks of his own, taking aim at his former friend on “Kill Jay-Z.” And while the feud is hardly on the level of some of the more animosity-laden hip-hop beefs, fans have been patiently waiting for some level of reconciliation. It has yet to arrive.
While it’s sad to see two creative innovators part ways, it seems fitting to look back and celebrate the places it all began. For Jay, his thirteen-album run kicked off with the timeless Reasonable Doubt, conceived at the legendary D&D studio and since recognized as a seminal piece of hip-hop history. Looking back, Jay’s mafioso inspired narratives captured a rare moment in time, when the mogul of today had a simpler raison d’etre, living the life of a drug dealer slash clockwork hustler. Yet Jay’s deadly flow and clever bars, inspired by his mentors Jaz-O and Biggie, helped solidify him as an emerging voice in an already stellar New York scene.
Years would pass before Kanye and Jay would first cross paths. After making a name for himself in the late nineties, the young Chicagoan found himself in a position to produce for the Roc-A-Fella squad. As it were, Ye managed to secure an instrumental on Roc La Familia’s “This Can’t Be Life,” but his big moment arrived on September 11th, 2001, when Jay-Z dropped The Blueprint and held it down for his tragedy-stricken hometown. Ye’s soulful sound elevated Jay’s game to the next level, and Kanye became one of the Roc’s most trusted musical minds. Yet while he was lacing beats for Freeway, Beanie Sigel, and Jay, Kanye was nursing some aspirations of his own.
Stalwart in his desire to become a rapper, Kanye West got to work on his debut album The College Dropout. Even a potentially fatal car accident couldn’t keep Ye from spitting his bars, and he literally recorded his breakout single Through The Wire with his jaws wired shut like Homer in The Simpsons. While some no doubt wondered if the producer could pull off a solo album, Kanye quickly proved the doubters wrong, serving up an iconic and timeless project while jump-starting one of the most stellar discographies in hip-hop history.
So, with two bonafide classics in the mix, ask yourself this - which artist delivered the superior debut album?
Both albums feature excellent production across the boards, but it would be remiss of me to neglect the fact Kanye West has the considerable advantage of being his own producer. Therefore, he has the ability to hone in on the exactitude of his sound, in order to most effectively express his vision. That same soulful aesthetic that Ye pioneered on Blueprint returns in spades on The College Dropout, especially on songs like the aforementioned “Through The Wire,” “Slow Jamz,” and “Jesus Walks.” In fact, Kanye seemed to have perfected the formula in the off-years, building on his own foundation and adding even more layers to the arrangements.
Ye made effective use of sped-up RnB samples, pitch shift, and live instrumentation on The College Dropout, enlisting the talents of “hip-hop violinist” Miri Ben-Ari for a little orchestral flavor. Kanye’s crates no doubt found themselves entirely dust-free by the end of those sessions, with samples from Burt Bacharach, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and many more. Despite the abundance of samples, Ye managed to keep the sonics reasonably diverse, with more experimental beats like “The New Workout Plan,” “Breathe In Breathe Out,” and “2 Words.” Even if Kanye wasn’t spitting consistent fire, the production alone would solidify College Dropout as one of the year’s best albums.
As for the Jigga Man, Reasonable Doubt found Jay spitting heat over beats from DJ Premier, Clark Kent, Ski, Dame Dash, Irv Gotti, and more, crafting a veritable time-capsule of Brooklyn circa 1996. Remember, Jay’s debut dropped at a time when many of his New York compatriots were dropping some of their dopest material; Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, and Raekwon had already established themselves as elite fixtures in the game. In short, competition was fierce, and Jay had to prove he could hang with the big dogs.
The inherent competition prevalent in the mid-nineties New York hip-hop scene apparently transferred into Resonable Doubt’s production sessions. According to XXL’s “The Making Of Reasonable Doubt,” both Ski and Clark Kent turned in a similar take on the “Politcs As Usual” instrumental, leading Jay to have to channel his inner Sophie’s Choice. Despite deeming Clark’s beat superior, Jay opted to record over Ski’s version, claiming “you know how we do it, and real is real. He gave it to me first.” A respectable move, to be sure, and it reveals an insight into the dynamics of Jay’s inner circle. Ultimately, the production serves as a more than capable companion to Jay’s wisdom, though it can be argued that producers like RZA raised the bar to unreasonable heights.
There’s a reason many consider Jay-Z the Goat, and it’s in full effect on Reasonable Doubt. An anecdote from the making-of feature revealed that Jay-Z considered himself one of the few emcees capable of trading bars with Big, which is no easy feat. Irv Gotti actually cautioned Jay-Z against doing the track, warning Hov that Big may very well make him look like a “little man,” to which Jay replied “ I’m gonna show ’em. I’m gon’ make people see that I’m that n***a.” A bold claim, to be sure, and the fact that Jay ultimately held his own proves that his lyrical chops were, and remain, second to none.
Perhaps some of his best bars arrive on the standout cut “Can I Live,” which finds Hov foreshadowing the lavish lifestyle he would eventually go on to embody:
"My mind is infested with sick thoughts that circle
Like a Lexus, if driven wrong it's sure to hurt you
Dual level like duplexes, in unity
My crew and me commit atrocities like we got immunity
You guessed it, manifest it
In tangible goods, platinum Rolex'd it
We don't lease, we buy the whole car, as you should
My confederation, dead a nation
Explode on detonation, overload the mind of a said patient”
And that’s simply one moment of lyrical prowess, among many. In fact, Hov’s performance on Reasonable Doubt was a rapper at his hungriest, desperate to establish himself in a market filled with heavyweights, in an era where lyricism reigned supreme. Now, it’s largely about who has the illest beats, but back then, the bars were the most important factor. Take a second, let that sink in, and recognize that a young Jay-Z not only forced his way into the game, but established himself as one of the most marketable and talented players. People who caught onto Hov might not understand the magnitude of his pen game, but the real fans know that he’s a GOAT candidate for more than simply being Beyonce’s husband.
So how does Kanye West fare against such an unstoppable lyrical force? Surprisingly well, considering Ye’’s later output includes lines like “hurry up with my damn croissants” (Yeezus is underrated though). Still, there’s something endearing about Kanye’s College Dropout persona, in which a wide-eyed young man navigates the world with his innocence in tact, leaving the GAP grind behind and chasing bigger and better dreams. It’s strange to think that a man who is currently holed up in the mountains of Wyoming, texting his Kardashian wife while potentially laying down a sequel to “I Am A God” used to champion for the layman. Take “Spaceship,” for example, in which Kanye speaks for the struggle of retail employees worldwide:
“If my manager insults me again, I will be assaulting him
After I fuck the manager up
Then I'm gonna shorten the register up
Let's go back, back to the Gap
Look at my check, wasn't no scratch
So if I stole, wasn't my fault
Yeah I stole, never got caught
They take me to the back and pat me
Askin' me about some khakis
But let some black people walk in
I bet you they show off their token blackie”
What Kanye’s College Dropout bars lack in technical dexterity, they make up for in quotability and, surprisingly, relatability. Look at penultimate cut “Family Business,” an emotional track capable of resonating with people of all races, religions, and genders due to the simplistic, yet evocative imagery. It’s almost as if Kanye is someone you grew up with, and College Dropout stands out as a fan favorite for that very reason. Gone is the tormented reflection of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or the sheer tragedy of 808s & Heartbreak. Instead, Kanye West owns his role as the eager student, relying on the strengths of his cleverness and charms to shine in a dark, scary world. Looking back, the transformation Kanye underwent is almost akin to that of Walter White in Breaking Bad; a truly unexpected narrative arc, with a finale that’s yet to air.
There’s no point in sugarcoating it. Both Jay-Z and Kanye West found themselves evolving into two of hip-hop’s most important artists, with amazing discographies and unmeasurable cultural impact. And it all began with two albums from different eras, classics in their own regard and respectable precursors to each man’s prime material. All things considered, the verdict will no doubt fall on personal preference, as the overall impact is simply too close to measure in a tangible sense. Still, it remains a conversation worth having, especially for those quick to write off Kanye West as a producer who can rap, or call Jay-Z washed up while typing comments off the Henny. Both names are worthy of respect, and the fact that either project still holds up to this day is a testament to their importance.