Kanye West Album Power Rankings
There are few people on earth more polarizing than Kanye West. He is a point of disagreement among music fans, less so among hip-hop heads where respect for Kanye is kind-of implicit. To the mainstream public, though, he is a pariah; a mercurial figure that ascended the Mt. in record time and in record form. You either hate him or you love him, and I don’t think Kanye would have it any other way. In anticipation of the newest album, which first was called SWISH and then was called “Waves” and now apparently is called “T.L.O.P” or “The Life of Pablo” (Someone must have really liked “Narcos”… ), I thought about his whole body of work, as I often do when a new album is approaching, so I decided to rank all of the albums Kanye has produced so far in his young career. These “power rankings” are completely subjective, with only some basis in actual fact. I thought about the effect the album has had on my life, the importance of the album in the Kanye West career trajectory, and its importance in the context of music as a whole. Since Kanye broke into the mainstream he has confused our opinion of him over and over, stirring up controversy and inspiring tabloid stories and selling us pop-culture phenomena like the shutter shades from the “Stronger” video, or the idea of “featuring Jamie Foxx”. As we venture through Kanye’s musical catalog and try to understand it as a cohesive body of work, it will become clear that the way he has affected Hip Hop music and culture is unmatched by any artist, ever, and any conversation of all-time greats that excludes Kanye West cannot be taken seriously. Kanye has defined a generation of Rap by pushing limits, buttons, and boundaries, challenging what is considered “acceptable”, “normal” and “mainstream” in Hip Hop culture, and his ability to generate classics is unmatched by almost anyone in the history of Rap.
7. Yeezus (2013)
I’ve heard that Yeezus grows on you as you listen to it, but it hasn’t grown on me yet. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments. It’s just not something I have in my daily rotation. It’s brash tone, heavy distortion and lyrical cadences make it sound a lot like a Rock album. Yeezus is uncharacteristically aggressive, loud, and distorted, a departure from the usual clear and crisp Kanye West production style. If you hear fuzz on a record it’s because Kanye wanted you to hear the fuzz. That leads me to believe that the clipping on Yeezus was intentional, which is fine, it’s just loud. The record has some funny lyrics, compelling concepts and produced “Bound 2”, a love letter to Kim Kardashian, which led to one of the best videos of the last few years (the Rogen/Franco one). Yeezus feels rushed, like Kanye got pissed-off one day and recorded an entire album, and when it didn’t have enough songs he added Bound 2. It’s racially charged, with tracks like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” as militant throwbacks to a more political era in rap. The closest Kanye has ever come to political rap was “All Falls Down”, an exposition of materialism in black culture. He accidentally (and famously) got political during a Telethon for Hurricane Katrina, where he left Comedian Mike Myers speechless by claiming an executive-branch level of indifference towards the plight of poor black people in our government. Yeezus sounds like he watched hours and hours of coverage of Hurricane Katrina before recording it, its short tracklist charged with the energy of an angry Black Panther rally. Yeezus is aggressively black in terms of its subject matter, and aggressively simple in terms of its production. The album is an important bookmark in the Kanye West story as a 45-minute symbol of his absolute disdain for every aspect of the mainstream music industry. In the same way that Dropout rebelled against the rap of the early 2000s, Yeezus rebelled against the established Kanye West. It challenged the paradigm of who he was musically and marked a departure from the idea of expectations. Yeezus, on its own, is not impressive or transcendent. It’s actually kind of obnoxious as a departure from the Kanye we know and love. It’s memorable only from its relative volume, but on the timeline of Kanye West albums, Yeezus will eventually be seen as an important point in his career. If not, at least we have a video of James Franco and Seth Rogen making out on a motorcycle.
6. Watch The Throne (With Jay-Z) (2011)
I love Watch The Throne. I love the sound. I love the aesthetic. I love “luxury rap”, a genre that Kanye created in a lyric he wrote which is populated by only, really, him and Jay. I love the blatant arrogance of it; the comical exposition of their own wealth and overindulgence. Though the impression of the album is dominated by massive summertime bangers like “Niggas in Paris” and “Otis”, more introspective tracks like “Made In America” and “The Joy” really give the album it’s longevity. Luxury Rap was a thing for a whole two months, a fun but unrelatable novelty that failed to connect with anyone. If you listen closely, though, there is some real music going on under all that gold-leaf and swagger. I remember listening to the album all the way through the morning it came out, completely flabbergasted with the way Kanye and Jay-Z traded flows, danced around and bounced off of each other in a way I had never heard two collaborators rap together. I listened to it every day that summer. Some songs still give me flashbacks to biking around Seattle, but they’re not “H.A.M.” or “No Church In The Wild”. They’re “Murder to Excellence” and “Primetime”, songs with really great beats and cool old-school flows from a couple of good buddies hanging out making a record. Not an influential record; for some, barely a memorable record. But still an album with more good songs than bad songs; with a few singles, none of which will ever be nostalgic. Watch the Throne is a victory lap in the middle of the race; a proclamation of greatness by two of the greats, and though it hasn’t been significant to rap in the long-term, it has an old-school flavor that gives it a timelessness among true rap connoisseurs.
5. Late Registration
After the outrageous and unprecedented success of Kanye’s debut, the sophomore effort was to be Kanye’s biggest challenge yet. Now, though, Kanye had the confidence in himself and the freedom from the label to stretch his wings a bit. He used some of his new resources to perfect his sound and increase its size into something bigger and more transcendent than anything he had done so far. Late is an incredible album. It’s also a really really transcendent rap album, spanning multiple genres and further cementing his status as a legitimate hip hop star. The biggest difference, impossible not to notice, is the albums string orchestration, all of his samples underpinned by lush pads and epicness. Kanye, who shared production credit with nobody on Dropout, brought in another producer to add another layer to the sound he established on the first album. Late Reg produced Kanye’s most successful single to date, “Golddigger, ft. Jamie Foxx”, his first true pop crossover single. The album was truly full of these types of songs, and gave us bangers like “Drive Slow” and “Touch The Sky” mixed in with the still-socially-conscious Kanye of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and “Crack Music”. Late Reg was a statement of continutity and of timelessness. Kanye proved with his second effort that he can handle the pressures of stardom, creativity and public scrutiny and still manage to produce good music. He sunk the “Sophomore Slump” doubters with a long, complicated, diverse album featuring almost everyone in music and yet never let himself be outshined by even the biggest stars. Late Reg-era Kanye worked hard to further create the signature aesthetic that Dropout was getting at, and his use of new sounds and influences established a pattern of the ever-evolving nature of Kanye West.
4. Graduation (2008)
When I was a senior in high school I spent an afternoon in the library after school arguing with a kid about the merits of Kanye v 50 Cent. This was right after 50 decided to announce that if Kanye’s Graduation sold more albums than his Curtis, he would quit Rap. As someone who appreciates Get Rich or Die Tryin’ as one of the best Rap albums of all time, I kinda leaned 50 on this one, despite the mediocrity of 50’s sophomore effort, The Massacre. Boy, was I wrong. and though not for lack of trying, 50 is relatively removed from the rap game. Graduation was a hard-left from Late Registration, and in continuing with the pattern he had established with the second album, he produced Graduation with an entirely new sound. This one was more synthetic than the lush orchestral textures of the last, with cleaner-sounding boom-bap drums and more confident lyricism. Graduation was a new kind of rap album. It was electric purple, for one, and the bear from the first two album covers had been animated by someone with a flavor for Japanese cartoons. Actually, Kanye did commission the cover from a J-Pop cartoonist and the transformation of the bear closely parallels the evolution of the sound from Late Reg to Graduation. The content of the album was the first of his to openly and brashly reflect on the lifestyles of rap superstars. It was the most boastful thing he had done in his career so far (though I think that goes for every Kanye album). On Grad, at least 8 of the tracks on the album are about Kanye. Towards the end he pens a few love letters to Chicago and his gratitude towards Jay-Z, but Graduation was a triumph in that despite its self-centeredness, people still loved it. After two major label successes, Kanye was clearly an established star. Adversity gave Kanye a justification for being arrogant and interesting and strange and unique, and musically the third album contains a few of his best songs of all time, including “Everything I Am” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”. The drums which open the album on “Good Morning” immediately indicate a change from the clap-happy MPC drums of his early efforts, and had me quickly off-balance as the album moves through its tracks, where the sweet, crisp vocal samples sat on top of a new, more electronic Kanye West. This Kanye struggled to balance his transcendence with his humanity. He tried to resolve his newly-discovered power as a tastemaker while never really trying to give any of it back. He simply flexed harder, as if blatantly flaunting his wealth would help him cope with his problems, though it was a little tone-def (most people don’t have those problems). He featured the top artists of the year, from T-Pain, to Jay-Z to John Mayer, establishing his place within musical royalty. That’s really the true legacy of Graduation: It turned a superstar into a legend. 50 Cent has definitely made attempts at putting out music after the Curtis debacle, but it would seem that the embarrassment he suffered at Kanye’s hand has prevented him from ever enjoying a full recovery. He’s most recently been spotted engaging in Instagram spats with Meek Mill in order to stay relevant.
3. 808’s and Heartbreak
It’s hard to really understand the effect of 808’s on music as a whole, especially if you reacted to it at-the-time like most people did, which was basically, “What the Fuck is this”. But years later, after the full weight of its meta-reshaping of hip hop can be fully felt, it’s obvious that this is in the conversation as the best album of the decade. After three commercial successes and countless hit records, Kanye was on top of the world, until he lost his Mother and broke up with his girlfriend all around the same time. It sent him spiraling into a dark phase of emotion and introspection and reflection and experimentation and marked a shift where Kanye decided that he would no longer be seen as a rapper, but as an artist. Ye (apparently) famously discovered the sound for 808’s while singing an extended live version of “The Good Life”, the autotune-frosted single featuring T-Pain, a walking satire of Late-2000s hip-hop (from This incredible piece from Jayson at Pitchfork). Kanye sang T-Pain’s part, and found something special in that sound; a sound that expressed the despair he was experiencing in his life. His entire creative process changed, and Kanye found himself with something completely new. People, specifically Kanye fans, didn’t know what to think. It’s only years later that we realized how far ahead of its time 808’s really was; how it would infuse with Southern rap and became Drake; how it inspired every mainstream R&B act of the last decade. 808’s will have an eternal influence on music in terms of its sound, but also represents the point in Kanye history where he transcended rap and became something far more powerful, no longer concerned with public opinion. He simply made the music he felt like making; the music that helped him cope with unfathomable loss.
2. The College Dropout
Whenever a person says they don’t like Kanye West, I am 100% certain they either don’t think rap is actually music, or have never listened to The College Dropout all the way through. If they had, they’d have heard the 12-minute cut of “Last Call” at the end. “Last Call”, about 8 minutes in, was the precise moment when I became a Kanye fan. After the song there is an extended storytelling of Kanye’s signing to Roc-A-Fella. It recounts his ascent as a producer and eventually his struggle to get a record deal as a rapper. It paints a vivid picture of nay-sayers and music industry politics that justify his characteristic arrogance. If that many people turned me down, told me I couldn’t rap and wouldn’t give me a chance, I’d have relished in the victory when my first album debuted at #2 and sold 440,000 in the first week. I’d have probably gotten even more arrogant when it won “Best Rap Album” at the 2004 Grammy Awards. 2003 had been the year of 50 Cent; getting rich or passing away during an attempt to get rich. Despite the Nu-Gangsta fad of G-Unit, The Game and the southern Crunk Movement, in just one year the Louis Vuitton Don spun rap on its head in terms of style, content, and influence on the trajectory of mainstream music. This is the period from which Kanye’s arrogance and attitude can be justified; this is when he earned it. Dropout was pure rebellion; an active insubordination of the current state of Rap. The beats were soulful, the lyrics were intelligent, there weren’t many obvious radio singles (The first single was rapped, literally, Through The Wire). Kanye raps his ass off on this album though, touching on social issues, materialism, insecurity, racism, cultural pressure to succeed, telling his own stories and laying it all over a soft pillow of his early-period kick-drum patterns and pitched-up vocal samples. Dropout is a fun album. It’s lighthearted, has songs for the kids, keeps the energy level high with its uptempo syncopation, and doesn’t contain any overarching theme that would make it seem purposeful. It’s just good hip hop from someone who wasn’t supposed to be able to rap (according to Kanye on “Last Call”). It’s hard to measure or compare the effects of 808s vs Dropout in an effort to decide which is better. While 808’s has been more of a slow burn and for some, an acquired taste, Dropout comes in at number 2 because of its immediate impact on rap culture, and a strong debut from Kanye West that planted the seeds of his budding career and his megainfluence on music.
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye has been traditionally a light-hearted character, his happy-go-lucky pink-polo “I Love Rapping” attitude being the number one quality that made him marketable in the first place. 808’s marked a departure from his traditional method of success, and sent him down a path of artistic expression and experimentation that was relatively unprecedented in mainstream Hip-Hop. Yet even after the incredible success and acclaim of his other works, this album is truly the masterpiece, and ranks as the number one album of Kanye West’s impressive career to date. The first record I heard off the album was “Monster”, a game-changing 4+ minute epic of braggadocio and wordplay in which Nicki Minaj confidently and dominatingly welcomed herself to the game with the best verse among an all-star cast including Kanye and Jay-Z, both top-10 all-time. One day on the way to work it played on the radio. I looked it up on Youtube as soon as it ended, and I arrived 10 minutes late because I sat in the car and listened to it three more times. Nicki’s verse stirred up all kinds of feelings. I was possessed by arousal and terror and excitement. The full album came out a few weeks later. “Gorgeous” contains Raekwon coming with one of the best Wu-Tang features of recent memory, and jumps right into “All of the Lights” and “Power”, the albums two lead singles. In those two songs you truly understand the vintage throwback futurism that the sound of Fantasy claims as its own, and the struggles of a wealthy life in the public eye with the pressure of an artist and a human. And Fantasy is so much more than a rap album; it’s more like a painting or a film, and the aesthetic he creates is moody and intense and baroque and breathtaking and can never really make up its mind about what it wants to be where it wants to go, yet somehow manages to end seamlessly and resolvedly. The middle-act of the album is the fever-dream of “Monster”, “So Appalled” and “Devil In a New Dress” back-to-back-to-back; eighteen straight minutes of career-best production from Kanye, sprinkled with fully-automatic rat-a-tat cadences and such clever writing that I could argue it is the best eighteen straight minutes of Rap ever released. The section both begins and ends with Rick Ross’s wheezy, crackly, joint-paper voice, and his feature on “Devil” may be the best verse of his surprisingly-long career. I don’t know if was intentional to bookend all that incredible rap with Rick Ross, but there it is. The album’s final leg is a super-emotive rollercoaster; the story of a typical human relationship and the feelings that accompany it. I remember thinking during the outro that it felt like an LSD-Trip. “That was unreal”, I thought. “Did I hallucinate, or was that Chris Rock?” (The “Blame Game” interlude featuring the Chris Rock monologue is a testament to the transcendent power of Kanye West at the time. It’s hilariously written and perfectly delivered. Typical Rock. It’s also an “I’m The Best Fuck You I’m Friends With Chris Rock” layered over a John Legend piano riff. Typical Kanye). The sounds Kanye used on MBDTF were honed between Graduation and 808’s, though now were accentuated by a huge ego, a private-jet lifestyle and a genius complex that cannot be matched. Kanye’s Midas touch was undeniable now, and the same ascendance he began on 808’s only accelerated with what may have been his first attempt at making a true cohesive and complete piece of art. As an accessory to the album Kanye produced a 20-minute film called “Runaway”, turning MBDTF into a multimedia piece of pop culture that, even years later, transcends rap, pop, R&B, and whatever other genres the Kanye West of 2011 could fit into. Before Fantasy, Kanye West a good rapper. He was a great producer, but had yet to reach that elite status of “Visionary Artist”. 808’s gave Ye the confidence to depart from his normal habits and foray into new musical frontiers, create new sounds and diversify his skills as a producer. This new, more liberated and stimulated, but still tormented Kanye West pushed his success as an artist, not just a rapper, to new heights, emboldening him as one of the Greats in the process of creating one of the great albums of the new millennium.