College Dropout (2004)
Remember when Kanye took us to church? This was 2005, before he was conflating his name with Jesus’, back when he was content to jump out from behind a pew wearing a black suit and a wide white satin tie and rap the entirety of “Jesus Walks,” begging for guidance and forgiveness in front of God and the Grammys.
It wasn’t that “Jesus Walks”-era Kanye was any humbler than the iterations that would follow, but much of College Dropout is about explicitly defining and systematically disabling the expectations and structures he’d defy once successful. It’s about rapping If I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh? and then a year later constructing a black church setpiece onstage at music’s biggest awards ceremony, complete with a preacher, hymnals, and stained glass.
At its heart, College Dropout is an act of defiance, or more accurately, an act of many defiances—a blueprint for the kind of large-scale drama we now expect from Kanye, and a foreshadowing of the kind of wokeness and outspokeness we now demand from pop icons.
Much of the album’s lyricism reacts directly to the gauzy gangster mythology that pervaded successful early 2000s rap. College Dropout isn’t about calling out individuals as much as systems, and Kanye addresses this directly on “We Don’t Care.” Asked to do a “beautiful song” for “this kids’ graduation,” Ye instead crafts a devastating picture of the underfunded programs and government mismanagement that set the lower class up for failure. When you stop the programs for after school/ And they DCFS, some of ‘em dyslexic/ They favorite 50 Cent song “12 Questions.” Having given up on systemic reform, Dropout finds strength in its uncomfortable honesty, in being a hard pill coated in the sweetest candy.
Contrastingly, tracks like “Slow Jamz” and “The New Workout Plan” keep the album from hewing too close to Mos and Kweli (prolly). Against a modest but pounding beat on “Breathe In Breathe Out”—no Harlem Boys Choir here—Kanye brags about “money hoes and rims again,” about getting head while driving some girl back to her car in the shittiest parts of Chicago. It’s a track that apologizes for contributing more of that bullshit ice rap, before smiling and delivering some of the nastiest verses on the whole album.
On College Dropout, Kanye hadn’t yet anointed himself a saint, hadn’t yet earned the kind of artistic credibility that allows him to stage his albums in stadiums with choreography by Vanessa Beecroft as Twitter waits with bated breath. But it’s a vision of that future, the template for that kind of greatness. Beyond his verbal dexterity, his impeccable production, Kanye’s hyper-perceptive intelligence is his biggest strength as a rapper. And while it can be dizzying to follow his back and forth, his lapses and prayers for forgiveness, there’s nowhere that awareness is bigger or more evident than on College Dropout, The Best Debut Album Of All Time. —Liz Raiss
Late Registration (2005)
In later years, Kanye would pare it all down. Inspired perhaps by latter-day idols—say, the clean lines of Heidi Slimane—he’d slash until all that was left was the tendons, muscle, and gristle. New Kanye—Nucleus Kanye—was about artistry through purity of form and function. In direct proportion to his grandiosity, the songs and tracklists got shorter, and the defining focuses got tighter. Which means Late Registration was his one true shot at the sprawl. And what else is Kanye—the man, himself, in totality: the villain, veins throbbing as the temporary insanity settles again like a warm quilt; the grinning kid, drawing Jordans in the corner of math class; the genius, seemingly doomed to be locked forever in pursuit of redemption—but sprawl?
It was about timing, really. College Dropout gave him the juice. Later years would bring the refined skills, and the patchwork mercenarial network, to execute visions exactly as he saw them in his head. Before, he was still hoping his shit was popping. After, he’d develop the insanity of hubris of the elite athlete—the kind that dictates that his shit, by its very fact of it being his shit, was popping. In between was a special moment where Kanye was both on but still scrapping. That gave birth to the ungainly, wobbling epic of Late Registration.
It was a suite of nested aural pleasures. The delicate plinking of “Heard Em Say”—get em high, Adam Levine, get em high—was undercut with the bitter sting of a politicized shoulder shrug: His job trying to claim that he too niggarish now/ Is it cause his skin blacker than licorice now? Shrug. I can’t figure it out. “Addiction” sped Etta James up away from wistful and into fevered paranoia; “Drive Slow” stunted under a codeine slumber; “Crack Music” went harsh and sideways. “Gone” was a thick slab of bouyant bullshiterry at its very, very best.
The moments—Jay’s yup! Cam’s rasp!—are legion, and stand alone if they must. Taken altogether, they form a cockeyed ode to feelings. Any spare cutesiness from College Dropout had been scrubbed. By Late Registration, the joys and aches had been earned. And a lifetime of influence was laid bare, and was exhausted. By Graduation, he’d already begin seeking new ways.
Later, Kanye would become better at giving us all-world maximums—sheer spikes of gorgeous grandiosity. Never again would Kanye be better at giving us, in all of its sprawling totality, Kanye. —Amos Barshad
"Every Kanye album is Kanye’s best album until there is a new Kanye album to become Kanye’s best album." —Rawiya Kameir
In 2007, I was a senior in high school. That was the year we all got cars. I paid for mine—a homely, raddish-colored Subaru from the early ‘90s—with paychecks from my part-time job bagging groceries at a local supermarket. It was also the year Kanye West released Graduation, his third and best full-length, on the sixth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. By the following week, the disc had made itself at home in every one of our cars’ CD players. In my case, it had to be loaded onto my scroll-wheel iPod and then plugged into a cassette tape adaptor. We listened to it everywhere we went for months, but I remember hearing “Flashing Lights” most clearly, its slick, celebratory synths scoring destination-less night drives down empty country roads. By commencement in June, we knew every word.
Even after just a few spins, pretty much every song on Graduation felt like a classic. It was probably Kanye’s most off-the-bat accessible project, glowing with sticky samples and genre-distorting production, each element streamlined by Kanye’s lucid confidence. He samples Can on a seasick anti-party track called “Drunk And Hot Girls,” and Daft Punk on “Stronger,” the LP’s glitchy first single. “I Wonder,” with its twinkling keys and hiccuping breakbeats, is maybe the album’s most timeless artifact; its hook comes from a romantic track by ‘70s British songwriter Labi Siffre. In a way, Kanye made a not-corny mash-up album in the age of corny mash-up albums, and it seemed to click with everyone, just like a 17-year-old me liked to imagine Kanye himself would.
Graduation has occasionally been criticized for not being as inward-looking as Kanye’s earlier stuff, and maybe that’s true. But its appeal was unprecedented, and it reflected a new era for the tireless shape-shifting auteur; he wasn’t rapping or singing about reaching for the stars, he was making summery pop music about existing amongst them. It’s the best Kanye album because it's enduring and triumphant, filled with transportive hip-hop that has the power make anyone, even a small-town teenager in a beat-up sedan, feel like a champion. —Patrick D. McDermott
808s & Heartbreak (2008)
On 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye West puts love under the microscope in a visceral attempt to work out what went wrong. Look, he says, here is desperation-tinged desire: I wish this song would really come true/ I admit I still fantasize about you. See, here is bitterness, dripping with spittle: You run and tell your friends that you’re leaving me/ They say that they don’t see what you see in me. And over here, a stubborn patch of grief, one that’s got its claws in: My friend showed me pictures of his kids/ And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.
Written in the aftermath of his mother’s death in late 2007 and in the subsequent disintegration of a long-term relationship with an on-off girlfriend, 808s could’ve been a mess. In lesser hands, it could’ve stank of nostalgia, drowned itself in eulogy, or pulled a fancy curtain around reality, but instead Kanye faced himself and his feelings with quiet precision. He swapped big-room braggadocio for close-up studies of betrayal, inventing a modern understanding of male vulnerability in the process.
In fact, the sparseness that shocked fans on release—the unapologetically gleaming AutoTune, the beats that recall a life support machine’s lonely bleeps, the almost corny synth-pop melodies—now sounds uncannily prescient. From “Love Lockdown” to “Coldest Winter,” Kanye builds a fire with the smallest slither of flint. That a pretty beat can sometimes burn harder than a monstrous one was his gift to the music biz, and one that has given contemporary hip-hop and R&B artists a blueprint to follow.
808s is Kanye West’s best record precisely because it is self-aware enough to realize that his pain is currency; that his work is art. It’s amazing, I’m the reason/ Everybody fired up this evening, he sings on “Amazing.” I’m exhausted, barely breathing/ Holding on to what I believe in. Sifting through his own emotional trash and putting his findings on display, Ye reminds us all of both the point and the potential of pop: to prod at the human condition in order to decipher the stuff that unites us. —Ruth Saxelby
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Let’s imagine for a second that we’re living in Kanye West’s perfect world, the only suitable vacuum for determining which work from his genre-defying catalog is paramount. In Westopia, only the best things exist and only the best albums win the awards they deserve. From KanyeUniverseCity blogging days to his fashion work, Kanye has consistently focused on curating and choosing things—fabrics, pictures, sounds—that make us say, “You’re right, Ye. That is the best.” In that measure, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—the Chicago pop star's expansive fifth solo effort—is Kanye’s best album because it is simply the best one.
Imagine the direction of this immaculate conception: Kanye took the raw confidence from College Dropout, added it to the developed artistry of Late Registration, mixed it with the mass pop stadium antics of Graduation, sprinkled the transcendent honesty from 808s throughout, and wrapped all up with Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver.
It’s got “Runaway,” a song so good and perfect that everyone forgot about Taylor Swift. It also has “Monster,” which imbues fans with a sort of cocky vigor and still provides fresh memes six years since its debut. “Power” has served as cinematic shorthand for excellence since it existed. Kanye has tried to bottle the snarl on “Hell of a Life” many times since—especially on Yeezus—but hasn’t really recaptured the level of pettiness like he did on Fantasy. “All of the Lights” is insane, but works because it’s earnest and it has Rihanna and Elton John on it. Okay—admit it—“Blame Game” made you cry once, and “Lost In the World” did, too.
I saw Kanye perform Fantasy in its entirety at New York City's Bowery Ballroom the same week of the album's release. As he finished “Gorgeous,” what I consider the album’s most underrated song, he had the DJ cut the track and, with no music, performed the song from start to finish one more time. When he reached the heart of the second verse—And what’s a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?/ I guess that's why they got me sitting in fucking coach—he repeated the line again and again, for three straight minutes. The crowd was in hysterics, and Puff Daddy, the showy and lovable Harlem-born music mogul, dangled in electric joy from the second-floor balcony. It was the best. —Myles Tanzer
Watch The Throne (2011)
Watch The Throne, Kanye West’s collaborative album with Jay Z was, to that point, West’s most explicitly political album-length statement. It came out the day the markets crashed. Two days prior, on August 6, 2011, Standard and Poor’s downgraded U.S. credit for the first time since the Great Depression. Just over a month later, Occupy protests sprouted in New York City’s Zuccoti Park and other communities across America and around the world.
Money, or a lack of it, was on everyone’s mind. Amidst that fraught economic climate, a surface listen to Throne, played as an ostentatious meeting of moguls. On it, the rappers elevated hip-hop's (and America’s) fascination with wealth signifiers to levels yet unknown: Maison Martin Margiela, Le Meurice, Hublot and Richard Mille watches, Rothko’s, trashed Maybachs, thousand dollar no-logo tees. To rap fans, it was a full-circle coronation of Kanye as Jay Z’s equal, a years-long pursuit that West documented on Graduation’s “Big Brother.” But link power and fraternity and you’ll unlock Throne’s significance. Maybe against our Occupy anxieties it played as gauche, but in mirroring each other’s experiences, Kanye and Jay give us an alternate lens to explore the dysfunctional allure of capitalism. It’s the story of two black men who understand money is a finicky buffer against marginalization.
Early 2011 saw the release of Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s wartime novel Half-Blood Blues, a reminder of the historical presence and artistic contributions of African-Americans fleeing Jim Crow to cultural hubs such as Paris. WTT’s best-known, Grammy-winning single, “Niggas in Paris,” became beloved for its throttling Hit-Boy beat, goofy Blades of Glory references and Ye’s sticky hook and flagrantly obtuse verse. It’s Jay Z who casts the city as that historical haven (did he not see La Haine?!) belying the album’s central tension: If you escaped what I escaped/You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.
Jay gave us a new level of candid, which is owed entirely to Kanye’s influence. The flip: big brother’s presence is a safe space for Ye to be vulnerable in new ways. West’s public ‘mistakes’ fold into a verse about responsibility to his then-unborn children on “New Day.” And on “Murder To Excellence” he acknowledges the persistent spectre of death that Jay refers to on “Paris,” by annotating the death toll of his hometown: I feel the pain in my city wherever I go/ 314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago. This tension, what it means to survive the American odds, floods the entire album, from Beyonce triumphantly exhorting How many people you know can take it this far? on “Lift Off” to Frank Ocean’s invocation of Civil Rights figures on “Made in America.”
Throne’s thesis isn’t without gaps in logic, and certainly some of Kanye’s subsequent lyrics and statements about race and class have prompted objection. Maybe the Flux Pavillion and Cassius samples haven’t aged well, though they’re clearly part of the sonic progression that led to Yeezus. But this was an unprecedented narrative of American life: the unapologetic, self-aware treatise of two black men who are integral to culture. It’s also a reminder that whether it’s sneakers or carefully-cultivated eating habits, we all self-medicate through capitalism. Watch The Throne suggests that sometimes the triggers are a persistent inequity that all the money in the world can’t solve. —Anupa Mistry
Every Kanye album is Kanye’s best album until there is a new Kanye album to become Kanye’s best album. Since its release in June 2013, Yeezus has held that title. By the time it rolled around, nearly a decade after his debut, Kanye’s role in the music industry and in pop culture had shifted considerably: he was no longer an underdog begging for tickets to a Jay Z show, no longer a misunderstood producer eager to prove that he could rap, too. But, though he had come closer to self-actualization, he still had things to prove: that he hadn’t run out of ideas; that he, in his mid-30s, was still cool and relevant; that he couldn’t be reduced to just a musician; that he was an artist above labels and beyond categorization.
In the prolific, now-infamous press run that surrounded Yeezus, Kanye revealed that he had spent only a fraction of his energy on the album; the rest was reserved for his then-emergent fashion line with Adidas. For people who disliked the discordant, intentionally cacophanos steez and sound of Yeezus—and there were many—the revelation that Kanye was prioritizing design over music served as a convenient explanation-cum-punchline for the album’s, frankly, weird position relative to the rest of his catalog. He had abandoned the excellent but easily digestible format of his previous two releases—2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2011’s Jay Z collaboration Watch The Throne—in favor of aggressive, pseudo-industrial sounds that, despite having been championed by electronic producers and DJs across the world for some time, were a new proposition for hip-hop and for, as it were, the mainstream. Yeezus’ core sound was mined from lesser known producers like Hudson Mohawke, Arca, and Evian Christ, whose ideas Kanye matched with the expertise of old-heads like No I.D. and Rick Rubin. The album was focused and tightly edited, and demonstrated conclusively that, for all of his alleged ego and arrogance, Kanye thrives in collaboration. Above all else, it displayed his willingness to take the creative risks necessary to inject new ideas into pop culture.
He discovered, thanks in part to Rubin, the true power of editing and sequencing: 10 incredible songs go a lot further than 17 good ones. In an era during which artists are incentivized to focus on singles over continuity, Kanye used Yeezus to re-assert the value of the album as a collective entity. Everything that we’ve ever loved about him was present—bold political statements, funny self-aggrandizing punchlines, bizarre takes on sex—but without the stagnant weight of Real Hip-hop™ and with the added bonus of challenging experimentation. As an album whose title doubled as nickname for Kanye, Yeezus was a necessary reminder that he is more than the sum of a bunch of sped-up soul samples. Here’s to hoping T.L.O.P. will be the same. —Rawiya Kameir