Kanye West is a divisive figure. Take a look at any article on any given music publication’s website or social media page about him: it will be swarmed with comments of people insisting on letting you know just how much they despise him and how he doesn’t deserve any media coverage or success in his career.
Meanwhile, on the flipside, West has sold 21 million albums and 100 million digital downloads, making him one of the biggest selling artists of all time. His albums frequently feature on critical best of lists, with 3 of his albums featuring on The Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and 2 of his albums making the Pitchfork top 100 albums of 2010-2014 list. He has also won 21 Grammy awards, making him the most Grammy-awarded artist of his age.
So why are people (including myself, in the past) so quick to dismiss him? Well, quite frankly, to the average person Kanye really makes it difficult to like him, given how he presents his public persona through his various controversies over the years. He has stormed the stage on a number of occasions at award shows, not once for any noble or admirable reason. And as for my own opinion, there were only around 4 or 5 singles that I knew particularly well by West at the time of the Taylor Swift incident; I still don’t like Stronger, Jesus Walks or All Falls Down that much to be perfectly honest. Regardless, you should never judge a band or solo artist by their singles alone, something I was reminded of when Kanye’s first album was recommended to me via a discussion on the Electric Picnic message board at the time of the West Vs. Swift fiasco. At that point, I’m pretty embarrassed to admit I called Kanye some regrettable names. I was subsequently corrected by 2 or 3 people who pointed out his debut album The College Dropout as evidence to the contrary of my statement. I think it was around 30 seconds into album opener We Don’t Care that I realised I would most likely have to take back what I’d boldly declared about Kanye West mere minutes earlier.
So in an what will almost certainly be a fruitless attempt to turn Yetheist’s into believers, here’s Kanye West’s back catalogue ranked in order of greatness.
7. 808’s & Heartbreak
Kanye’s fourth album was originally intended to complete his college tetralogy after 2007’s Graduation. A series of tragedies in West’s personal life such as the untimely death of his mother Donda and the end of his relationship and engagement Alexis Phifer prompted him to go in a different direction altogether. Rather than rapping, Kanye opted to sing using auto-tune. Additionally, he decided to go for the musical backdrop of electropop and R&B, rather than hip-hop. Sadly though, for the most part, the gamble doesn’t really pay off. Auto-tuned vocals are one thing Kanye can evoke brilliance from (more on that later) but for the majority of this album, it falls flat. In fact, the only song on the record that genuinely works brilliantly is Paranoid. Largely though, it remains very much inaccessible at best, and unlistenable at worst (see Pinocchio Story). Still, it’s the only blemish in terms of albums across Kanye’s career so far.
Following the maximalist musical landscape of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West decided to do the exact opposite for it’s respective follow-up. Yeezus is an extraordinarily raw, primal beast of a record. The opening track On Sight sets the tone for what follows throughout the album; the electroclash synths blaze through the song like nails on a chalkboard. This is a million miles from any of the lush orchestral production on Dark Fantasy, an album which incidentally had 5 different album covers. Yeezus technically has no cover artwork. But did the turnaround of musical style from Fantasy to Yeezus pay off? In the grand scheme of things, it’s fair to say, yes. It received rave reviews, went platinum in the USA, Gold in the United Kingdom, and featured on a number of music publications best albums of 2013 lists. It also features some of Kanye’s best work, particularly Black Skinhead, On Sight, I Am a God and Bound 2 et al, and even got a glowing endorsement from the legendary Lou Reed. West pushes himself further than ever before on this record, which makes it all the more intriguing to speculate on where Kanye will do next for his forthcoming Swish album, due later this year.
Kanye’s third education-themed album took inspiration from his time touring with U2. Essentially, West was going for a more grandiose approach, seeking to make music for rock arenas, and further achieve his desire for stadium status. He also decided to broaden his musical influences beyond hip-hop and samples of soul records, opting to incorporate elements of rock, electronica, synth-pop and lounge. He even uses Can’s Sing Swan Song as the basis for Drunk and Hot Girls. The overall result was one of the finest offerings of Kanye’s career to date; an exquisite fusion of electro, pop and hip-hop.
4. The College Dropout
With Kanye’s debut album, he had something to prove: that he was more than merely a producer. From the mid-90’s up until debut single Through the Wire, West served as a hip-hop producer, most notably on Jay Z’s 2001 album The Blurprint. The full detail of his eventual signing to Roc-A-Fella Records can be found on the epic closing track Last Call. The album is inter-weaved with soul/gospel tracks like I’ll Fly Away as well as goofy skits such as Workout Plan and Lil Jimmy, and remains a stunning debut effort, often cited as still being West’s best album.
3. Late Registration
For Kanye’s sophomore effort, rather than suffering the slump often associated with second albums, West actually managed to blow The College Dropout out of the water with Late Registration. Once again, he managed to release an album that was lavished with critical praise, sold 3.4 million copies in the United States alone and yielded some of the biggest singles of West’s career so far, particularly Gold Digger. Elsewhere, Crack Music, We Major and Gone are among the best cuts you’ll find on a Kanye album. He took the production style he’d honed through the previous decade and expanded it even further, making a breath-taking second LP. His best work though, was still to come.
2. Watch the Throne (with Jay Z)
Jay Z and Kanye West had been collaborators and close friends for a number of years. Watch the Throne initially started out intended to be an EP, but wound up being a full-length album. When two hip-hop giants come together for a collaboration like this one, expectations are going to be understandably high. Thankfully, not only did Watch the Throne meet these expectations, it actually somehow managed to exceed them. Another 180 degree turn from Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album which preceded it, Watch the Throne deals with themes of opulence, materialism and the troubles that go with success. Musically, it’s was one of Kanye’s most accessible works in a number of years. Not to dismiss Jay Z either: both parties are given ample opportunity to shine throughout the record as well as on the immense double-headed world tour that followed. They even went as far as playing ‘Throne favourite Niggas In Paris multiple times to close the live show, culminating in the record being held at a total of 12 performances in a row in Paris.
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Remember that whole Taylor Swift award show incident I mentioned earlier? Of course you do. As well as being an excuse for people like myself to finally give Kanye’s music a chance, it actually proved as a catalyst for West himself for his next album. The negative public image damage for Kanye was so severe that Mos Def actually advised ‘Ye to move out of America and lay low for a while. He didn’t quite leave the country, but did submit himself to a self-imposed exile in Hawaii. Thank God he did, because he wound up making his best album as well as one of the greatest albums of the decade so far. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has an overwhelming deluge of collaborators and maxamilist production. Whereas previously Kanye’s experimentation with auto-tune vocals was difficult to assimilate, here it elevates the music to an emotional crescendo not realised on any Kanye album before, especially on the three-minute outro for Runaway. Blame Game is another peak on the album, with the majority of the song featuring Kanye bitterly rapping through the details of what was clearly a devastating relationship breakup, with John Legend’s vocals providing the vocal hook on the chorus. Surprisingly, the song closes with a dramatised overheard conversation between West’s ex-girlfriend and her new lover, played by Chris Rock. It’s both vulgar and hysterically funny and somehow doesn’t derail the original premise or serious nature of the track.
Dark Fantasy remains the magnum opus of Kanye West’s career so far. Here’s hoping that this year’s Grammy outburst at the expense of Beck along with the subsequent fallout and backlash from the media will yield another masterpiece from him when his new album drops this Autumn.
“Let’s have a toast to the douchebags…”