Kanye West Albums Ranked Worst to Best
During a 2013 interview with the New York Times, Kanye West shed some light on his feelings about his own discography.
It wasn’t quite as tidy as JAY-Z photographing all of his music albums in an ordered stack, but it did reveal a lot about what Kanye thinks of his output.
He said that 808s & Heartbreak “redefined the sound of radio,” while admitting that “the fact that I can’t sing that well is what makes 808s so special.” Meanwhile, he called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a “backhanded apology.” In more clear terms, he called his releases in the four years leading up to 2013 the “most culturally relevant albums” of the time.
Almost immediately, his comments were absorbed into the ever-evolving conversation that regularly overtakes the timeline, about how one ranks Kanye’s albums. Regardless of how you may feel about him as a person—political endorsements and bromance breakups aside—Kanye has one of the most impressive rap catalogs ever, spanning nine solo records and three collaborative efforts. He has undeniably secured a place at the bow of American culture. In the words of the artist himself, “I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.”
Six years out from the interview, his testament to his relevance holds up. Following the release of his polarizing new album, Jesus Is King, we’re revisiting the topic to offer our ranking of Kanye West’s albums, from worst to best.
12. ‘Ye’ (2018)
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Mike Dean, 7 Aurelius, Aaron Lammer, Andy C, Apex Martin, Benny Blanco, Caroline Shaw, Che Pope, Eric Danchick, Francis and the Lights, Irv Gotti, Noah Goldstein, Pi’erre Bourne, Scott Carter, Ty Dolla Sign
Features: PartyNextDoor, Ty Dolla Sign, Kid Cudi, Jeremih, Ant Clemons, Charlie Wilson, Caroline Shaw, 070 Shake
For all of the drama and intrigue surrounding the release of Kanye West’s eighth studio album, Ye, it’s easy to forget that the thing clocks in at just under 24 minutes. And for all of the weight it carries, its role as a serious pivot point in Kanye’s career, and the origin story of his Wyoming obsession, the album is staggeringly slight. The record was part of a wider announcement that Nas, Pusha-T, Teyana Taylor, and Kids See Ghosts were also releasing seven-song albums, each of which would be produced by West. There’s an argument to be made that Ye ranks in the bottom half of that foursome.
Ye feels entirely rushed. West supposedly reworked the entire album after his infamous run-in with TMZ. As such, Ye is more sketchbook drawing than finished painting, and the album features some of the sloppiest beats of Kanye’s career. There are some highlights, though. “Ghost Town” immediately enters the zone of canonical Kanye songs thanks to its dusty drums and show-stealing performances from Kid Cudi and 070 Shake. “All Mine” is catchy and off-kilter enough to remain interesting through its repetitiveness.
These respites aren’t enough to distract from the album’s low points, though. There’s Kanye’s line about praying for Russell Simmons and sympathizing with him because he got #MeToo’d. Later, he attempts to comment on his TMZ controversy by rapping, “I said, ‘Slavery a choice,’ they said, ‘How, Ye?’ Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day.” These are just two of many scattered moments that never quite connect to form full thoughts. It all adds up to the grand disappointment that is Ye, an album whose ambitions seemed to be bigger than the Tetons on its cover, but instead reflects the haphazard scribble that so aggressively intrudes upon the beautiful backdrop. —Will Schube
11. ‘Jesus Is King’ (2019)
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Angel Lopez, Benny Blanco, BoogzDaBeast, Brian “AllDay” Miller, Budgie, DrtWrk, E*vax, Federico Vindver, FNZ, Francis Starlite, Labrinth, Michael Cerda, Mike Dean, Pi’erre Bourne, Ronny J, Timbaland, Warryn Campbell, Xcelence
Features: Clipse, Ty Dolla Sign, Kenny G, Fred Hammond, Ant Clemons, Sunday Service
When Kanye West first announced that he was working on a Christian album called Jesus Is King, many feared the worst. He was coming off the least inspired effort of his career, Ye, and his Oval Office visit to see Donald Trump in a MAGA hat still loomed in the not-so-distant past. A Jesus-centric album with no cursing from a 2019-era Kanye West? It sounded like a potential trainwreck. When Jesus Is King finally arrived, it surpassed most of those expectations, but didn’t soar to the heights of the majority of his catalog.
Musically, the album is strong. Kanye has always excelled at incorporating soulful textures into forward-thinking hip-hop production, and a gospel album like Jesus Is King presents the perfect opportunity for him to do just that. “Follow God” flips Whole Truth’s 1976 “Can You Lose by Following God” for a head-nodding cut that feels like vintage Kanye. “God Is” leans into an effectively raspy, heart-on-his-sleeve vocal performance from Ye, over a triumphant musical backdrop that has the euphoric feeling of a true come-to-Jesus moment. Kanye certainly hasn’t lost his ear for production.
Jesus Is King’s Christian theme gives Kanye something to focus on, so it’s more cohesive than an album like Ye, but the project still suffers lyrically. This is a gospel album, but Kanye doesn’t spend a lot of time spreading the Word in interesting ways. Instead, he narrows his focus to himself and his own reawakening. At times, this feels more like an album about Kanye West than an album about Jesus (complete with some distracting clunkers like “Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A/You’re my number one, with the lemonade”). In turn, Jesus Is King has no clear audience. It’s too religious for most of Kanye’s secular fans, and too hollow for gospel radio. Because of these pitfalls, Jesus Is King ranks near the bottom of Kanye’s discography, but thanks to some gorgeous production, it’s a lot better than it could have been. —Eric Skelton
10. ‘Cruel Summer’ (2012)
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Che Pope, Andrew “Pop” Wansel, Anthony Kilhoffer, Boogz & Tapez, Dan Black, Hit-Boy, Hudson Mohawke, Illmind, Jeff Bhasker, Ken Lewis, Lifted, Mano, Mannie Fresh, Mike Dean, Mike Will, The Twilite Tone, Tommy Brown, Travi$ Scott, Young Chop
Features: R. Kelly, Teyana Taylor, JAY-Z, Big Sean, Pusha-T, 2 Chainz, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Cyhi the Prynce, Kid Cudi, D’banj, DJ Khaled, The-Dream, Mase, Cocaine 80s, John Legend, Travis Scott, Malik Yusef, Marsha Ambrosius, Chief Keef, Jadakiss
The best teams are said to be greater than the sum of their parts. But at times, Cruel Summer feels lesser than the sum of its parts. Released on September 14, just six days before the end of Summer 2012, the G.O.O.D. Music collective album is considered by many to be a failure, but it is salvaged by the fact that it boasts two smash hit singles in “Mercy” and “Clique,” two legitimate bangers in “Cold” and “New God Flow,” as well as an all-star remix of Chief Keef’s massive “I Don’t Like.”
Unfortunately, Cruel Summer’s undoing is its unchecked, aimless grandiosity, from the R. Kelly album opener to that unbearable “Sin City” spoken word interlude. It suffers from lack of focus. Who exactly was part of the G.O.O.D. Music crew at this point? One of the most prominently featured artists on the album, 2 Chainz, is not. Nor are Mase, Ghostface, Raekwon, Marsha Ambrosius. You know who is a part of the crew? Kanye West. Guess who we wish was on the album more. —Rob Kenner
9. ‘Kids See Ghosts’ (2018)
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Mike Dean, Noah Goldstein, André 3000, Andrew Dawson, Andy C, Benny Blanco, BoogzDaBeast, Cashmere Cat, Dot da Genius, Evan Mast, Francis and the Lights, Jeff Bhasker, Justin Vernon, Plain Pat, Russell “Love” Crews
Features: Pusha-T, Yasiin Bey, Ty Dolla Sign, Louis Prima
The news that Kid Cudi and Kanye West would be joining forces for their first-ever collaborative project came with some questions. Would they rediscover their magical chemistry from the late 2000s, or would the reunion suffer from the frenetic and eratic pace of the Wyoming sessions during which it was recorded? The 24-minute Kids See Ghosts album lies somewhere in between, but its highs come close to the creative peaks of Kanye and Cudi.
“Reborn” features a borderline spiritual hook from Cudi, alongside a shockingly polished and self-aware Kanye verse that feels like water in the desert compared to the sloppy rapping on Ye. “Cudi Montage” is another clear highlight, with West offering poignant bars about the cyclical nature of violence in poor neighborhoods (and Cudi’s humming on the chorus acting like a healing salve). The record’s Kurt Cobain sample is also an inspired choice, creating a fittingly gritty and emotionally charged backdrop.
While West cedes the lion’s share of vocal duties to Cudi, Kids See Ghosts features his most accomplished and engaging production of 2018 (save for Pusha-T’s Daytona). The title track is waif-like and eerie, with high-pitched synths that manage to float both at the fore of the track and in the distant background. “Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2)” is sludgy and psychedelic, but also joyous and uplifting, allowing lines like “You should quit your job to this” to land with force. The sample chopping on “4th Dimension” invokes the feeling of vintage Kanye. Kids See Ghosts is proof that Kanye and Cudi can still bring out the best in each other, or something close to it. —Grant Rindner
8. ‘The Life of Pablo’ (2016)
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Noah Goldstein, Rick Rubin, Andrew Dawson, Anthony Kilhoffer, Allen Ritter, Benji B, Boi-1da, Cashmere Cat, Chance the Rapper, Charlie Handsome, Charlie Heat, Caroline Shaw, DJ Dodger Stadium (DJDS), Darren King, Derek Watkins, Frank Dukes, Havoc, Hudson Mohawke, Karriem Riggins, Mike Dean, Madlib, Menace, Metro Boomin, Mitus, Plain Pat, Sinjin Hawke, Southside, Swizz Beatz, Sevn Thomas, Trevor Gureckis, Velous
Features: Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream, Desiigner, Kid Cudi, Rihanna, Young Thug, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla Sign, Frank Ocean, Caroline Shaw, André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone
While the earliest single to emerge from the obscure papal sessions for The Life of Pablo portended a trap bender in the spirit of Yeezus, this album is actually a gospel album. At least for the album’s first third, where Kanye West taps Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper, and Kid Cudi to sing lofty contrast with the maestro’s condo-weary cynicism. Here Mr. West inhabits TriBeCa, rapping about bleached anuses and outlining best practices for paparazzi.
The Life of Pablo is defined by such acute moments; unfortunately, the distance between those moments can feel too hollow to bear. It so happens that Pablo is West’s messiest album since Late Registration, with a middle act that badly mismanages the album’s pace, tone, and intent; a micro-discography stuck on shuffle. At his worst—which is to say, his laziest—West gasses himself into fits of first-draft songwriting, as when Kanye West mumbles the last scraps of “30 Hours,” or when he lashes at Taylor Swift and Ray J with punchlines that don’t logically follow. At its very best, however, Pablo is a testament to teamwork and intervention; downright magical when West leaves the outbursts to Chance, Price, Desiigner, The-Dream, the Weeknd, or, in conclusion, Post Malone. So Kanye dwarfs Kanye, to sporadic success. —Justin Charity
7. ‘808s & Heartbreak’ (2008)
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Jeff Bhasker, Mr. Hudson, No I.D., Plain Pat, Kanye West
Features: Kid Cudi, Young Jeezy, Mr. Hudson, Lil Wayne
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who will make the case that 808s & Heartbreak is Kanye’s best album. His most influential? Perhaps. The one that changed the trajectory of his career? Definitely. But the best? That’s a tough argument to make. It might be correct, though.
Lost in the discussion of whether Drake bit the 808s sound and sensibility to start a new age in hip-hop, and the question of what Kanye was even doing here, singing stream-of-conscious, despair-filled pop songs over spare electronic beats, is that this is a focused thesis statement of an album. For three albums, Kanye had won us over. He was hip-hop’s everyman, an artist that put seemingly every thought in his head on record, and we loved him for it. More than that, it brought him increasing levels of success at every turn. By Graduation he was, against all odds, our biggest star. 808s was supposed to be his missive from the top. The message it brought: None of this was worth it.
We all know the story of this album; Kanye’s mourning album that’s really a breakup album, following the sudden losses of the two most important women in his life. And it is a raw outpouring of loss and bitterness, but it’s also something more than that. 808s is a reflection on a Faustian bargain gone wrong, a message from a man who achieved everything he wanted—fame, fortune, critical adoration, and a place in canon—but realized too late that it was at too high a cost and, to his horror, there was no going back. 808s is the sound of living with decisions you regret.
Much ink has been spilled on the sound of this album; it either pioneered or helped define a new epoch in hip-hop, spawned the genre’s next ascendant star and eventual usurper of Kanye’s throne, and it still serves as the linchpin needed to understand Ye’s career. The weirdness of this album—and the fact that it seeped into the mainstream—is the best case for following Kanye wherever his mind takes us, even when (like right now) he’s giving you exactly what you don’t want. It’s telling that, after calling MBDTF his “best” album, he returned with Yeezus, an album that follows the template he set out with 808s to the letter.
It’s even more telling that, in 2015, Kanye took the stage at the Hollywood Bowl to perform the album for two nights in its entirety. It’s the only album he’s ever done that for, and it’s hard to imagine it happening for another. —Brendan Klinkenberg
6. ‘Late Registration’ (2005)
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Jon Brion, Devo Springsteen, Just Blaze, Warryn Campbell
Features: Adam Levine, Lupe Fiasco, Jamie Foxx, Paul Wall, GLC, Common, the Game, Brandy, Jay Z, Nas, Really Doe, Cam’ron, Consequence, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Rhymefest
Generally, people who love Late Registration most rank Graduation at the opposite end of Kanye’s discography. People who consider Graduation to be peak-Kanye often think of Late Registration as the weakest of the solo releases. But the first time I heard Late Registration, I heard the Kanye West album I’d wanted to hear since before College Dropout arrived: A lush, beautiful hip-hop chamber pop album, full of brilliant hooks and train-stopping lines that could vacillate from hilarious (“Gold Digger”) to serious (“Diamonds”) to poignant (“Heard ‘Em Say”) and double-back again, into expertly distilled Kanye braggadocio.
The best part about revisiting Late Registration—an album that has aged beautifully, and doesn’t date itself at every possible juncture (hello, Graduation, with its Daft Punk and its Chris Martin and its painful Weezy verse)—being reminded of all the album’s contributors that everyone often forgets. Sure, you’ve got Adam Levine doing the opening hook, Jay Z throwing up the Roc, and Jamie Foxx doing his Ray Charles schtick on “Gold Digger,” but what about Nas, on “We Major,” on the same album as Jay, at the height of their feud?! Or Killa Cam’s knock-knock verse on “Gone”? Brandy? Lupe Fiasco’s career-launching verse on “Touch the Sky”? And, most notably, the presence of producer Jon Brion across the album, lending Kanye a level of technical expertise and pop mastery that he had yet to achieve on his own. Clearly, this album was crucial in terms of Kanye’s career development. Is it perfect, though?
No. Hell no. The Paul Wall/Common/Game midsection suite is a trifecta of clunker beats and clunker guest verses. [Ed. Note—This is insane. “Drive Slow,” “My Way Home,” and “Crack Music” are as strong a string of songs as Kanye has ever recorded. But I’ll let Foster finish.] And do us Late Registration fans really think that any of these songs match up to the sheer genius of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” or “Champion,” or that “Heard ‘Em Say” compares to “Good Morning”? Of course not. But that’s also why we love Late Registration: It’s imperfect. It’s flawed. In a lot of ways, it’s quaint.
It’s the last Kanye album to follow any kind of conventions, like album-spanning skits. It’s too long by at least five songs. But it’s also the last time we heard the mortal rapper Kanye on the mic, as opposed to stadium-status Kanye, broken-hearted-robot Kanye, outcast-monster Kanye, or demon-deity Kanye. And the socially consciousness Kanye raps—from the “Allahu Akbar and throw ’em some hot cars” bars that start the album to the first verse of “Roses” to “Diamonds,” and so on—are as contradictory and nuanced as they’d ever be, at least until the extremist reckoning that is Yeezus. But the reason fans really love this album is best summed up by the album’s closer, “Gone.” It’s odd. Why put Cam’ron on a closing track? Or let Consequence deliver a filler verse? Especially on this, the original Kanye-Otis Redding sample song, that already has so much going on?
Kanye’s resounding response is Why not? In many ways, it’s just another solid rap song, and yet, it transcends another-solid-rap-song norms, with Kanye slapping together bars too clever for their own good, and overindulging his guests. But at the end of the track, he runs through a theoretical scenario in which he abandons rap and imagines what that would be like for us, the listeners. Given the drastic tidal shift Graduation represents, the foreshadowing couldn’t have been more prescient. Because that Kanye, the mortal rapper Kanye, did basically disappear after that. Years later, it still stands out as one his best verses. And it’s been forgotten by many, too. “Gone” in its own way. But it is representative of the smallest (but a key) reason why we love Late Registration: because you don’t know how to. And that’s fine by us. —Foster Kamer
5. ‘The College Dropout’ (2004)
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West,Kareem “Biggs” Burke, Jay Z, Damon “Dame” Dash, Evidence, Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua
Features: Syleena Johnson, GLC, Consequence, Jay Z, J. Ivy, Talib Kweli, Common, Twista, Jamie Foxx, Ludacris, Mos Def, Freeway, the Boys Choir of Harlem
Say what you will about the skits, about Kanye’s drums, about the “New Workout Plan.” The College Dropout was a great album. It wasn’t just that Kanye West proved himself as a solo artist with the vision to become a major star. It was the moment of impact that would create a sea change in hip-hop and open the floodgates for entirely new approaches to what rappers rapped about.
He’d already shifted the sound of hip-hop on The Blueprint, blending soul music history with contemporary pop instincts; now it was time to rewrite the rules of lyrical content, reaching the intersection of the streets and the classrooms, the backpackers and the ballers, the underground and the pop charts. As he said on “Family Business,” “A creative way to rhyme without using nines and guns.”
Many of his followers focus on the latter part, but the first part—creativity—was key, too. In retrospect, it’s harder to see how radical his first record really was; The College Dropout opened up a number of lanes that artists rushed to fill, and as a result, its thematic novelty is harder to see through the thicket of history. But it remains a startlingly unique, diverse record, and one of the most relatable records ever made. Funny, flawed, and emphatically human, The College Dropout may not have fully expressed what made Kanye who he was. But it created the space for him to do it. —David Drake
4. ‘Yeezus’ (2013)
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Ackeejuice Rockers, Arca, Daft Punk, Mike Dean, Gesaffelstein, The Heatmakerz, Hudson Mohawke, No I.D., Rick Rubin, RZA, Travis Scott, Symbolyc One, TNGHT, Kanye West, Young Chop
Features: Chief Keef, Justin Vernon, Kid Cudi, King L
Yeezus won’t go down as Kanye West’s most popular album—if anything, it seems explicitly designed to alienate all kinds of fans, some of whom have run to J. Cole’s more traditional (read: inspired by The College Dropout) approach to hip-hop. (Cole released Born Sinner the same week as Yeezus.) Rap has changed a lot since Kanye first broke out of the gate as a solo artist in 2004; back then, no major hip-hop artist would make an album about the humble beginnings of a college dropout, and make his struggle to break into the music industry the central drama of the narrative. Today, those everyman stories are commonplace, so of course Kanye’s taking a different tack. Where he began his career desperate for approval, he’s now seemingly looking to piss fans off. No one at his level of success would think of releasing a record as confrontational and divisive as Yeezus. These days, the rappers we celebrate are successful by consensus. Kanye breaks the mold of what rap today sounds like, intending to provoke rather than soothe. The album also shows just how much he’s mastered the art of bridging—or in this case, aggravating—the underlying seams of conflict between his audiences.
As time passes, this record will be accepted as one of his best; despite its flawed, grotesque structure, its abrasive, brusque mood, and its unrepentant anger, there is something substantial here. It is a wholly unique album that seems to take up physical space. His lyrics will sustain, even the corny ones. Sure to be a favorite of critics (“abrasive” is critical manna, word to Death Grips), in the real world, Yeezus will divide his audience. But everyone will remember it. —David Drake
3. ‘Watch the Throne’ (2011)
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation, Def Jam
Producers: 88-Keys, Jeff Bhasker, Mike Dean, Hit-Boy, JAY-Z (exec.), Don Jazzy, Kyambo Joshua (exec.), Sham “Sak Pase” Joseph, Anthony Kilhoffer, Ken Lewis, The Neptunes, Q-Tip, Lex Luger, Gee Roberson (exec.), RZA, Swizz Beatz, S1, Kanye West (also exec.)
Features: JAY-Z, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Mr. Hudson
It didn’t live up. It’s only alright. It’s a Kanye album featuring JAY-Z. These are the false narratives surrounding Watch the Throne, the collab album between twin titans of the present-day rap Mt. Rushmore. Kanye rejuvenated, fresh off the denouement of an unmitigated comeback story, was, as they say now, charged up. He had somehow managed to give his fans, especially the 808s detractors, exactly what they wanted, while still feeding his own desire to take hip-hop, pop—shit, music, to new levels. How do you double down on that? Well, you promise hip-hop a pipe dream. A marquee, blockbuster event between two A-listers. Collabs happen every day, b. But a joint project of this caliber, with rappers of this pedigree and reputation? Fat chance. And even if it does happen, it will inevitably fall short.
Yeezy and Jigga were well aware of the tall order. It’s why they dropped a banger like “HAM” and yet still almost fell back because for some reason, a sizable group of fans were turned off hearing them ride rap’s current sonic wave. They regrouped. And returned with an album that, nearly five full years later, still holds up as well as the solo Ye classic that preceded it. We have here the culmination of a big-brother relationship from mentor-mentee to competitive peers. JAY, pushing Ye to go harder, Ye pushing JAY to take off the blazer, loosen up the tie and return to the imperial phase he was in when the two first met. The brash genius with the Mary-Kate and Ashley references tempered by the older, colder lyricist who commands a stage unto himself at least three different times on the album.
The album is everything you wanted, stop fronting. Current (“Who Gon Stop Me”) next-level (“Niggas in Paris”) nostalgic (“Otis,” “The Joy”) and reflective (“New Day”). We thought this album would be an ego slug-fest, instead it’s a reconciliation. Does it sound rich? Sure, Otis Redding samples ain’t cheap. It’s also the most potent reflection on what it means to be black and ultra-rich in America (from the head-on “Murder to Excellence” to “Put some colored girls in the MoMA” on the ridiculously underrated “That’s My Bitch”), a vantage point few other rappers can commiserate on. And confirmation that these two still make magic together. Pull out your hardest speakers and revisit this. And pray these two come together again. Rap’s current shooters will tell you they abdicated the throne. But what’s a king to a god? —Frazier Tharpe
2. ‘Graduation’ (2007)
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West,Jon Brion, Warryn Campbell, Mike Dean, DJ Toomp, Eric Hudson, Brian Miller, Nottz, Patrick Reynolds, Gee Robertson, Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua
Features: T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Mos Def, Dwele, DJ Premier, Al Be Back, A-Trak, John Mayer
The best word to describe Ye’s third album would be “aspirational.” What makes it so special is that here was an artist who was on top of his game and on top of the game, an artist who, by any measure, was peaking, yet he dreamed of more. It wasn’t “Look at me, I’ve got my money right.” It was, “Wait till I get my money right.” The common person dreamed of being like Kanye, yet Kanye treated himself like a common person striving for perfection.
“Stronger” gave him another Billboard smash, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” was a sorely needed street anthem, and the release-day showdown with 50 Cent was the promotional spotlight to highlight his achievement. Kanye’s career is often described as inspirational, but Graduation‘s hugeness stand as a lesson in never settling at good—because it’s simply not good enough. The album’s sound was inspired by Kanye touring with stadium-rock acts like U2, which helped him realize that intricate lyrics don’t translate well to crowds of ten thousand, so he adjusted his lyrical style and added synthesizers to the production fill up any empty space.
The album’s effect is best exemplified on the album closer and ode to Jay Z, “Big Brother.” But at that point Kanye wasn’t Jay’s underachieving underling anymore. He was his peer, accomplishing in three albums what it took Jay six to do. But placing Jay on a mantle made perfect sense for Kanye; he’s always needed something to strive for. The day Graduation was released was the day Kanye had been waiting on his whole life: It was the day he became legendary. But it wasn’t a victory lap, it was the dawn of a new day where Kanye would shine on a whole new level. “Good Morning.” —Insanul Ahmed
1. ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (2010)
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Jeff Bhasker, Bink, DJ Frank E, Emile, Jay Z, Kyambo Joshua, L.A. Reid, Lex Luger, Mike Caren, Mike Dean, No I.D., Gee Roberson, RZA, S1
Features: Kid Cudi, Raekwon, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, Swizz Beatz, JAY-Z, Pusha-T, CyHi the Prynce, RZA, John Legend, Big Sean, Beyonce, Charlie Wilson
When Kanye West delivered Graduation, it felt as though we were witnessing an artist at his zenith. His musicianship was polished, his rapping vastly improved, his vision clear and (relatively) concise, his aesthetic dialed and sharp. But the reality is, Graduation was his Rubber Soul. And as all true Beatles fans know, that album is simply where things started to get interesting; that’s where things started to get weird.
The turmoil and pain that Kanye would endure in the following year, with the death of his mother and the end of an engagement, would fuel 18 months of touring and the production of 808s & Heartbreak, an album of singing that alienated his rap base, but still scored massive radio hits like “Heartless,” and a tumultuous relationship with Amber Rose.
However, neither the masochistic schedule nor the gut wrenching album nor charged romance salved his wounds. And his unwinding came to its head in a drunken, if totally awesome, interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Awards. Perhaps by accident, or perhaps as an unconscious machination, Kanye had created a situation where for the first time he was embattled by both the mainstream, livid over Swift-gate, and his core hip-hop fans who felt abandoned by 808s Auto-Tuned stylings. And so he absconded.
Holed up in a Hawaii recording studio—surrounded by the hip-hop legends who had inspired him, like RZA, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and his most compelling contemporaries, like Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and even Jay Z—Kanye poured himself, with complete abandon, into the music. His aim: An undeniable piece of art, so compelling it would eclipse all his perceived missteps and reassert his prominence in, his absolute necessity to, the culture. And he was successful. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy articulates his gnarled narrative, lining up and addressing all his detractors and distractors in short form. The album’s overtly triumphant lead single “Power” lets it be known in no uncertain terms that his is a talent that must be dealt with, a talent we must cherish and be grateful for. He delves deeper into his feelings of abandonment and alienation from America on “Gorgeous” and “Lost in the World” (and its outro) reflecting further, and less specifically, on the social climate that cast him out, before careening back to the self; to his personal life. Songs like “Runaway” and “Blame Game” walk thin lines between the raw and the refined, the candid and the grotesque, humanizing Kanye’s most inhumane impulses as he works out his love with Rose.
By the album’s conclusion it’s quite clear that while Graduation was certainly an exquisitely-cut jewel—so precious in its tidy perfection—it only scratched the surface of what Kanye West can create. Off-kilter and uncomfortable, and created under a unique duress, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a messy masterpiece, far more interesting and involved than anything Kanye had done prior. And it set the tone for everything that would follow. —Noah Callahan-Bever
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