2020 presidential candidate, fashion “designer” and sometime recording artist Kanye West is one of the most controversial and celebrated figures of the last decade, not only within hip-hop but just our modern world today. Thanks to the overwhelming brilliance and versatility of his canon, and the general instability of his public persona, as well as mental health, he’s achieved a level of infamy few other celebrities have or would want. The general quality of his music has kept his fans on side through any number of public dramas, however, he’s begun to haemorrhage support over the last few years with his move into politics under a far-right platform being one step too far for many. It doesn’t exactly play into his hands that his music in this period has taken a sharp nosedive too, with recent tracks “Wash Us In the Blood” and “Nah Nah Nah” going directly into the internet’s collective recycling bin.
Nonetheless, the sound and style he broke through with in the early 2000s went on to have an enormous impact on mainstream music of the following two decades. Having arrived on the scene as a producer for Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation, Kanye refused to fit the mould of a mainstream rapper, from the way he dressed to the fact he openly admitted to using writers to help him with his lyrics. He embraced collaborations like no one else resulting in albums that felt like rich, layered opuses, something anyone who was anyone in music had come together to take part in. From Mos Def and Chris Martin to Elton John and Travis Scott, a new Kanye album was awaited in the knowledge that it would shape and define the hip hop of the coming moment. This piece will be ranking each of his eleven albums from his most flaccid disappointments to his greatest triumphs.
11. Jesus Is King (2019)
Easily the least formidable of Kanye’s eleven studio albums to date, his latest released Jesus Is King feels more like an act of public relations than a rap album. Kanye has recently declared himself born-again, and a born-again Kanye required born-again music, so he scrapped the album he had previously been working on and haphazardly threw together Jesus Is King. Instrumentally, there’s not a lot wrong with the album, sonically it’s quite listenable, sounding not too far away from the cool, rejuvenating aesthetics of Ye. Unfortunately, Kanye’s fractured and bitter mental state combined with his overall degeneration as a lyricist results in some deeply unlikeable, unfocused and repetitive verses.
The intro is one of the few tracks that actually fulfils Kanye’s promised ‘gospel’ sound, with the Sunday Service Choir. It’s a somewhat predictable gospel intro that harangues the listener into feeling the spirit. We then transition into “Selah” which feels equally lacking in inspiration, generally attempting to feel big and important. “Follow God” delivers the first and really only proficient display of rapping from Kanye on the album, his delivery and lyrics sounding not unlike one of the better moments from Yeezus as he details his very evidently flawed temperament and perspective and his attempts to follow the teachings of Jesus and of his own Father. “God Is” is the other highlight, where Kanye’s singing is impassioned enough to cut through the extremely basic lyrics. However, then we get to the meme, oh no sorry, the “song” “Closed On Sunday”, a pretty blatant attempt to draw attention to the album by fulfilling its quota of Kanye wackiness.
“On God” has a fairly irritating and repetitive synth instrumental as Kanye details his one-percenter problems, saying that with the taxes he’s expected to pay, he has to gouge his fans through his clothing line to keep his family from starving. Meanwhile “Hands On” is just a very bitter song where he pre-emptively judges Christian listeners for not immediately buying his redemption narrative, and much like “Closed On Sunday”, the instrumental is pretty, but the lyrics so repetitive and half-formed as to be downright meaningless. Tracks like “Water” at least sound nice until Kanye shows up on the second half, but sonically the most unpleasant song on the album by far is “Everything We Need”, with a flow from Kanye that’s grating on contact and a stiff, boring trap beat.
The reunion of fraternal rap duo Clipse on the track “Use This Gospel” is sadly underwhelming, with both Pusha T and No Malice sounding like they’d rather be anywhere else, although No Malice probably delivers the best writing on the album, telling us more in one verse about his errors and journey to find faith than Kanye does across the whole album. The production on this track is equally mediocre, leaving the listener waiting until the final twenty seconds before dropping a pretty terrific beat. By the time we get around to Kenny G’s saxophone solo, it’s just wasted breath.
Despite Kanye’s reputation for unpredictability, Jesus Is King just ended up sounding almost exactly like what I had expected, the only surprise being quite how bad Kanye’s rapping was, and how insubstantial the project sounded as a whole. Clocking in at under half an hour, most of which is wasted time, Jesus Is King is far and away the most inessential player in Kanye’s discography, despite what a personal upheaval it represents.
Highlights: “Follow God”, “God Is”
Lowlights: “Every Hour”, “Closed On Sunday”, “Everything We Need”, “Hands On”
10. Watch the Throne (2011)
I did for a brief moment consider leaving Watch the Throne off this ranking. Not so much because it’s not a solo Kanye album, but more because it just feels so inessential. That’s my biggest problem with it, it’s such a frivolous and extraneous project for both artists. At its best it delivers some fun hype tracks. I’ve been in a club when the synth line for “N—-s in Paris” dropped, so I know it absolutely kills. However, some of the hardest and most memorable tracks like “HAM” are relegated to the deluxe version without many truly definitive moments in general.
Initially, I hated “Otis”, as “Try a Little Tenderness” is one of my favourite songs of all time, and I basically considered what Kanye did with it to be sacrilege. However, listening with less prejudiced ears, it really is probably the best track on here. “New Day” also flips a classic soul song, this time from Nina Simone and much more tastefully. I also like the fairly conscious passages of “Murder to Excellence” and Frank Ocean’s vocals add quite a bit to a couple of tracks. More than Beyoncé’s do anyway.
For the most part, I just find this a fairly uninspiring listen, like an unnecessary appendix of unfinished ideas for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I go back and forth between who I think owns more of the album’s style, Kanye or Jay-Z. At its better moments, it’s Kanye, with Jay-z’s contributions sounding particularly uninspired, although there are some moments where Kanye really does need more reigning in than he’s getting.
Highlights: “No Church in the Wild”, “N—-s in Paris”, “Otis”, “Murder to Excellence”, “New Day”, “Welcome to the Jungle”
Lowlights: “Lift Off”, “Who Gon Stop Me”
9. The Life of Pablo (2016)
What. A. Mess. Many Kanye albums have highs and lows, but nowhere are they more inextricably mingled than on The Life of Pablo. One of its more infamous moments is a perfect example: “Famous” has a stunning beat reminiscent of the beat for “Good Morning”, although I actually prefer the way it’s incorporated here and Rihanna’s vocals are of course fantastic. But then Kanye starts rapping, dropping the Taylor Swift line and suddenly the track is too caked in petty drama to see the strengths in it with Kanye once again using race to shield himself from accusations of blatant misogyny. There’s the equally inexcusable bleach line from “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, and the lazily incorporated “Panda” remix on “Pt. 2”. The entire opening leg of this album is sheer confusion, made up of non-committal interludes and structureless song fragments.
I honestly think The Life of Pablo would be so much better were Kanye’s own vocals just removed, he contributes barely anything lyrically, sounding more like he’s trolling his fans than anything else, just look at the “I Love Kanye” interlude for evidence, and he routinely falls into the background, allowing his guests to steal the show. I’ve already mentioned Rihanna’s vocals on “Famous” and Desiigner’s dominance on “Pt. 2” but there’s also Chance the Rapper delivering one of his best verses (the only one on the track) on “Ultralight Beam”, which emerges as an infinitely better expression of gospel-inspired rap music than anything on Jesus is King. We also have “Low Lights” where Kanye doesn’t appear at all, and The Weeknd and Ty Dollar $ign contributing their sublime vocals to “FML”, “Real Friends” and “Fade”, although even the brilliant Sia is unable to save “Wolves”, which is as all over the place as the album as a whole.
In the second half, Kanye does finally get off the bench, even if he occasionally leaves you wishing he’d stayed there. There’s still some irrelevant nonsense in this second half though with the interludes “Frank’s Track” and “Siiiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission” contributing basically nothing to the album. “30 Hours” benefits from a nice beat at first, but Kanye’s reflections on his come up are nowhere near as interesting as his narration on earlier albums, and the extended outro riff is absolutely tedious, stretching the beat far too thin. Maybe this would’ve been passable on an actual bonus track or a closer, but coming in the middle of the album it’s an insufferably self-indulgent and lazy attempt to recapture the magic of “Last Call”.
“Real Friends” is one of the more revealing and impactful moments where Kanye raps some actual verses and “No More Parties In L.A.” has a somewhat hypnotic beat, that again, gets old after less than half the time the track runs. The Kendrick Lamar verse is also rather middling but for once Kanye is on form here, delivering a fast and somewhat groovy flow. He just about manages to carry the remainder of the album by himself, attacking the fashion industry on “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)” over a beat straight off of Yeezus. “Fade” is a bit of a hip-house bop with Kanye in a strictly producorial role, instead giving the spotlight over to Ty Dollar $ign again, Post Malone and Teyana Taylor in the music video. “Saint Pablo” is probably the one display of truly impressive rapping from Kanye and comes with a superb beat and a beautiful chorus by Sampha. It’s the only track I have nothing negative to say about whatsoever.
The Life of Pablo is all over the place quality wise and stylistically, and it wastes many of its best moments, with next to no thought to cohesion, structure or sequencing. However, it is rather captivating in its completely nonsensical construction with one or two moments that are far more classic than anything on Watch the Throne or Jesus is King. I do admire its ambition, but not much when there are similarly ambitious albums in Kanye’s discography that actually accomplish the same kind of moon shot.
Highlights: “Ultralight Beam”, “FML”, “Real Friends”, “Saint Pablo”
Lowlights: “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, “Pt. 2”, “Highlights”, “Freestyle 4”, “Waves”, “Wolves”, “Frank’s Track”, “Siiiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission”
8. Yeezus (2013)
Kanye’s most polarising project, called his best by some and close to his worst by others. Increasingly I see both sides to the argument. On the one hand, yes Kanye is struggling to move into an industrial direction pioneered by artists like M.I.A, Tyler the Creator and Death Grips that he doesn’t even really seem to have that deep an appreciation of, and he’s barely keeping his head above water lyrically. In making this move, he alienated more mainstream listeners and hip-hop purists and angered fans of experimental hip-hop who saw him for the genre tourist that he was, jumping on the exciting new wave before the genre’s originators had a chance to breakthrough.
However, his mixture of club music and sample-based industrial hip-hop does occasionally produce something pretty enjoyable and formidable. On none of his albums is there a clearer distinction between the tracks I like and the ones I don’t, and I think that’s why it is such a divisive record. There are only ten tracks and I like almost exactly half of them. “Black Skinhead” is a banger, “Hold My Liquor” evolves the morose electronics of 808s & Heartbreak into a more vindictive and outrageous direction, and I do love the vivid audacity of “I Am A God” and “New Slaves” with some of Kanye’s more vicious stabs at materialism, wealth and racism hitting home, despite their blatant hypocrisy.
Equally though, the Billie Holliday sample on “Blood On the Leaves” still strikes me as extremely tasteless, tracks like “On Sight”, “I’m In It” and “Guilt Trip” really show how shallow Kanye’s grasp of this sound is, and I’m rather baffled by how anyone is supposed to have any admiration for “Bound 2”. It not only sounds completely out of place on this album but is incoherent both sonically and lyrically. In some respects, I have come to admire parts of this album, but in others, I still feel like it was symptomatic of a moment of instability in Kanye’s sound.
Highlights: “Black Skinhead”, “I Am A God”, “New Slaves”, “Hold My Liquor”
Lowlights: “On Sight”, “I’m In It”, “Guilt Trip”, “Bound 2”
7. Graduation (2007)
Within certain nostalgic sections of the hip-hop community, Graduation is a top tier Kanye album, and I’m sure this will be the most controversial placement on this list, but for me personally, this is the weakest of his early run. Sonically it continues the shift from Late Registration away from soul and towards more pop-influenced beats and its a far more synthetic and shrink-wrapped vibe than his earlier work, or even his more untamed later work. The album cover showing him blasted into the stratosphere, away from the earth, is a worryingly prophetic image.
This is Kanye at his most accessible, and least interesting. There’s no better example of this than the overblown power anthem “Stronger”, with its pitch-shifted vocals and extremely canned synths. Of course, Kanye would develop these sounds in a more interesting direction later, but here they just sound rather dated and cheap. The album also includes Kanye’s first truly skippable track in the form of the tedious “Drunk and Hot Girls” with a misplaced waste of a Mos Def feature, and tracks like “Good Life” and “Barry Bonds” do little for me either.
However, what handily saves the album is its second half. After its worst track, the album picks up dramatically with its best, “Flashing Lights”, with grandiose strings, stuttering synths and a terrific vocal performance from Dwele, his and Kanye’s voices complementing each other perfectly. After this, Kanye returns down to Earth with a delectable DJ Premier produced piano beat on “Everything I Am”, signalling a more reflective and personal turn. “Glory” feels like exactly what a more glamorous version of old-school Kanye should be sounding like, and the Coldplay crossover on “Homecoming” still sounds far better than it had any right to. Kanye’s lyrical reflections on a missed romantic connection on the track are also a return to more introspective songwriting that continues onto “Big Brother”, as Kanye pays tribute to his producer mentor No-I.D.
The later moments on the album do manage to combine the pop and electronic instrumentation with enough of the more grounded and lucid Kanye to produce some memorable and enjoyable moments. However, the banger tracks on the front end just make that sound rather shallow and annoying and its easily the least formidable or unique of Kanye’s first five albums.
Highlights: “Good Morning”, “I Wonder”, “Flashing Lights”, “Everything I Am”, “Glory”, “Homecoming”, “Big Brother”, “Good Night”
Lowlights: “Drunk and Hot Girls”, “Stronger”
6. Ye (2018)
2018 was an especially chaotic year for Kanye when he began to truly alienate his fans through a series of particularly unhinged public appearances, most notably his endorsement of the far-right president. Rumours of his unstable mental state had begun dogging him and off the back of this fractured public image he retreated into his work, producing five albums throughout the summer, including albums for Pusha T, Nas and Teyana Taylor, and two albums of his own, Ye and his Kid Cudi collaboration Kids See Ghosts. Ye is Kanye’s most revealing and vulnerable project, as he presents unfiltered reflections on his mental illness and recent public humiliations, attempting to regain control over the narrative. In light of the many objectionable and offensive views he was willing to share with the world at this time, it’s a surprisingly graceful and sorrowful album that returns Kanye to the humble and confessional songwriting of “Real Friends” or “Runaway”.
It certainly starts off kind of rough, with the alarming yet devastating “I Thought About Killing You”, where he rummages through the darkest recesses of his mind in a chillingly real and believable manner. Kanye still fails to read the room a few times and drops some lyrical clangers on the following track “Yikes”, such as referring to Russell Simmons getting “me tooed” (he was accused of rape by multiple women who worked for him and who Kanye dismisses here). The dry beat and inane lyrics of “All Mine” are also a low point, not only for this album but just in general. As a statement, it’s worthless, and sonically, it’s grating.
However, from here, Ye turns one-hundred-and-eighty degrees and emerges as a surprisingly endearing, humane and humble project with a string of sombre, confessional and ultimately uplifting tracks of love and resilience. He pays a deeply moving tribute to his wife Kim Kardashian on “Wouldn’t Leave”, thanking her for sticking by him through the humiliation of his drama and carelessness. PARTYNEXTDOOR’s vocals on this track are some of his best ever and Kanye’s teary-eyed reflections and humility go a long way to win the listener over.
The arranged vocals on “No Mistakes” are a triumphant and euphoric moment and the soulful rock instrumental on “Ghost Town” is finely composed building to the album’s phenomenal climax courtesy of 070 Shake’s phenomenal vocals: “nothing hurts anymore I feel kind of free”. If “Ghost Town” is triumphant and euphoric then “Violent Crimes” is downright sublime, with Shake once again delivering a spellbinding performance. The narrative woven here about a young girl’s father repenting his past chauvinism and misogyny is admittedly nothing new, but the version Kanye presents here is nonetheless deeply moving in its sincerity and one of the best takes on this subject I’ve yet heard and closes the album out perfectly.
Ye is undeniably cold and rough, however the listening experience offered by Ye is nonetheless highly rewarding and impactful, presenting Kanye at his most unguarded and raw in a rare moment of clarity. I can easily see someone struggling to find the patience for Kanye’s personal drama as sincerely as it is presented here, but I still find this to be his most sobering and poignant release. If you distilled The Life of Pablo down to just its best and most direct moments, you’d have a project about the size and shape of Ye.
Highlights: “I Thought About Killing You”, “Wouldn’t Leave”, “No Mistakes”, “Ghost Town”, “Violent Crimes”
Lowlights: “All Mine”
5. Late Registration (2005)
Kanye’s sophomore project, Late Registration is bigger, glossier and more glamorous than his first, continuing the higher education narrative, albeit in a much less focused manner. The skits here tell a barely humorous and rather insecure story of Kanye being thrown out of a fraternity for having too much money, an appropriate stance to take given the ritzier sound. The tracklist and sequencing are a lot choppier than on The College Dropout, despite being a less varied album it’s also somehow less cohesive, with deeply personal tracks like “Roses” and “Hey Mama”—which easily rank among Kanye’s best songs—sticking out awkwardly next to songs like “Crack Music” and “Addiction”. The themes of the album are more scattered and Kanye’s unique personality is very slightly diluted, replaced by more typical bling-era song topics. However, I’d also argue that “Addiction” is also the first example of that personality going unchecked for the worse, laying the seeds for the deterioration we would see in later projects.
Despite these relatively minor issues, the middle section of Late Registration still contains some vintage Kanye moments. I’m not a huge fan of “Heard Em Say” or “Touch the Sky”, with the album only really getting going for me at “Gold Digger”, which is one of Kanye’s best singles to date. Here the playful, energetic Kanye of The College Dropout really shines through in his portrait of this woman, and his flows are as on point and catchy as ever. Kanye had described the impact of his grandmother’s death before, on “Family Business”, however, his reminiscences on her last days on the track “Roses” are still among the most poignant verses in his discography, as is his tribute to his mother on “Hey Mama”.
Although I consider it a slightly more dated record than his debut, with some moments not hitting as hard as they used to, Late Registration nonetheless boasts some of Kanye’s best and most grandstanding moments. None of these moments are more grandstanding than his team up with Jay-Z on “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, a song so good I don’t even mind it being on the album twice. It’s easily the best expression of the sound Kanye was going for here and it and other career-defining highlights such as “Gone” and “We Major” secure Late Registration as one of Kanye’s indisputable releases.
Highlights: “Gold Digger”, “Roses”, “Bring Me Down”, “Hey Mama”, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)”, “We Major”, “Gone”
4. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
And now we come to Kanye’s Kid A, his big divisive change in direction. The synth and pop sounds on Graduation here evolve into a full-blown electronic RnB album, with Kanye’s weak but impassioned singing supported by copious amounts of autotune. Some people think this drains his voice of emotional expression; others think it adds to it. Fortunately, I’m in the latter camp, and it’s almost impossible to deny the enormous amount of influence this project has had on not only the hip-hop scene, influencing artists such as Kid Cudi, Drake and Future, but also across genres. Made in response to what was at the time one of the darkest periods in Kanye’s life, following the crushing end of a relationship, the death of his mother and his pillorying in the media following his interruption of the VMAs, this is the soundtrack to his soul searching and torment and sounds as unmoored and numb as it should.
The cold electronic sounds fit this vibe infinitely better than the vacuous celebration of Graduation and they make Kanye’s despair sound so cavernous and huge. The uneven, unstable percussion on “Amazing”, the stabbing keys on the spellbinding “Heartless” and the marching drums on “Love Lockdown” are stunning moments and the album as a whole is extremely consistent given the musical risk being taken. “Paranoid” immaculately captures the euphoria of being in love, undercut masterfully by the lyrics. The central simile of “Robocop” is admittedly an utterly ridiculous way of portraying a relationship torn apart by justified mistrust and infidelity, but I can’t deny the heavenly strings on that beat, nor the anthemic “Street Lights” or poignant and reflective “Bad News”.
The guests are almost all on board for the adventure as well. The chemistry between Kid Cudi and Kanye (on which more later) on “Welcome to Heartbreak” is phenomenal, and the Mr Hudson chorus to “Paranoid” is gorgeous. The only song I’m not really a fan of is “See You In My Nightmares”, which just sounds like a Graduation reject with an annoying Lil Wayne feature. Beyond that though, 808s & Heartbreak is easily one of Kanye’s most cohesive, exciting and well-executed concepts that still sounds fresh and unique today.
Highlights: “Welcome to Heartbreak”, “Heartless”, “Amazing”, “Love Lockdown”, “Paranoid”, “Robocop”, “Street Lights”, “Bad News”, “Coldest Winter”
Lowlights: “See You In My Nightmares”
3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Appropriately enough, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Aside from a couple of corny bars, I have no problem with a good seventy percent of this album. From the stunning and impactful opener “Dark Fantasy” to the epic “Runaway”, which has surpassed Radiohead’s “Creep” as the ultimate anthem of self-loathing, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy easily earns its reputation as one of the most grandiose and decadently immense hip-hop albums of all time. It’s the perfect marriage of audacity and accomplishment and I could sing its praises as long as anyone.
However…it really could’ve finished after “Runaway”. The four tracks following it are easily the weakest on the record. They’re not totally worthless, but “Hell of a Life” is a rather adolescent and shallow portrait of a hedonistic life of sex, and the three-minute outro skit to “Blame Game” is easily the most skippable moment in Kanye’s entire discography. Meanwhile “Lost in the World” sounds like an 808s & Heartbreak reject, with a very overproduced sound and vague, rather meaningless lyrics. It sounds like an attempt to make a generically large-sounding closer without having much in the way of ideas for it and it doesn’t lend any greater context to the out of place detour into consciousness with the Gil-Scott Heron outro “Who Will Survive In America”.
Nonetheless, this slightly weak conclusion takes little to nothing away from the phenomenal run from tracks one to nine. The multi-layered chorus of “Dark Fantasy” is anthemic in the best way, Kanye and Kid Cudi once again team up for the superb “Gorgeous”, the second verse of which is a highlight for Kanye as a rapper and Cudi’s singing along to the rusty guitars is hypnotic. “POWER” succeeds everywhere “Stronger” failed, with the choral chanting and rock guitars generating such a raw and organic sense of scale. The arrangement of the horns and the group vocals in “All of the Lights” is one of the crowning achievements of Kanye’s career as a producer, with Rihanna all but stealing the show on the vocal front (as always).
Then we have the pair of epic posse cuts, “Monster” and “So Appalled”. Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster” will always stand as one of the most show-stealing feature verses of all time, although Jay-Z and Kanye hold up their end too. It’s a phenomenal stadium filler with stiff dusty drums and a head-bobbing sample, resulting in one of the most replayable tracks on the album. “So Appalled” is a little overlong at almost seven minutes, but Swizz Beatz’s chorus and the stiff instrumental carry the track, and the features, though none of them are highlights, all do well. Kanye opens the track with the best verse and a fantastic line that haunts him to this day: “I’m so appalled, spalding bald, balding Donald Trump taking dollars from y’all”. Jay-Z and Pusha T do their thing, even if I prefer their other appearances on “Monster” and “Runaway” respectively. It’s only around RZA’s feature that the track really does start to outstay its welcome.
“Devil in a New Dress” is a bit of a drag and mostly carried by the soulful, classy, old-school beat, and is probably my least favourite track out of the first nine, Kanye’s flow is just a bit too slow-moving for this album and I’m not a big Rick Ross fan. However, then we get to “Runaway”, in my opinion, the definitive Kanye West track, for the second half of his career at least. The spare piano is absolutely stunning, offset perfectly by the echoing “look at-cha” sample and skittering drum pattern and Kanye’s lyrics here are bracingly revealing and honest of his career. Pusha-T’s verse slots in seamlessly and the wailing outro is iconic and doesn’t wear on the listener thanks to that spellbinding piano. This track is the perfect realisation of what Kanye has spent so much of his latter career trying to recapture. It would have made the perfect closer to what would have been a near-perfect album.
As much as I do find myself drifting off after “Runaway”, the impact and sheer ambition of the album is pretty undeniably impressive. It’s a marriage of old and new schools of both hip-hop and Kanye personally, transitioning him into the much more inconsistent and unpredictable phase of his career.
Highlights: “Dark Fantasy”, “Gorgeous”, “POWER”, “All of the Lights”, “Monster”, “So Appalled”, “Runaway”
Lowlights: “Blame Game”
2. The College Dropout (2004)
The definitive Kanye album, narrating his come-up, The College Dropout establishes not only Kanye’s distinctive and bold sound, but his fun and rambunctious personality, with satirical humour as layered and rich as the soulful, head-bobbing production. The broad conceptualising ties the album together cohesively, but it still covers a variety of different topics neatly bunched together in three or four-track sections, from financial concerns, body image and sexuality, to religion, higher education and family.
Kanye delivers some of his most effectively conscious material on tracks like “Never Let Me Down”, the highly underrated “We Don’t Care” and of course “Jesus Walks”, which is still by far the most detailed and inspiring exploration of Kanye’s faith that he’s put on record. It’s easily his most relatable project with tracks such as “Spaceship” and “Family Business” painting evocative portraits of a very normal adolescence, and songs like “Through the Wire” and “Last Call” are rich with autobiographical detail. It’s also easily Kanye’s funniest record, finding the rapper at his most playful and accomplished. Despite, or because of its rawness, many moments on this album have never been bettered, even including some underrated hype tracks such as “Breathe In Breathe Out” and “Get Em High”.
Standout and tastefully incorporated guest features come courtesy of Jay-Z, Twista and Talib Kweli, but rarely is the spotlight tugged from Kanye’s shoulders. The weakest moments on the album are just a couple of less than memorable moments and the segment where Kanye is attacking higher education. As someone who has no reason to be resentful of their time at university, and passionately supports higher education, I don’t really agree with his messaging here. However, the skits are genuinely funny and well performed and I can appreciate how they might speak to other people’s experiences better than mine.
Thanks to its beautiful and varied production, Kanye’s best showing as a rapper by far, and its unique and personality driven style, The College Dropout emerges as not only Kanye’s best solo project but a classic and defining project of its era that still sounds crisp and fresh to this day, and one of the best debut albums in rap history.
Highlights: “We Don’t Care”, “Spaceship”, “Jesus Walks”, “Never Let Me Down”, “Get Em High”, “The New Workout Plan”, “Breathe In Breathe Out”, “Through the Wire”, “Family Business”, “Last Call”
Lowlights: “School Spirit”
1. Kids See Ghosts (2018)
It’s testament to the quality of the handful of tracks presented on Kids See Ghosts that I think the project earns its number one placement on this list against albums containing three times as much material than it. Nothing better defines the lightning in a bottle creative high Kanye was evidently on that summer than this project. It seems to exist entirely within its own genre, unlike anything else I’ve heard anywhere, comparable only to some of Gorillaz more classic moments, and the best tracks off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, combining alternative rock and hip hop in a psychedelic, shamanic concoction that serves as the free-spirited high to the burdened lows of the world-weary Ye.
From the utterly demented “ka-ka-ka-ka, pa-pa-pa-pa” chanting, haunting “I can still feel the love” refrain, murmuring bassline and marching drums of “Feel the Love” to the gently creaking guitars, rising synths and shuffling drums of “Cudi Montage”, every instrument on this album, whether the vocals, samples or beats, sounds perfectly placed and utilised in a way that sounds epiphanic.
It’s a mere seven tracks, but every single one of them is simply perfect. With lyrics speaking of rebirth, freedom and euphoria, it felt as if Kanye had emerged from his unusually turbulent year with newfound perspective and wisdom. As if a great weight had been lifted and a veil drawn back, as he delivers his best verses since The College Dropout on tracks like “4th Dimension”, “Reborn” and “Cudi Montage”. Sadly, this clarity apparently didn’t last and instead mutated into something equally harmful, and even the creative streak ran itself out, but it was an inspiring moment while it lasted.
Despite Kanye sounding better than he had in years on this project, the contribution of Kid Cudi oughtn’t be neglected. He’s the perfect counterweight to Kanye’s often chaotic lyrical chains, lulling the listener back into rolling sonic waves with his trademark humming and murmured singing on “Reborn” and “Kids See Ghosts”. He arguably dominates the project more than Kanye does, however, the Kids See Ghosts title liberates the album from expectations and comparisons between artists and projects, with features Yasiin Bey, Pusha T and Ty Dollar $ign all contributing seamlessly to the album’s rich palette of voices.
Despite its short run time, Kids See Ghosts is somehow one of Kanye’s most satisfying and complete releases, easily rivalling any of single one of his other projects in sonic experimentation, variety, consistency and cohesion. It’s when listening to this that I’m honestly ready to believe everything I’ve ever heard about Kanye being a musical genius.
Highlights: “Feel the Love”, “Fire”, “4th Dimension”, “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)”, “Reborn”, “Kids See Ghosts”, “Cudi Montage”