Kanye West’s Kanye Best

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Kanye West’s Kanye Best

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Kanye West has a gift for controversy, headlines, and of course, music. His infamous ego can infuriate even his most devoted followers, and he never fails to grab the public’s attention. Across his discography, Kanye proved himself to be one thing: a visionary, a rare example of an artist who strives to refine and evolve themselves; one who will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore Kanye. Here are his albums over the years—excluding collaborative works like Kids See Ghosts and Watch The Throne—from inspiring to immortal.

9. ‘Ye’ (2018)

From sporting MAGA hats to saying slavery was “a choice,” 2018 was more controversial than usual for Kanye. Facing immense media backlash while simultaneously producing four other albums for Nas, Teyana Taylor, Pusha T, and Kid Cudi, the year was a chaotic one for Kanye. Ye is a product of that chaos.

Ye is a rushed, sloppy, and underwhelming effort. It feels like a rough sketch rather than a completed painting, with haphazard beats creating obnoxious dissonance. The short length of Ye fails to influence its listeners, and even with its brevity it lacks the coherency and purpose of his other albums. With no discernible motive, the album is simply a collection of ill-matching tunes thrown together.

Despite the shortcomings, Ye still produced some noteworthy songs. “Ghost Town” is as untouchable as Kanye’s older works, while adding an eerie twist to the sound, and tracks like “Wouldn’t Leave” and “Violent Crimes” present an intimately vulnerable side of Kanye that we haven’t seen since 808s and Heartbreak. Like 808s, we get a peek into Kanye’s personal life as he raps about his appreciation for his wife sticking with him through thick and thin, and his efforts to protect his daughter from bad men.

Considering the pressures that Kanye faced in 2018, it’s admirable that he managed to put out something at all, especially since people would crumple under the same conditions. Still, Ye is a fairly disappointing product, and finds itself at the bottom of Kanye’s discography.

Favorite tracks: Ghost Town, Violent Crimes, Wouldn’t Leave

Stream it here.

8. ‘Jesus Is King’ (2019)

After the release of Kanye’s most disappointing album to date, Ye, many lost faith in Kanye after his decision to scrap his promising Yandhi project in favor of a gospel album. The family-friendly album revolving around Jesus did not sound like the egotistical and confident Kanye we all know and love. Fortunately Jesus is King exceeded expectations as an experiment, but is still by no means his best work.

Like Ye, Jesus Is King suffered from rushed production; the album’s tracks fail to leave the same lasting impressions as Kanye’s previous religious tracks like “Jesus Walks” and “Ultralight Beam.” It’s hard to believe that Jesus Is King is a studio album by Kanye. It feels more like a side project dabbling in his faith than an accepted studio album. In an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, Kanye states his inspiration:

“Now that I’m in service to Christ, my job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me.”

If Kanye’s goal was to convert people to Christianity, he may need to dig deeper. The album does little to promote Christianity beyond one-dimensional biblical references and neglected the essential qualities for an A-list album.

Kanye’s Sunday Service Choir was the saving grace on the project, adding the musical kick the album needed. When the voices swell, the listener is left feeling empowered and truly blessed. Jesus Is King has its highs, but it’s a shame that the lows weigh it down from ranking any higher in Kanye’s discography.

Favorite Tracks: Selah, God Is, Everything We Need

Stream it here.

7. Yeezus (2013)

“I showed people that I know how to make perfect. You know, ‘Dark Fantasy’ could be considered perfect. I know how to make perfect, but that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to crack the pavement and make new grounds sonically and society, culturally.”

-Zane Lowe 2013 Interview

It isn’t hard to tell from the get-go that Yeezus isn’t a continuation of Kanye’s previous album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That project boasted lavish production on a collection of beautiful tracks that combine to make Kanye’s most critically-acclaimed album. Naturally, critics and fans alike looked on with curiosity at where Kanye would take his music next, and what they received was possibly Kanye’s biggest deviation from his previous sounds to date.

Yeezus is abrasive. Hostile. Confrontational. By combining elements of punk, hip-hop, and industrial music, Yeezus is a protest against tradition. In fact, Yeezus sounds like it was deliberately made to be difficult to listen to. It isn’t an album that can be appreciated, or even enjoyed, the first time through.

Ironically, that’s the beauty of Yeezus. Kanye tackles some of his harshest criticisms and personal struggles over grinding industrial production, distilling the public’s perception of the artist: Early tracks like “I Am A God,” “Hold My Liquor,” and “Blood On The Leaves” display how Kanye is seen as a narcissist and alcoholic with a checkered relationship history, while “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” center on racial tensions and discrimination. The album progressively shifts from these confrontational perceptions to a more human side of Kanye, ending warmly with “Bound 2.”

Though Yeezus has a high barrier of entry, it is certainly worth a deeper dive. The production, while unconventional, is awe-inspiring. It has aged like fine wine, and will continue to improve with time.

Favorite tracks: Bound 2, Blood On The Leaves, New Slaves

Stream it here.

6. The Life Of Pablo (2016)

“Which Pablo? Pablo Picasso, Pablo Escobar of course, Apostle Paul. Paul inspired and was the biggest mover of product, and Pablo Picasso was the biggest mover of art. And that mix between message, art, and product is The Life Of Pablo.”

-Kanye on Kocktails with Khloe

The Life Of Pablo, at its core, is a gospel album. But it’s also an album about the many facets of Kanye’s character; He moves art with his music, product with his clothing line, and message with the album’s religious undertones. The different interpretations of this album are what sets it apart from the aforementioned Jesus Is King, his other gospel album. Freedom of interpretation is important in music, and Jesus Is King is lackluster in comparison.

Other albums were criticized for being unorganized earlier in this review, and The Life Of Pablo certainly fits that glove, yet something about that clutter works here. The sheer number of notable features like Rihanna, The Weeknd, and Kendrick Lamar illustrate the disorderly structure of the project. Though the album itself is messy, the individual tracks perfectly incorporate each featured artist.

A criminally overlooked song is the last on the tracklist, “Saint Pablo.” It’s a song about Kanye’s insecurities, particularly the $53 million of debt he had accumulated over his career. In the first couple lines, he states:

“My wife said, ‘I can’t say no to nobody,’ and at this rate we gon’ both die broke. Got friends that ask me for money knowing I’m in debt, and like my wife said, I still didn’t say no.”

These words are unexpected; not only does Kanye’s willingness to help others clash with his narcissistic persona, the generation-defining artist is also in crippling debt.

Kanye’s laments are built up until the climax of the song, where Sampha delivers a heavenly extended chorus as Kanye takes a backseat. This type of production is Kanye at his best.

Favorite Tracks: Saint Pablo, Famous, No More Parties In LA

Stream it here.

5. The College Dropout (2004)

Kanye initially earned recognition through producing for famous artists like Alicia Keys, Beyonce, and Ludacris. His work on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint became prominent, as the album is widely regarded as one of the best rap albums of all time. But Kanye wanted more; he wanted a turn in the spotlight. So, Kanye set his sights on a rap career.

However, Kanye’s childhood experienced no adversities, and many rappers felt that he lacked the street smarts to become successful. Jay-Z told Time Magazine:

“We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there’s Kanye, who in my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn’t see how it could work.”

Kanye overcame this prejudice by instead rapping about what he was familiar with: family dynamics, religion, and the broken education system. It wasn’t street music, it was life music.

In The College Dropout, Kanye introduced his signature style of “chipmunk soul,” characterized by sped-up soul samples.This garnered much attention, as it ditched the formulaic structure of the hip-hop genre with something more instinctual. Paired with universally relatable lyrics, The College Dropout was a radical change in the rap algorithm compared to more historical works.

It’s easy to see how The College Dropout finds itself at the top spot in the lists of many fans; it’s a fantastic album. It’s humorous and human and doesn’t wholly display what makes Kanye himself, but it creates the avenue for himself and others to do so. And honestly, what more can you ask for from a debut?

Favorite tracks: Through The Wire, All Falls Down, Jesus Walks

Stream it here.

4. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

Autotune can be a powerful tool or an obnoxious mask to conceal mediocre artistry. It’s easier to dog on as the music industry is saturated with the latter, but Kanye does it right.

During the production of 808s, Kanye was at his lowest. He had lost the two women he held dearest; his mother had died from complications following a cosmetic surgery, and he had broken up with his then-fiancée, Alexis Phifer. 808s & Heartbreak is about loss, bitterness, and, well, heartbreak. It’s also a memorandum about a man at the top of his game—fame, wealth, recognition—but who came to realize that it had too high a price.

Critics reprimand 808s & Heartbreak for the extensive autotune usage, stating that it’s a lazy attempt at making a radio-friendly album for mainstream audiences. The actual reason seems to fly over their heads; when his mother died, so did a part of Kanye’s humanity—he’s a shell of his former self. Subsequently, Kanye ditches his trademark organic sound for something more electronic, artificial.

The irony is how much Kanye’s raw emotion can be heard through the autotune. The tracks on 808s & Heartbreak paint a picture of the stages of heartbreak: “Bad News” is about shock and denial, the tribal drums on “Love Lockdown” pound hard on Kanye’s feeble heart, and “Amazing” is Kanye emerging from the grief, realizing what he has lost won’t take away from what he’s accomplished. Closure is brought in “Coldest Winter,” Kanye’s goodbye to his mother in song form.

Not all the songs on 808s are winners, though. “RoboCop” and “Paranoid” dip more into the pop sound, and are a bit over-the-top for the album’s theme.

The importance of 808s is hardly disputed. It’s probably his most influential album, ushering in a new wave of rappers and singers to adopt the sound that still resonates today. Drake, Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott are all impactful artists today who credit 808s & Heartbreak for their sound.

Favorite tracks: Amazing, Coldest Winter, Love Lockdown

Stream it here.

3. Late Registration (2005)

If The College Dropout is witty and soulful, Late Registration is lush and orchestral. It retains the charm of the album that came before it, while improving upon the production. Late Registration proved that Kanye wasn’t a one-hit wonder, that his sound had power on the charts and didn’t require selling out to be successful.

Kanye brought producer Jon Brion onto the project to add a more traditional sound, incorporating strings and brass on a majority of the songs. The two are an unlikely duo, but Brion adds a new layer to Kanye’s beats while staying true to his signature sound. Producer Just Blaze also did a bit of work on the album, in a similar style to Brion.

Said production culminate in the fan favorite “Touch The Sky.” After a count-off of four beats, a group of brass explode over Kanye rapping about soaring to new heights; it’s truly a trademark Kanye beat. Throw in a killer feature from newcomer Lupe Fiasco and you have an instant hit on your hands.

Late Registration also boasts some of Kanye’s most memorable lyrics. In “Hey Mama,” a ballad written for his mother before The College Dropout even released, Kanye tells a story of his childhood:

“You work late nights just to keep on the lights. Mommy got me training wheels so I could keep on my bike, and you would give me anything in this world, Michael Jackson leather and a glove, but didn’t give me a curl. And you never put no man over me, and I love you for that, mommy, can’t you see?”

Kanye continues to rap about his mother’s sacrifices and their close relationship, tugging the heartstrings of many since the song’s debut on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005. “Hey Mama” is one of the lesser-produced tracks on the album, but it’s certainly hard to forget. Listening to the ballad after Donda West’s death has a sort of melancholy, and even Kanye struggles with performing the song live.

Kanye takes the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and turns it on its head in Late Registration. With a debut album as strong as The College Dropout, Kanye amazed fans by taking the elements that made it a success and improving upon them, culminating in an album that is still relevant nearly 15 years later.

Favorite tracks: Diamonds From Sierra Leone, Hey Mama, Touch The Sky

Stream it here.

2. Graduation (2007)

Graduation is one of Kanye’s most consistent projects, and was certainly his most consistent album at the time of release. Unlike his previous two, Kanye’s third album had a clear vision: stadium status.

Graduation is the work of an artist at the top of his game, who, instead of stumbling and falling from grace, builds themselves even higher. Kanye set his sights on the world, and to reach that height he’d need to combine his production knowledge with new minds, specifically European house. What resulted was a weaving of Kanye’s strings, brass, and soul samples with synthesizers, electronic noises, and rave music.

“Stronger,” sampling Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” was an instant Billboard hit. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” was a much-needed street anthem, and no song on Graduation is more attention-grabbing than “Flashing Lights.” The assortment of fluctuating synths, violin arpeggios, Dwele’s entrancing voice, and Kanye’s catchy lyrics make an unforgettable song.

If College Dropout and Late Registration were breaths of fresh air that challenged the hip-hop sound, Graduation proved that the genre was finally ready to leave the street sound behind. Through the glory and fame, Kanye molded a world of his own, telling a story of stardom and the effects on his character: stardom that would lead him to a future of loss, love, and introspection.

Favorite Tracks: Flashing Lights, I Wonder, Stronger, Homecoming

Stream it here.

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

The year is 2009, you’re watching MTV’s Video Music Awards. Taylor Swift had just won the award for Best Female Video and was ready to make her acceptance speech. Suddenly, Kanye West appears and interrupts Taylor. Unbeknownst to the public, the words out of his mouth would alter the course of hip-hop history:

“Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”

Kanye was, of course, talking about Beyonce’s iconic video for Single Ladies. Perhaps he was right, but the outburst struck a nerve with the general public: Kanye was villainized, his 2009 tour with Lady Gaga was cancelled, and he even received criticism from President Obama. With such a controversial public image Kanye had to disappear. So he flew to Oahu, hunkered down, and got to work.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a product of the isolation. The samples used for the album weren’t Kanye’s typical soul samples he had used for his first three albums. It was grittier, more layered, and explosive, unlike everything we’ve ever heard. Kanye flew out brilliant minds to contribute to the album’s sound. Beyonce, John Legend, even a solo from Elton John: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had it all.

“Power,” the album’s overly confident single, is a reminder that he is a talent to be reckoned with, and one that should be cherished. The chanting samples from Continent Number 6’s “Afromerica” and King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” makes the single just as thrilling as it is egotistical. Kanye chirps, “Every superhero needs his theme music”, and no theme feels as emblematic of the subject’s invincibility as his own.

By far the longest track on the album at just over nine minutes, “Runaway” doesn’t feel long at all. With an ominous 40 second long intro highlighting a piano playing one jarring key at a time, the song has become so iconic that even the beginning note is instantaneously recognized by the crowd. “Runaway” is a reflection highlighting Kanye’s own douchebaggery; it’s as sad as it is relatable. Six minutes in, Kanye concludes the song with a heavily-synthesized hum, which is simultaneously comforting and somber.

In recent years, Kanye describes My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a backhanded apology. He had time for self-examination, and what we got was an album that seemed more Kanye than any other album. In fact, this album encapsulates what Kanye was at the time: unapologetic, lavish, and larger than life. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s way of telling us to not settle for less, but demand for more.

Favorite Tracks: Power, Devil In A New Dress, Runaway, Dark Fantasy

Stream it here.