You don’t have to re-skim that college-worn copy of Invisible Man to recognize that the world is hard on the young, gifted, and black. Flip to more recent chapters on the rise and fall of asphalt bard Nas or recall the she-prophet Lauryn Hill coming undone on Unplugged and that lesson becomes obvious.

In fact, those examples alone are enough to make a brother fear for the future of Kanye West, hiphop’s current Anointed One. It’s hard not to compare the 26-year-old Chicagoan and Jay-Z producer to Nas or Hill—not to mention to Shawn Carter himself—not least because his new College Dropout fits squarely in the ranks of such genre classics as Illmatic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and Reasonable Doubt. It’s an album that falls right into the mainstream even while staying head and shoulders above it. Where could our boy possibly go after the sublime offerings on this 21-track debut?

Listen to Dropout and another question comes to mind, too: When was the last time a rapper was self-assured enough get so damn self-deprecating on his very first record? From its Dropout Bear cover mascot to its mock-yearbook liner notes—“Poetry Contest,” one page reads, showing a pensive-looking West who “Never Won”—the disc positions its maker as the rapper most unlikely to succeed. And then there are the joke-filled songs themselves: For whatever it counts, Dropout might be the funniest big-time hiphop offering since Biz Markie redefined the art of singing on 1989’s “Just a Friend.”

On the very first song, “We Don’t Care,” West manages to lampoon ersatz gangsterism and saccharine odes to community uplift at the same time. After a “faculty member” asks West to “Do…somethin’ to make ’em start jumpin’ up and down and sharin’ candy and stuff…somethin’ for the kids who’re graduatin’ to sing,” the MC responds by crooning, “And all my people that’s drug dealin’ just to get by/Stack your money ’til it gets sky-high.” For the sunny-as-can-be chorus, the kids actually do sing: “We weren’t s’posed to make it past 25/Joke’s on you, we still alive.” On “Workout Plan,” West turns into a self-help guru, offering a regimen to help hefty women “pull a rapper, a NBA player, or at least a dude with a car.” Between tracks, he offers comic op-eds on the futility of higher education: “No, I’ve never had sex, but my degree keeps me satisfied.”

Bear in mind that this is the same cat heard blatantly praising the Lord on “Jesus Walks” and rapping to the spirit of his girlfriend’s deceased father on “Never Let Me Down.” On the former, issuing verses over a martial drumroll and intermingled gospel vocals, West turns in lines such as “I don’t think there’s nothing I can do now to right my wrong/I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long/To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers even the strippers/Jesus walks for them.” Compare that with hiphop’s usual rendering of God as the divine baller ensuring that one’s digits remain large and bitches in line, and you can see how far from the rest of the field West is.

On “Never Let Me Down,” West enlists the vocal assistance of Deacons Jay-Z and J. Ivy and crafts a straight-up classic. Jigga shows up here at his most self-reflective—the ex-hustler as a redeemed soul—and drops verses in the wake of a sublime mike sermon by J. Ivy, who basically preaches his way through 16 bars of rhymes without coming off as preachy. For his part, West offers this gem: “I get down for my Grandfather who took my momma/Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat.” And this one: “You sent tears from heaven when you seen my car get balled up/But I can’t complain what the accident did to my left eye…/Cause look what the accident did to Left Eye.”

Sure, y’all cynics are right: Kanye ain’t the best rapper goin’. But then again, he knows he doesn’t have to be. He has enough conceptual originality (again: Dropout Bear) and wit (“The way Kathy Lee [sic] needed Regis that’s the way I need Jesus”) to get over with his midlevel flow. Notice that even lyrical masters Talib Kweli and Common don’t lose him on the collaborative “Get Em High.” West is operating on synergy here, harking back to that neglected tradition, the MC as party entertainer. He isn’t trying to be the next Big Daddy Kane—or, for that matter, Kane’s lyrical descendant, Jay-Z.

No, West is the latest version of the rapper whose lineage stretches all the way back through Biz, Busy Bee, and Slick Rick. Plus, when you evaluate West by the flow standards set by other producers, who you gonna stand him next to? Pete Rock? For all his skill behind the boards, dude flowed like a blocked urethra.

Part of the appeal of Dropout is the fact that it was almost entirely crafted by a single producer, which gives it a musical continuity that is all too rare in these days of the committee-made, niche-marketed street opus. That the sole producer is also the main rapper puts the album in the league of Dr. Dre’s high-water mark, The Chronic. And that record was basically an anthology of Death Row MCs. True, Kanye enlists an all-star squad of lyricists, including Mos Def, Ludacris, and fellow Windy City native Twista, but at the end of the day, he’s the sole proprietor of this shop. There isn’t a single guest artist here who peddles any message but West’s own of good humor and Good News.

Having turned in the burners that powered both Kweli’s “Get By” and Jay’s “This Can’t Be Life,” West has already been celebrated for his skill as a producer. But, to judge from the aural evidence of Dropout, he had the sense to save some of the best for himself. The production shines on the soul-suffused escape fantasy “Spaceship” and the deeply funked “Breathe in Breathe Out” alike, and the minimalist “All Falls Down” works wonders with a well-placed bass line or guitar riff. And the fact that West isn’t afraid to rap about reverence is reflected in Dropout’s overall sound, which is built on snippets of gospel choir and organ riffs that belong at First Congregational’s 10 a.m. service.

You might think that hiphop’s perpetual communion with its ancestral black musics would’ve generated this kind of heavenly hybrid long before now, but it hasn’t happened in the rap mainstream. Anointed One? Hell yeah: West is an MC original badass in a field of focus-group thugs, a contender among journeymen. Ten months from now, people will still be saying that his was the best hiphop to come out of 2004. Right about now, it seems, the Dropout is at the head of the class. CP