Looks, Kanye is crazy. OK, maybe that?s not a fair thing to say. The man clearly needs some psychiatric help, which he apparently did have up until some time ago. He?s made a big point of being off his bipolar medication, which?maybe he should still be on them if he?s going on TMZ and saying slavery was black people?s fault. But Kanye?s antics have almost always been a part of his persona; we?ve been ignoring his most glaring, infuriating, dangerous faults for some time now. And that continued to be the case with JESUS IS KING. We?ll get into that. For now, it?s sufficient to say Kanye?s latest record is the impetus for this piece, an exploration of an incredibly ?problematic? artist with an incredibly inventive, enjoyable, and yes, frustrating discography.
By the way: I will not be considering WATCH THE THRONE (2011) or KIDS SEE GHOSTS (2018), Kanye?s collaborative albums with Jay-Z and Kid Cudi, respectively. They just don?t exactly fit into the ?Kanye West? canon, although they are great records.
#9 ? YE (2018)
Favorite track: ?Ghost Town?
I didn?t like YE then, and I don?t like it now. KIDS SEE GHOSTS (2018) was the best output of Kanye?s fabled Wyoming sessions, which also saw the release of three other (pretty good) records from Nas, Pusha T, and Teyana Taylor. Just?that cover art is so stupid. I know that doesn?t necessarily indicate the music held within, but in the case of YE, it does. The album, like its cover, is a self-indulgent mess, and not in the profound, musically interesting way that many other Kanye releases are. I?m a huge fan of short albums, and at seven tracks and 23 minutes long, YE is basically an EP. And I?m glad, because the songs that make up the record are lacking any sort of hooks that otherwise permeate Kanye?s discography. ?Ghost Town? is a genuinely good track, not just for YE, but it?s a gem in the middle of an unsuccessful breakdown.
#8 ? YEEZUS (2013)
Favorite track: ?Bound 2?
Speaking of breakdowns (a topic that comes up a lot re:Kanye), YEEZUS is a more artful sort of deviation. A sparse, minimalist, aggressive, and haunting album, YEEZUS, along with YE, is probably Kanye?s least immediately ?catchy? release. Nevertheless, the thing surges with some (often unjustified) anger and braggadocio, given life by a harsh electronic sound. Well, not too much life; I don?t so much enjoy listening to YEEZUS as I do sit wondering and reflecting on how we got from THE COLLEGE DROPOUT to this. That transformation is part of the fascination for, and at times appeal of, Kanye, and YEEZUS is probably the epitome of it. ?Bound 2? is really the sole song with transmutable pop attraction, besides ?Black Skinhead,? which is nevertheless wrapped in much more abrasion.
#7 ? THE LIFE OF PABLO (2016)
Favorite track: ?Ultralight Beam?
Chance the Rapper is all over ?Ultralight Beam,? which is probably why it?s THE LIFE OF PABLO?s best track. Chance, so clearly influenced by Kanye, had by this point overtaken the master, and their collaboration invigorated another late period Kanye mess. But THE LIFE OF PABLO, in spite of its creator?s tampering of post-release ?patches,? a ridiculous concept for a work of art and a musical one at that, is a less draining mess than YE and YEEZUS (the latter isn?t quite a mess, it?s cohesive but not exactly attractive). But its return as a 20-track hip hop album, something Kanye consciously moved away from, ensured its inability to sustain its highs. There are five or six great songs on THE LIFE OF PABLO, but taking in the record as a whole, that?s not exactly a great percentage, especially when the record as a whole doesn?t offer its own cohesive, fulfilling experience.
#6 ? JESUS IS KING (2019)
Favorite track: ?God Is?
Uh oh. I might get in trouble for this. But look, I?m an atheist. Nothing about Kanye?s born-again routine appeals to me, and the lyrical content to JESUS IS KING sure is cringe-inducing. But that?s nothing new for a Kanye record; that?s been the case for like, oh, close to a decade. I really like gospel music though, and with JESUS IS KING, Kanye has made the tightest, most straight-forward pop record he?s made in a long while. I won?t expand on this too much; I feel it?s futile to resist the PABLO lovers.
#5 ? MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY (2010)
Favorite track: ?Runaway?
Even though I said I like a really tight record, and by extension, tight songs, ?Runaway? is my favorite track on MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY, a 68 minute long album. Even though it?s nine minutes long, ?Runaway? envelops me, even during the rambling last few minutes. And that?s kind of the case with the whole record. It?s the better culmination of somewhat disparate styles that THE LIFE OF PABLO was and is purported to be; there are just a lot more immediately great songs, like ?Gorgeous,? ?All of the Lights,? ?Monster,? and?I guess ?Power? is fine, if overused in trailers for video games and movies alike. Its lush production is an evolution of Kanye?s increasingly complex musical sensibilities, albeit one that would reach a needlessly complicated head.
#4?808S & HEARTBREAK (2008)
Favorite track: ?RoboCop?
Kanye?s initial experiment with a minimalist, electronic aesthetic nevertheless yielded incredibly lively, dancey tunes. ?RoboCop? is irresistible, but ?Welcome to Heartbreak? is iconic, ?Love Lockdown? is energetic, and ?Say You Will??s ballad-ish vibe opens the artistic statement for 808S & HEARTBREAK. It was also a concerted effort on Kanye?s part to continue forward with a more cohesive, tight album (as he did with GRADUATION), and I really appreciate that. I?m sorry I keep saying the word ?tight? so much. I just don?t love 20-track, hour-plus long, skit-filled hip hop albums. Well, I can love them, but it?s usually in spite of those elements.
#3 ? LATE REGISTRATION (2005)
Favorite track: ?Gone?
And yet I love Kanye?s sophomore-slump-defying LATE REGISTRATION, a 21-track, 70-minute long album. Because the thing is, if you remove the skits and lesser songs from the record, you still have an incredible 11 or so tracks. The best of those is ?Gone,? which ingeniously uses an Otis Redding sample. It?s impossible for me to not get wrapped up in ?Gone.? ?Hey Mama? is one of Kanye?s most successful sentimental songs, and the aggression on ?Crack Music,? ?Gold Digger,? and ?We Major? is not devoid of lighter, enjoyable pop hooks. LATE REGISTRATION is also noted for its use of strings, and it is indeed a brilliant fusion of Kanye?s sample-based, funky debut sound with the fuller orchestration that would define his later releases like MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY and THE LIFE OF PABLO.
#2 ? GRADUATION (2007)
Favorite track: ?Good Life?
GRADUATION has the best album artwork of all of Kanye?s albums, and artist Takashi Murakami would return to design the cover of KIDS SEE GHOSTS, which is also great. On GRADUATION, the cover indicates the kind of fun, colorful, and detailed music inside. It?s a near-perfect collection of 13 songs, and while its sonic commitment isn?t as strong as it is on 808S & HEARTBREAK, the general quality of songs on GRADUATION is much higher. ?Good Life? is a great return of Kanye?s early ?chipmunk? sampling and I want to dance to it. That?s a feat. I don?t dance. ?Good Morning,? ?Champion,? ?Stronger,? ?Flashing Lights,? ?Everything I Am,? even the somewhat embarrassing ?Big Brother;? these songs make GRADUATION a powerful, pure representation of poppy hip hop.
#1 ? THE COLLEGE DROPOUT (2004)
Favorite track: ?All Falls Down?
And that representation is what made Kanye so attractive. THE COLLEGE DROPOUT is one of the great debut albums, clearly not yet topped by Kanye himself, in my opinion. In spite of its reliance on more traditional hip hop trends (again, I don?t love wading through 21 tracks, five of which are skits, and 76 minutes), I can?t help but feel lifted up by the entirety of THE COLLEGE DROPOUT. Kanye?s story is at its most sympathetic and understandable; it took four years for him to get THE COLLEGE DROPOUT made, after spending that time creating incredible beats for Jay-Z and others. Ex-Gap employee Kanye is refreshing and fun. He would ascend with his next few successive albums with this style (funk-based sampling, plus orchestration and more complex songwriting with LATE REGISTRATION and GRADUATION), then descend into interesting, creative, and inspired experimentation beyond. Nothing really beats the great hip hop he created with THE COLLEGE DROPOUT though. I?m the object of Kanye?s derision on THE LIFE OF PABLO?s ?I Love Kanye.? I?ll deal with that, since 2004 Kanye?s arrogance made for relatable experiences and up-and-coming, hustle hip hop rather than masturbatory lyrical content and, I?m sorry, less fun music.