While a polarizing individual, Kanye West’s music career is undeniably one of the most celebrated and influential of our generation. So important in fact, that Oxford University recently hosted a debate of whether or not Kanye is now more relevant than Shakespeare. That’s a bold claim. But with Hip-Hop now surpassing Rock and Roll as […]
While a polarizing individual, Kanye West’s music career is undeniably one of the most celebrated and influential of our generation. So important in fact, that Oxford University recently hosted a debate of whether or not Kanye is now more relevant than Shakespeare. That’s a bold claim.
But with Hip-Hop now surpassing Rock and Roll as the most popular genre of music in the United States, Kanye’s music obviously has significant influence. However, with a busy career that spans a decade and a half, there’s a lot of music to sift through. So what are the highlights and low points of his career? What albums are the most important, the most influential, the most enjoyable? How do you rank Kanye West from Worst to Best?
I have my opinions of course, but I’m no music authority. So, I went to the experts, Christian Brothers own Rap Debate Club, to ask them: how do you rank Kanye West’s discography?
After one poll and several interviews, this was the result.
Released in 2013, Kanye’s sixth solo studio album Yeezus shocked the music world. The album was like nothing West or anyone had ever done. From the blatantly minimalist cover art to the harsh, industrial sound to its lyrical content, Yeezus was a bold attack on the music industry and American culture. Extremely political, highly irreverent, and more explicit than anything he made in the past, Yeezus replaced soulful, emotional Kanye with a harsh, restless, and angry Mr. West. While critically praised, listener opinions on this album remain extremely polarized. Whether you enjoy it or not, Yeezus is, as intended, a jarring listen.
As part of the theme of protest, the album is almost completely devoid of radio-ready tracks. Record defining songs such as “New Slaves”, “I Am A God”, and album centerpiece “Blood On The Leaves” provide a look into the turmoil of Kanye’s life, career, and outlook. His shortest album to date at only forty minutes, Yeezus allowed Kanye to break away from all expectations by creating something so different, so bold, and so cutting edge that it risked alienating a large portion of his fans. And in many ways it did, especially after his incredible appeal to fans through previous album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. While a pivotal moment in his musical career, the album is too much for many people.
“I think it’s more of an experimental album for me because he just tried that industrial sound; he went away from what he was normally used to and tried something different,” says Rap Debate Club Moderator Matt Lee (’18). “I don’t think it’s going to be called a classic like Graduation or Twisted Dark Fantasy. It’s not going to be held to the same regard.”
Personally, I feel Yeezus will age better than almost any other Kanye album. One of the least enjoyable to listen to, it might just be the most important. Maybe Yeezus is tragically misunderstood masterpiece years ahead of its time, or just the angry ranting of a rapper past his prime. Either way, it holds the position of last place on this list.
Kanye’s most recent album to date, The Life Of Pablo came out in 2016. A return to a more traditional Kanye, West once again employed soul samples, features, and smooth vocals to craft this new age gospel album. However, to many fans’ disappointment, the return to more classic sounds was not accompanied by a return to a happier, upbeat Kanye. Both sonically and lyrically, The Life Of Pablo is one of Kanye’s saddest records, something heightened by the chaotic aftermath of his Life Of Pablo Tour. The middle of the album, full of tracks like “FML”, “Real Friends” and “Wolves”, highlights Kanye’s struggles with his personal life and mental state. The cover art of The Life Of Pablo summarizes the purpose of the entire album pretty succinctly, contrasting a photo of a family wedding with a provocative image of a female model, all over the words “which one?”
The album’s songs, full of religious imagery, chronicle West’s internal conflict between the two sides of his life: his humanizing marriage and family life and the temptations and debauchery of a life of success and fame. Another incredibly introspective album, Kanye looks at his own life through the story of Saint Paul, or “Pablo,” a sinner turned saint.
An extremely ambitious project, the album struggles because of its lack of cohesion. The Life Of Pablo contains more freestyles and bridge songs than any other album. At times very scattered, it has its definite highs and lows.
“The ending of the album is a lot of minute, minute and a half kind of songs. And the ‘Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission’, all that kind of stuff was just very him just throwing stuff in,” Kanye expert Miles Magaletti (’18) tells me. “I thought the first part of the album was really strong. I really enjoyed ‘Pt. 1’ and ‘Pt. 2’.”
Matt agreed about the album’s areas of strength and weakness. “He kind of took inspiration from Chance with the Gospel rap. I enjoyed that part but it wasn’t that innovative for me. It wasn’t that new sound that blew my mind.”
For me, The Life Of Pablo feels a little too much like more of the “rich man blues” to be considered one of his top albums. I’ve seen and heard Kanye’s struggle with his wealth and fame too often for it to be anything new and innovative. While portions are phenomenal, the album as a whole suffers due to its inconsistency in terms of sound, quality, and content. But hey, to quote Kanye’s own words his track “Feedback”: “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.” Who knows? Maybe the raw, unfiltered potential of The Life Of Pablo is a sign of good things to come.
West’s second album, Late Registration, is also one of his most celebrated. Released in 2005, Rolling Stone recognized it as Album of the Year. Soon after, it won Best Rap Album at the 2006 Grammy Awards. Full of hits like “Gold Digger” and “Drive Slow,” incredible features in “Heard ‘Em Say” and the remix of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” and emotional tracks with “Hey Mama” and “Roses,” the album is another Kanye classic. Solidifying West as a legitimate, celebrated rapper rather than a one hit wonder, the album also marked a pivotal moment is his career. However, at its core, Late Registration is just a continuation of The College Dropout. Without the innovation that defined later projects, this second record has a tendency to fade to the background. Similar sampling, many repeat features, and the continuation of the college theme limits the potential legacy of this phenomenal album.
As Miles points out, “It’s maybe the most unpopular of his college trilogy.”
Does it deserve such a low spot on this list? Is its placement between The College Dropout and Graduation the only reason such an iconic album falls in the bottom half of Kanye’s discography? That’s definitely up for debate. However, an iconic status is no replacement for innovation and creative genius. While Late Registration is in no way lacking in style and substance, it falls short in other categories, placing it at a solid number five on this list.
808s & Heartbreak, released in 2008, was Kanye’s deep, introspective response to the recent tragedies in his personal life. The death of his mother, separation with his fiancée, and struggles with fame all had a profound influence on the album. Vastly different from his previous works, the album diverged from the classic Kanye in style, sound, and subject. With sparse, minimalist, electronic beats and heavily auto-tuned vocals, Kanye pushed the technical side of his music, embracing his idea of the human voice as the ultimate instrument.
Musically progressive, 808s & Heartbreak remains one of Kanye’s most influential projects. The techniques employed by West, as well as the overall pop influence, are staple characteristics of many hip-hop artists today. Despite the differences in sound and style, the real change-up of this album was in subject matter.
“It wasn’t that classic Kanye rap, the ‘I’m the man’ type of thing,” says Matt. “It was more emotional.”
Always a more introspective rapper, Kanye took it to the next level in 808s.
“He really took a deeper look into himself on the album,” Miles tells me. “There’s not a lot of happy songs there.”
Top singles “Heartless” and “Love Lockdown” paint a picture of a much more distraught Mr. West, despite being some of the album’s more upbeat tracks. In particular, closing songs “Coldest Winter” and “Pinocchio Story” drive home the bleak aftermath of Kanye’s tragic past.
In many ways, 808s & Heartbreak is the opposite of Yeezus. Yeezus received widespread critical acclaim, but was rejected by many fans, while 808s, though garnering some of Kanye’s lowest ratings from critics, is beloved by many fans. Soft sounds versus harsh industrial, auto tune versus unfiltered vocals — the comparisons continue.
However, like Yeezus, the unique nature of this album makes opinions much more divided. Like perceptions of West himself, most people either love 808s or hate it. A much softer album in all aspects, the more pop-ish sound is extremely attractive to some, while unengaging to others. Luckily for 808s & Heartbreak on this list, Christian Brothers seems to be a fan.
Kanye’s first studio album, The College Dropout, was released in 2004. At the time, Kanye was a relatively unknown producer whose main claim to fame was making beats for hip-hop legend Jay-Z. Hit singles such as “Through the Wire,” “Slow Jamz,” and “Jesus Walks” quickly brought attention to his rapping debut. One of the most genuine rap albums ever created, The College Dropout cemented itself as an immediate classic.
As a whole, the album is West’s autobiographical look at his experience, views, and entrance into the music industry. Old-school beats, soulful samples, and Kanye’s signature flow give it a distinctive but comforting, classic sound. Much more “stream of consciousness” than any other Kanye album, West’s use of skits, transitions, and closing monologue “Last Call” all helped to give a very clear picture of the up-and-coming rapper.
While a stunning start to a musical career, The College Dropout is definitely not without its flaws. Large portions remain timeless, but certain sections are without a doubt very dated. Kanye’s inexperience as an MC is at times very apparent, something unsurprising considering his transition from behind-the-scenes producer to spotlighted rapper.
But for me, Kanye’s obvious sincerity is what really sells the album. In many ways, Kanye’s youth and inexperience works in the album’s favor, lending it a sense of innocence and vitality. My personal favorite Kanye record, I love the story West tells. Relatable, powerful, and meaningful, The College Dropout‘s message of independence, perseverance, and self-discovery spoke, speaks, and will always speak to the masses.
Graduation, West’s third studio album, concluded Kanye’s school themed trilogy. More importantly, it cemented his position as one of his generation’s top artists. Released in 2007 on the same day as early 2000’s powerhouse 50 Cent’s Curtis, Graduation’s incredible success proved the appeal of Kanye’s more emotional music over the previously dominant gangster rap of the late 90’s. West also began to push his musically boundaries with this album.
Moving away from the traditional soul samples of his earlier music, Kanye relied more on newer, electronic sounds. “Stronger”, which peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, sampled electronic duo Daft Punk. Full of more radio-ready tracks like “Good Life” and “Homecoming,” Kanye, as well as the world, recognized his artistic potential and mass appeal. West went from just crafting songs to crafting anthems. Significantly, he was able to accomplish this without compromising his trademark style. Still incredibly introspective, songs like “Everything I Am” and “Big Brother” retained his classic sound, smoothing out the beginning of the transition from the “old Kanye” to the “new Kanye”. More polished, more concise, West graduated to mainstream success.
With that success also came Kanye’s elevation to iconic celebrity status.
“With Graduation his influence was really brought on to mass media. That was when people knew Kanye more as a fashion icon,” Miles points out. “It was when Kanye knew he was going to be big.”
“He was becoming more than a rapper,” says Matt. “He was becoming a pop star.”
For many fans including myself, Graduation is a perfect blend of Kanye styles. Before the struggles of fame but after solidifying his career, the album is meaningful without being intensely emotional. A reminder of his past and a hint of what was to come in the future, Kanye’s Graduation takes spot number two.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released in 2010, is considered by many to be Kanye’s magnum opus, the masterpiece of his rapping career. The hook of “Dark Fantasy”, the intro song for the album, pointedly asks “Can we get much higher?” Kanye was in his prime, at the peak of his career, and what did he do? He pushed forward, above and beyond.
Sonically bold, topically brash, and lyrically powerful, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy epitomizes the modern Kanye. West, then an established celebrity, sent a much more political message through tracks such as “Gorgeous” and outro “Who Will Survive in America?” In typical Kanye fashion, MBDTF is deeply introspective. Songs like “POWER” and “Lost in the World” reflect his struggles with fame and celebrity, while the heartfelt “Runaway” chronicles the emotional turmoil of his hiatus in the aftermath his Taylor Swift VMA fiasco.
Varied and innovative, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy plays like a greatest hits. A compilation of styles from across his entire career, this album brings together the best of what Kanye has to offer. With the slow jams and charm of The College Dropout, the production quality of Late Registration, the anthems of Graduation, and the emotion of 808s & Heartbreak, MBDTF acts as a culmination of everything he had accomplished as an artist. More importantly, West perfected a delicate.
A much darker and more mature album, MBDTF retained its weight and emotional impact while remaining full of songs ready to for casual listening. Still a work of art, it lacks the somewhat pretentious nature of some of his later albums. The album has that unique ability to provide an incredibly intense and meaningful listen as well as just be something to vibe to. At it core, it tells the story of the modern Kanye, his role as celebrity, innovator, and artist.
“He was really looking at where he was and where he came from,” says Matt.
The crucial part of this chronicle is the incredible duality of West. Throughout the album he is harsh and gentle, confident and afraid, incredibly powerful and incredibly vulnerable. As a listener, you truly understand Kanye’s raw emotion and can relate to him on a deeply personal level. This connection is the true magic of Kanye’s music.
With the best beats, the best features, and most importantly the best story, it’s hard to argue with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s widespread recognition and acclaim. As relevant, innovative, and powerful today as when it was released, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy comes in at a definitive number one.
(All images courtesy of Creative Commons)