Ranked: Kanye West’s Albums
From "College Dropout" to "Fantasy," Kanye’s complete discography from awesome to… less awesome.
So, Kanye West. He’s had kind of a year, no? In between launching a Twitter account that amounted to a one-sided therapy session, releasing a stream of killer singles this summer with his inspired GOOD Fridays series, and single-handedly affirming the fact that if you’re talented enough people will let you get away with whatever you want, he managed to put together a little album called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Besides boasting the most accurate name for an album possibly ever, it topped just about everyone's best of 2010 list (including our very own). And thus, we’ve decided to take a fond look back at the beautiful, dark, twisted journey that brought Kanye to here, ranking his discography as we see fit, from career highs to… slightly less highs.
5) 808s & Heartbreaks (2008)
808s is acknowledged pretty much across the board as a blip, and, putting aside the awesome, angsty cartoon Kanye in the video for “Heartless” and my own personal soft spot for "Love Lockdown," I’m not going to disagree. Despite a few solid singles, the end product is frankly kind of a chore to listen to all the way through. If it’s interesting for anything, it’s the early versions of techniques he’d go on to perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — a move toward ‘70s and ‘80s rock influences, and the debut of his endearingly nonexistent singing skills. Chalk this one up to growing pains.
4) Graduation (2007)
Even though it earned him three Grammys and spawned one of his most commercially successful singles of all time with “Stronger,” Graduation still doesn’t quite feel like Kanye on his “A” game. As he makes early moves toward his later focus on high-art production, the end result here is a a little too self-conscious and humorless, a cardinal sin for a rapper whose wit has always been the cornerstone of an otherwise middle-of-the-road flow. How else to explain tracks like “Drunk and Hot Girls,” a low point in his usually stellar track record of writing songs about fame that are actually compelling, which is no easy task to begin with. When you hear it alongside career standouts like “Flashing Lights” and “Good Life,” material like this comes across as filler.
Listen: "Flashing Lights"
3) Late Registration (2005)
By the time he released his sophomore effort, Late Registration, in 2005, Kanye was a well-oiled hit-making machine, almost to his own creative detriment. With more mainstream choices for samples (choosing a Ray Charles clip for "Gold Digger" right when Ray was at its buzziest was more than a little canny), Registration packed in Yeezy’s biggest ever blockbuster singles alongside darker-but-still-hooky material like “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” Like the albums that came before and after, Registration earned West endless praise and a Grammy for “Best Rap Album,” while further honing his signature use of sped-up soul samples. Bonus points go this album for his collaboration with Cam’ron on “Gone,” a track that’s classic Kanye and one that I consistently find myself coming back to.
2) College Dropout (2004)
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reminded everyone that Kanye is at his best when he’s putting together a total package album rather than a collection of singles — which is one of the things that still sets him apart from most hip-hop artists and nearly all producers. Which is why, before Fantasy, his debut effort was his best. Even while drawing heavily on the work of his idols like RZA, West came out of the gate with a signature sound already honed from his time working with Jay-Z. In the age of Kid Cudi, it’s easy to forget how radically different West’s cerebral style was at the time, from his pre-Vuitton-obsession preppy outfits to the brooding self-doubt in lyrics of songs like “All Falls Down.” The overused claim of “changing the game” really rings true here. Also, he rapped with his jaw wired shut. Let’s not forget that.
Listen: "Through The Wire"
Through The Wire
1) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Where to even begin? The fact that West came up with an idea as complex as Fantasy is incredible, but that's not the the main point here — he also made it into something of exceptional quality. Blowing the grandiose ideas of other artists out of the water, Yeezy is finally letting his inner maximalist run free, adding in huge-scale effects from drum lines and full orchestras (“All of the Lights”) to prog-rock guitars (“Power”) to, well, Nicki Minaj (“Monster”), then knowing exactly when to strip it all away ("Runaway"). And all while spitting lyrics that lay bare every single moment of introspection he could possibly have had in the past two years. The results are captivating, idiosyncratic and surprisingly tasteful. Listening to this album, you suspect that — in spite of his self-publicized inner turmoil — West is having the time of his life here. (I submit the inclusion of Chris Rock on “Blame Game” as evidence.) Somehow, even after going all-in with every effect and collaborator he could have possibly included, it all comes together — in a way that sounds not just appropriate, but absolutely necessary.
Listen: "Dark Fantasy"