9. “Jesus Is King” (2019)
The trump endorsements, the presidential ambitions, the unhinged interviews and a sudden and seemingly (at the time) fragile conversion to Christianity all plagued the mind of any Kanye fan in 2019. Yet, despite his recent antics, I sat there in suspense as release date after release date came and went, and when it finally dropped, classically late, I was in a state of “why?”. Let’s make one thing very clear, the criticisms I have with this album aren’t actually the usual avenue of “Jesus Rap”, because Christianity has aligned itself with Kanye’s career countless times, and even propelled him into superstardom back in 2004 with “Jesus Walks”, his career defining track. “Ultralight Beam” is another fan favourite that owes everything to gospel singing and divine imagery. I had a perhaps naive expectation that we were about to get an album full to the brim of emotional introspection, soul searching and the odd “Ultralight Beam” anthem to see us through, but what we got was quite different. We didn’t get what felt like a finished album, but more a handful of short tracks thrown together, that’s subject matter reads like a scattered prayer. The religious themes aren’t the issue, it’s the way Kanye presents them to us. Gone is the excellent ferocity of the challenge to media that stoked “Jesus Walks”, and in it’s place is Kanye delivering half-hearted, short and uninspired verses about the importance of faith. The production in places is equally as frustrating, because Kanye still has it. He still has the ability to create gorgeous soundscapes, but he can’t fill them with inspiration anymore, and it doesn’t feel like he wants to. When “God Is” first came in with its soul driven, gorgeous instrumental reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ “Black Moses”, I geared myself up for redemption. I waited for the Kanye we know and (well, sort of) love to hit us with something substantial, but no. This album feels incomplete and utterly half-assed and is the only Kanye album that’s pretty unredeemable and insignificant.
8. Yeezus (2013)
The fact that there are people that place “Yeezus” as the jewel in the Kanye crown is a testament to the versatility and consistency of Kanye’s genius. But for me, despite the industrial electronic record enjoying somewhat of a reappraisal in recent years, I still don’t enjoy “Yeezus”. I might one day look back on this and be furiously cursing at my old self, but for now, it remains my least favourite Kanye output. “Yeezus” was Kanye’s first step into the Avant Garde, a noisy experimental record that was filled with audacity like we hadn’t previously seen from Kanye. Everything, from the sound of the record to the song title “I Am A God” was blatant brashness taken to the next level. “Black Skinhead”, probably the most popular track on the record was everywhere in 2013, and every single school desk across the country braced themselves for the inevitable drum break down that was sweeping across the world. It’s a weird but excellent song that sounded like very little on the radio at the time, and it embodied what Kanye did best, strived to evolve and the watched the radio follow. But for me the love ends there. I can appreciate “Bound 2” and “Blood on the Leaves” and catch me in the right mood and I really enjoy them, but there are too many songs on this album that to me scream experimental and provocative, but Kanye seems to have forgotten how to make that into a good song, or a worthwhile piece of music.
7. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
This album finishes off the section of the list that gets very little attention from me. I had always skipped over 808s after hearing horror stories that it's an auto-tune fest, and Kanye attempts to do emo rap / singing, but recently made an effort to sit with it. Whilst I still don’t love it, it has its moments, and it’s the most influential Kanye album of them all. Everything you hear on the radio, or in the Spotify playlists, is almost a direct result of this album. Kanye had just lost his mother, was in the midst of a failed relationship and was struggling with the pressures of fame. After three monumentally successful and critically beloved albums, he decided to make a decision that would soon become imperative to Kanye’s nature, change things up. This record is utterly solemn, deeply personal, and features almost no rapping. Instead Kanye took inspiration from other aspects of music that was bubbling at the time. He saw what T – pain was revolutionising with auto-tune and made that the focus of this album. The delivery is something that is completely dominant in today’s music. Its auto-tuned sing rap with a distinct emo vibe, which has informed countless stars today, most notably Travis Scott, Juice Wrld, Lil Uzi. Without this album, there’s no Travis Scott. Whilst people often point to T-Pain as the real grandfather of auto-tune, Kanye did something that T-Pain couldn’t and made it respectable, and artistic. He gave it a purpose, embedded it within excellent production and paired it with vulnerable and important subject matter, showing the world that it wasn’t just a gimmick, but a force to be reckoned with. His drums are lifeless and cold, a technique he picked up after studying Phil Collins, and the record just has an icy, morbid feel to it, far from the celebrations of “Good Life”. “Say You Will” is my personal favourite on the record, an excellent opener that’s robotic sound is bolstered by the heartbeat-like bass, and the ominous choral background. Its ghost-like, and there isn’t anything in his catalogue like it. “Heartless” is a great single assisted by the legendary No I.D, and the world was introduced to the marriage between Kanye and his protégé “Kid Cudi” on the devastating “Welcome to Heartbreak”. I don’t love this album like the ones lower on this list, but I appreciate it.
6. Ye (2018)
Probably the most overlooked release from Kanye, but its probably his most sincerely personal effort. Kanye albums are usually a grandiose affair. A seismic shift felt by the industry and radio alike, whether it’s the early 2000’s hits that stick to the radio like glue, or the critical dynamism of MBDTF. They either tend to bring vast amounts of influence, genius hits, or just general controversy. “Ye” didn’t do any of these things, and for that reason it doesn’t particularly feel like a “moment” in Kanye’s career, but that doesn’t stop of it from being a great album. Released during Kanye’s G.O.O.D Music run where a 7 track EP from the likes of Pusha T, Teyana Taylor and Nas were released every Friday, expectation was high. He’d proven to the world that even after arguably his most unstable year yet, he could still produce a masterpiece with Pusha T’s Daytona, a career defining album for the coke rap connoisseur. But when “Ye” landed, the general feeling was deflation. People didn’t see the grandeur of MBDTF, the madness of TLOP, or the soul of College Dropout, and it was uncertain where it fit in. Whilst none of the above is wrong, that’s sort of what makes this album quite special.
After being completely hung out to dry in the public eye with his Trump relationship and his TMZ episode, it became clear Kanye wasn’t mentally in a good place, with suggestions even being made for Bipolar. Kanye addresses this head on in the minimalist album cover, in classic Kanye style. The music itself is restricted to 7 tracks, and the production is quite barebones, something that isn’t typically in Kanye’s repertoire. But that’s what makes this album such a nice change from the rest of Kanye’s artistically heavy discography, its stripped down to symbolise Kanye’s vulnerability and honesty. Song’s like “Violent Crimes” penned for his daughter, still have classic Kanye-isms, but there’s sentimentality there. There’s a genuine feeling of Kanye’s fear and hopelessness in the case of his daughter growing up in the limelight, and having to deal with the type of men Kanye spent much of his career spearheading. Not to mention the backdrop is one of the prettiest in his catalogue, with gorgeous ambience resting on some soft boom bap drums. Song’s like “No Mistakes” and “Wouldn’t Leave” are some of my favourites, harking back to the “Old Kanye”, steeped in soul and personality. There’s so much to love here, if you look beyond the weight of Kanye’s classics, it’s such a fun and rewarding listen.
5. Graduation (2007)
From here on out, its all gold. To convey the extent of Kanye’s quality it’s important to say that “Graduation” for most artists, would be the jewel in their crown, their opus, but it’s 5th for Kanye, and I’ll explain why. This for me is the most dated Kanye album (Watch the Throne excluded), but that’s no bad thing. “Dated” automatically brings about negative connotations, but for me it more means the music is just a product of it’s era. So much of the amazing music from the 20th century is dated, but that doesn’t stop it from being great, and it can sometimes even lend itself to reputation, through a feeling of nostalgia and time travel. That’s how I feel about “Graduation”, some of the songs (and only some) don’t quite have the timeless feel that Kanye’s greats do. The smash single from this album “Stronger” was the first hip hop song I ever heard, and the first I ever downloaded. I remember hearing it on a YouTube trailer and for the longest time I couldn’t find out what the song was called, but when I did, it was pretty much all I listened to on my sisters iPod Nano. I got her to buy it for me, and I was absolutely obsessed. Whilst I’m not as enamored with the song as I was when I was 9, it’s important for understanding “Graduation”. Kanye had produced two nearly flawless albums by 2007, but they both occupied a similar lane. Soulful, accessible hip hop that had a certain backpacker appeal. After touring with U2 and seeing the stadium sized potential of music, Kanye changed his attitude towards his song writing, and placed more emphasis on anthemic pieces, that could raise a whole stadium to their feet. And it was a major success. The sound also developed into a more electronic realm, whilst keeping his soulful roots. “Stronger” featured a Daft Punk electronic sample, synthesizers and drums that had never before been heard from Mr. West. It was a statement that warned the industry that he was here to avoid the box, and to evolve, conquering the world as he did so.
Some of my favourite Kanye songs are on this project, most namely being “Good Morning”, his best album opener. There’s something so simple but so satisfying about hearing the Jay Z sample come in as the chorus plays, someone who was once Kanye’s idol now plays beside him, aiding him in his craft. “Everything I Am” is still Kanye’s prettiest instrumental and with a little help from DJ Premier he carves out his stance in Hip Hop in a moment of reflection. There’s too many standout’s to name, whether it’s the Jackson 5 sampled “Champion”, the declaration of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” or the late-night luxury of “Flashing Lights”. He even pushed the envelope of Hip Hop features by including Chris Martin on “Homecoming” and making it sound like a collaboration that was always meant to happen. Unfortunately, what holds this album back slightly for me is a few tracks that don’t quite hit the mark, and one that is truly terrible. That would be “Drunk and Hot Girls” with none other than legendary Mos Def, I cannot tell you why they decided to make that song.
4. The Life of Pablo (2016)
This is definitely Kanye’s marmite, you either love it, or love to hate it. After a very long adjustment period, I can confidently say I love it, but not in a very conventional way. It took me a long time to come round to this album. I wasn’t interested in 2010’s Kanye when I was younger, and the fact that this was a Tidal exclusive at release just pushed me into the realm of “I’m not interested”. But over the years a few songs slipped through the cracks of my resentment towards this album, most notably “No More Parties in L.A” with none other than Kendrick Lamar. Even I, who was going through a real “Kanye’s lost it” phase, couldn’t deny how big a moment that was to have these two juggernauts finally do a record together with production from none other than Madlib. Kanye, Kendrick and Madlib… It’s as epic and manic as you could ever imagine, with both Kendrick and Kanye delivering mammoth verses that accentuate their strengths perfectly. It’s just an excellent track, so I decided to just listen to the whole album once through, rather than fragmented moments, and I loved it.
This is by far Kanye’s most schizophrenic, scattered brained mess of an album but in a strange way that lends itself to the appeal. There’s just so much greatness on display here, and where Kanye might go off script vocally on a few tracks, his excellent production is always there to carry him through. The opener “Ultralight Beam” is an impossibly gorgeous, immaculately produced gospel anthem with a stellar Chance the Rapper feature that’s sole purpose is to raise hairs. That segways perfectly into the Kid Cudi lead “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1”, which has one of the most euphoric beat drops on any Kanye album, and despite the infamous “bleach” line from Kanye, he doesn’t ruin the song, and strangely overtime it’s infamy has become almost an iconic joke, almost a moment…
The record is all over the place, in true “White Album” style, but there’s an equaliser for every track, and the talent is immense. Artists such as Metro Boomin, Madlib, Havoc, Rihanna, Kendrick, The Weeknd, Sampha, Post Malone, Frank Ocean all enter the melting pot to create a truly unique and epic listening experience. For every arrogant, but brilliant, “Famous”, there’s a desperate and depressing “Real Friends”. For every scathing and cold “30 Hours”, there’s a Post Malone assisted club anthem “Fade”. This is a record where the flipside of every coin is explored. There’s inspirational anthems and there’s dark valleys where the listener is invited into the Psyche of a tortured and lonely celebrity. Something that’s important to address are the amount of tracks that almost act as interludes, such as “Low Lights” or “Franks Track” that some may constitute as “filler”, but whilst I may not choose to listen to them individually, they do all add to the listening experience of this album.
3. Late Registration (2005)
This used to be my favourite Kanye album, and now it’s third, a true testament if ever there was one. This album is just massive, and I mean that in every sense. The hits are ginormous, the album sprawls, and the sound is awesome. Whilst this album understandably draws comparisons to it’s predecessor, you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that they are identical. Kanye was determined to give this album a more orchestral feel, and for a hip-hop album, that’s ambitious. Orchestra and Hip Hop isn’t the easiest marriage to arrange, but after teaming up with Jon Brion, he made it work and with stunning results. The first thing to get out of the way when talking about this album is how it opens up with back to back mammoth hits, “Touch the Sky”, and the iconic “Gold Digger”. Whilst these tracks, especially the latter, might suffer slightly today due to being relentlessly overplayed, that doesn’t negate their brilliance. The audacity of Kanye to interpolate Ray Charles meant he had to nail it, and with a little help from Jamie Foxx, he created one of the biggest songs of the decade, if not the biggest. But the brilliance was the song’s foundation was soul, a genre that was arguably a thing of the past, but Kanye was breathing new life into these old classics, and making them smash hits, something that’s skill cannot be understated. “Touch the Sky” did the very same thing, with production from Just Blaze and a verse from newcomer Lupe Fiasco, he created the most celebratory song of his career, all over a Curtis Mayfield sample.
This album is just packed to the brim with soul. “Roses” saw Kanye’s willingness to be completely open on a track, talking of the visits he paid to his suffering Grandmother in the hospital, and how the healthcare system seemed to work against his family. “We Major” is an impossibly rich wall of sound, bolstered by Brion’s orchestral nature that saw a long-awaited collaboration with Nas, and it doesn’t disappoint. It almost doesn’t sound like a hip-hop song at all, its so buried in luscious instrumentation. The song is a fan favourite and provided much-needed relief to the nasty beef between Nas and Jay Z, who called it his favourite song on the album.
Although Kanye has been quite dismissive of the album in the past, nobody can deny the greatness of this record. There’s something for everyone, he even gives Common an entire song. Its got the radio hits, fan favourites, and excellent features. One song that embodied Kanye’s musical ambition more than any was “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”. He took the iconic, and most likely expensive, Shirley Bassey James Bond theme, somehow flipped it into a hip hop beat, centred the song around the immorality of the diamond industry, and chucked Jay Z on their just for good measure. He was unstoppable at this time, and Late Registration plays out like a CV of genre blending musicality and an incredible artistic at his creative peak.
2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Here it is, the most grandiose, acclaimed, and important Kanye record. There is nothing about this record I can tell you that hasn’t already been relayed by music lovers all over the internet, but it is as good as everyone says it is. In 2009, Kanye was in a period of uncertainty. “808s & Heartbreak” had been met with lukewarm reception, and there were discussions being held all over the industry that perhaps his run was up, and he was falling off. Then the VMAs hit, and a Kanye in turmoil paraded in front of the cameras, with an ever-lighter Jack Daniels bottle firmly in his grasp. We all know what happened next, but for those that don’t, here you go. Newcomer and America’s sweetheart Taylor Swift is on stage accepting her award for best music video, and Kanye gets on stage, grabs the mic and basically humiliates her by saying that Beyonce should have won. Whilst a lot of people would argue he wasn’t wrong (is there anything more iconic than the “Single Ladies” music video???), it was still a stupid and humiliating thing to do to a young artist in her first moments of recognition. The media backlash was stupendous, and after some interviews, tour cancelling and a lot of calls for his head, a disgraced Kanye was exiled from the country to Rome, and then eventually Hawaii.
His reputation in the public eye was shattered, and musically he wasn’t feeling the love that he once did. Although “808s & Heartbreak” would later be praised for its influence, that hindsight hadn’t been granted clearance yet, and he felt he had something to prove, once again he had fire in his belly. The stories that came out of the Hawaii sessions are fascinating and almost mythical. Kanye had an entourage of people flown out there that would work with him, but also live alongside side him, and spend every waking minute together to ensure that the energy was there. The revolving door of celebrities that were invited into Kanye’s world is stunning, and soon the media got wind of the visits of Rihanna, RZA, Elton John, Chris Rock, Pusha T, Jay Z, Alicia Keys, Drake, Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, Raekwon, John Legend, Bon Iver and countless others. Many of the artists there noted that they felt at the time that what they were witnessing was historic, and to be a part of it was an honour.
When the album finally came out it was a critical and commercial landslide that comes around very rarely. It’s a truly once in a lifetime album, and it’s difficult to explain why. This album is beloved by people that don’t listen to or even don’t like hip hop and that’s because it’s musicality is second to none. The places that Kanye drew inspiration from for this album are so eclectic that they are not only indicative of his own love for all types of music, but they draw in so many different people. It’s roots are embedded in hip hop but it flowers into something so much greater. His samples were incredibly off the wall, and for his triumphant and legendary first single “POWER” he sampled progressive rock pioneers “King Crimson”, which is not something you see every day. “All Of The Lights” is one of the busiest and most complex musical arrangements of his entire career, and the collaboration on this song is bewildering, and most of it uncredited. Whilst the hook is sung by Rihanna, the ensemble in the background is made up of Alicia Keys, Fergie, Elton John, Kid Cudi, Charlie Wilson, The Dream and more, just to bolster that one line. But that’s an important factor of the collaborations on this project, there was no room for ego. Instead of calling in other artists and getting them to do a verse or a hook, Kanye invited the wide range of musical collaborators into his world to see where they best fit. Just their presence in the studio was all the creative collaboration that was needed. Some huge artists came and simply gave their thoughts, tweaked a few things, maybe sung a few vocals, but their inputs all helped steer this album into the opus that it is today. He put the music first.
In terms of the actual songs on this album, they feel like moments. “Dark Fantasy” is the perfect introduction, produced by the Wu Tang powerhouse RZA, it feels like three songs stitched perfectly together in a triumphant return to form. Kid Cudi opens up “Gorgeous” with a perfect hook, and Kanye delivers lyrically one of his best performances of all time, holding no punches back when talking on institutionalised racism, but in a classic Kanye fashion of “you cant hold me down”. Raekwon provides the backend of the track with the perfect amount of grit to see it into the history books. Nicki Minaj’s verse on the legendary “Monster” was so beloved when it first came out it practically made her career, and is still the highpoint. “So Appalled” is the perfect posse cut and a personal favourite, with Jay, Pusha, and Cyhi delivering excellent verses over an awesomely sombre beat. “Runaway” is one of the most bizarre but beloved Kanye songs ever created, with its iconic piano riff leading into a barrage of drums, Kanye’s apology to the world in an acceptance of his “Douchebag” status, and an ice cold Pusha T verse. Its probably the biggest moment on the record, and the longest at over 9 minutes, giving it an almost prog feel.
For Paul McCartney, who has created the most influential and beloved music of the last century, to say that he envies Kanye for making this record is something worth digesting. This record is truly one of the best records to come out in the last twenty years, it’s a must listen and Kanye’s best record, but it’s not my favourite…
1. The College Dropout (2004)
In 2004 Kanye was the hottest producer in the industry, producing hit songs for Jay Z, and lending his talents to Talib Kweli, Scarface, Nas and more. Most people would have seen being the chief hitmaker in the industry for such big names as a ceiling, a mark of fulfilment, but for Kanye it was only a stepping stone. It was becoming well known that if you wanted a beat from the innovative, up and coming Kanye, you would also have to endure his rapping. He rapped for an uninterested Jay Z more times than is documented, and he tolerated it because he wanted Kanye’s beats, but he never took it seriously, until finally in 2004 he was signed to Roc Nation as an artist.
Kanye’s production had already breathed new life into the hip hop that was increasingly commercialised. He had bought soul back into the mainstream, and his trademark chipmunked soul samples were like gold dust in a genre that’s landscape was dominated by big club anthems at the hands of Dr. Dre and Timberland. But he still didn’t have a voice, a personality, but when he was given his platform, he changed the way people approached and perceived hip hop forever. In 2003 Dr. Dre’s aftermath, home to Eminem, released the much-anticipated debut album from 50 Cent, “Get Rich Or Die Tryin”. It was an unprecedented success, spawning the inescapable “In Da Club” hit single, which these days has taken on a life of its own. But the album was a flagship for the place commercial hip hop was still returning to, Gangster Rap. The album plays like a Tarantino movie, its stuffed to the brim with stories of gang violence, aggressive masculinity, and scathing diss-tracks that have more in common with murder threats than they do lyrical sparring. That’s not to say it isn’t a great album, it is, but its important to recognise that that was what was expected if you wanted to be a mainstream rapper. Kanye changed that entirely.
Kanye didn’t fit the mould of a 2Pac, or a 50 Cent. He was the musical guru, that was interested in fashion, and sported a backpack and a pink polo top everywhere he went. He was practically laughed out of the building at the suggestion of becoming a rapper and was turned down by multiple record labels. But when he finally got his chance, he didn’t squander it. After a car crash that nearly took his life, a recently signed Kanye was now looking at his mortality differently. His mouth was wired shut, and he was lucky to be alive. So, he made one of the most important decisions of his life, he decided to record his first single, with his mouth wired shut. True Kanye style. “Through the Wire”, the first single for “The College Dropout” is everything that made Kanye so great culminating together. The moment it comes in there’s a sense of warmth, a sense of nostalgia. The sped-up soul sample is perfectly chopped, the melody is irresistible, and despite Kanye’s delivery being muffled, his personality shines through. The audacity, and the genius of making a hit single whilst your chips are well and truly down and your jaws wired shut comes to embody everything that makes Kanye so great. But the subject matter is equally important. The lyrics “but he wasn’t talkin about coke and birds / it was more like spoken word” are some of the most important he would ever lay to paper. Kanye was by no means the first rapper that didn’t have a street outlet, but he was so exceptionally distanced from the fashions and trends of rappers that he opened up the door to Hip Hop for so many people. He made it what it is today, inclusive, and not restricted by one unifying culture. You now had hip hop fans wearing chinos, polo tops and backpacks, and Kanye spearheaded the accessibility of hip hop.
This album, head to toe, is perfect. There isn’t a blemish or a skippable track. It’s so fun and charming, and Kanye comes across as such a relatable and likeable figure, a trait that would escape his music as it became grander. Song’s like “School Spirit” and “New Workout Plan” are fun tracks where Kanye oozes charisma in a cheeky manner, over the best production in the game: Dilla and Rock inspired soul. But Kanye also, as always, had something to say. Songs like “Never Let Me Down” with Jay Z are powerful pieces of music, with Kanye addressing everything from the death of his father in law, to the impact of his mother being arrested at the age 6 for protesting. “Family Business” is my favourite Kanye song ever. Kanye is talking to his extended family in this song, and it feels like you are listening to an intimate moment between him and his family, but its also life affirming and relatable. He reminisces over childhood memories of sharing a bed with his cousins, and the tragedy of loosing family members. It feels like Kanye has left the door into his private life ajar, and the listener is peering in. On these songs it’s his vulnerability that paved the way for immense relatability for everyone, and this wasn’t seen before in hip hop in this big of a spotlight. Even on the hit radio songs, they may sound like brilliantly produced pop songs, but they still have a strong message. “All Falls Down” is an irresistible piece of pop rap, but it sacrifices nothing in the messaging department. He wrote a song about a woman struggling to find her independence and break away from the school system out of peer pressure and insecurity, and he made it a smash hit that stands the test of time. The second verse deals with the danger of materialism, the ugliness of authority and the systemic and inescapable nature of racism. “Jesus Walks” also took on the industry by storm, with the production consisting of vocal layering like never before, and a firm Christian sentiment that attack the radios lack of religious tolerance.
There is just a feel to this album that I can't really explain. It's warm, organic, and packed full of artistic personality. Kanye had been waiting for this moment his entire life, and you can feel that weight being lifted throughout this project. The production is astounding, at one moment your engrossed in the soft Marvin Gaye vocal samples on "Spaceship", and another your speakers are shaking at the bass heavy aggression of "Get Em High". The versatility of this album is stunning, and Kanye manages to tie all these contrasting emotions, theologies, features into a singular body of work that comes to define the word "masterpiece". He was a triple threat, he could out rap most, his song writing ability was monumental, and musically nobody was touching him.
The features that grace this masterpiece are also very telling of the wide appeal Kanye had in the circles he ran with. Obviously, his mentor and rap’s first superstar Jay Z is featured, but he also had his foot in the Soulquarian camp. Common, Mos Def, and Talb Kweli are all featured on this album and give stellar performances. He could bring together the crème de la crème of commercial rap, and then sit them alongside the more socially conscious, lyrical rappers and make it sound effortlessly cohesive. There is something for everyone on this album, and even the skits are musical, funny and provide the album with a sense of continuity and messaging. This is one of my favourite albums of all time, and the greatest achievement of the biggest artist of the last twenty years.