From least great to most great: ranking Kanye West’s albums

by Isaac Javier

Contrary to popular belief, audacity, pretension, and vanity does have a conscientious and noble appeal. Those who claim that Kanye West’s antics hinders and deters his work as an artist are very much missing his point. His pomposity and how he views himself is rather clear, but his borderline over-the-top arrogance that comes with his insecurity is what makes Kanye the most alluring hip-hop personality in recent memory. That’s why he lands on Time magazine covers, rather than Jay Z, 50 Cent, Nelly or any other artists from the genre. It’s not the sales; it’s the soul.

At the end of the day, it’s his ear, the golden instrument of his bold collaborative character that made him the most complete artist in hip-hop. In turn, he has achieved something that none of his heroes – Nas, The Pharcyde, and big brother Jay-Z – could do: forge an exhaustive, diverse, and absolute discography. Arguably the best of any hip-hop artist. West has his eccentric personae, bouncy eagerness, and an extraordinary vision for the monumental illustrated all over his historically good oeuvre of masterpieces.

To celebrate the forthcoming release of his 7th LP, Waves, and in the spirit of Kanye’s daring and audacious personality, I attempt the near-impossible task of ranking his albums. It’s important to acknowledge that every album is indeed great and each one a comprehensive piece of musical masterpiece. Every LP holds something special and each one embodies a part of Kanye West. Any of his albums could be argued to be his best work – hence why I aged ten years in the process of writing this. So, from least great to most great, here we go. And don’t shoot me.

6.) College Dropout, 2004

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WAIT! HOLD ON, DON’T CLOSE THE ARTICLE. Hear me out here. A debut album is doubtlessly one of the most important LPs that a musician will release – if not the most important. This one is no short of significance as it served as Kanye’s introduction to the world – the producer-turned-rapper prodigy, yet to be the obsessively egocentric, ground breaking, and platinum collecting artist that we know today. College Dropout also essentially helped save hip hop as it played a major role in the renaissance of the genre and its transition to the mainstream scene in the mid-2000s. The album was also considered the best hip hop release in an otherwise stacked 2004, with established hip-hop titans Snoop Dogg, Eminem, MF DOOM, and The Roots releasing an LP that year. Projects by 90s hip-hop icons like Mos Def, Twista, Beastie Boys, and Method Man were also eclipsed by College Dropout – a foretaste of the drastic change that hip-hop was about to undertake in order to survive. This LP was the first of its kind since Outkast’s numerous classics to achieve the three peat of achieving endearment from the pop radio, hip-hop purists, and reactionary rock critics alike.

In a nutshell, College Dropout was ground breaking, so why is it ranked this low? It just doesn’t sound as good as the rest. As developed and revolutionary as the album sounded at that time, it is very raw as we see a young artist attempting to conquer his craft, and he does so with remarkable flair. In consideration that it’s his first album, it pales in comparison with its descendants in terms of the individual components such as the versatility of production and the overall tone of the project. Another criticism I can justifiably make is the guest features. Jay-Z just sounds old, and there are no note-worthy verses from any other guests. More importantly, the amount of guest features limited Kanye’s own mic skills in the album. Consequently, you can also say that it needed such guest features as this was Kanye’s debut as a rapper and a stand-alone project would not turn the same amount of heads as a track list featuring the likes of established artists like Jay-Z, Mos Def, Twista, and Jamie Foxx. It seems unfair to keep comparing it to its much more developed descendants, but considering it’s a pseudo-introduction on who Kanye West is and what he’s about, it does not feature the same feel of vulnerability and emotion that his later projects showcased.

Focusing on College Dropout, West’s debut LP presented Kanye producing nostalgic and feel-good soul food which takes us back to simpler times and made us appreciate all the hardships that we went through – or are still going through – to get to where we are today. Looking back at Kanye’s discography with hindsight, his debut album was great, and his progress as an artist only went up from there as he continued to revolutionise and represent his genre. Not a lot of artist can boast such statement.

5.) Graduation

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Kanye West’s third album in four years, Graduation represents his greatest leap forward as an artist. In terms of consistency of delivery, production, and all-around ability, it’s very hard to find anyone in the mainstream rap scene who has achieved such in the given time frame. This is the most versatile Kanye West album. Graduation showcased Kanye’s evolution as an artist as it featured distinctive European influences, whilst still keeping the traditional sound that Kanye is known for. In tracks such as I Wonder, Drunk and Hot Girls, and Flashing Lights, West introduced rave-like stabs, an elusive use of synth, and a combination of unique electronic noises. There is also Stronger, which samples the track of the same name by French duo Daft Punk. What made this so unique is the seamless application of this otherworldly influences on the said tracks – it felt natural even though it was something unheard of in hip-hop. Meanwhile, the aforementioned traditional Kanye sound is also present in the rest of the tracks of the album. They feature the signature nostalgic and relatable content which made him ever so accessible to the mainstream audience in tracks like Champion, and Good Life.

Besides the revolutionary music made in his third LP, it also showed more about Kanye as a person as he tackled upon his inner conflicts in Big Brother (where he expresses his admiration of Jay Z while also hinting some sort of instability between the two), and Everything I Am. Although, even with these two tracks, the album has a considerable lack of emotion, rawness, and vulnerability which has been a staple in College Dropout and Late Registration. In an attempt to emphasise variety and universality – in which he achieved – Kanye managed to sacrifice his personal aspect in Graduation. One of its main strengths, variety, ironically hurt its replay value as there is no one definite tone that the record embodies. 

4.) Late Registration

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The follow up to the iconic College Dropout, Late Registration, showcased a much improved and battle-tested Kanye West on the mic with simmered-downed, yet sharper production which formulated a complex and well-rounded masterpiece, accommodating the mainstream and even the most meticulous of hip-hop enthusiasts. This project is considerably toned down in comparison to its predecessor. Late Registration still had the flashes of old hip-hop that College Dropout featured which sends you to a nostalgic trip. This was executed in a more softer-toned and mellow beats accompanied by some of the most intricate lyrics Kanye has yet produced. Kanye’s vulnerability and emotion, which is spawned from his experiences as Kanye West, is also starting to show, with more content about his experiences with women – which seemed to be the bane of Kanye’s existence. Addiction is one of the highlight tracks of the album as it does its job of instantaneously hypnotising the listener with one of the best hooks of any Kanye West songs which effortlessly transitions into the verses, taking the listener on a journey of self-destruction.The production of the track also makes it all the more alluring, featuring a spine-tingling Etta James sample. 

Gold Digger is a Jamie Foxx feature done right and it’s also one of the most famous Kanye West songs. We Major, which is ironically Jay Z’s favourite song off the album, features an exciting verse by Nas accompanied by Really Doe’s haunting vocals in the song’s hook. The production, in consistent with the rest of the album, combines different fundamental instruments, constructing one of the most nostalgic, feel-good, and empowering Kanye West tracks ever.

The consistency of the production is one of the major factors that makes the album what it is – a flawless masterpiece. And it says a lot about an artist if an opus like Late Registration is not even his third greatest album.

3.) Yeezus

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“I’m taking my ball, and I’m going home… I’m Mad!” utters Kanye followed by a cynical yet playful laugh, talking about Yeezus in a Power 105 interview. The sound of West’s latest critically acclaimed project is considered as the culmination of all the shit he’s been through. There are nothing but highlights to this album. With non-stop killer synths and electro-dancehall production, Yeezus is arguably the album with the most replay value. It’s considered a heavy-metal take on the preceding 808’s and Heartbreaks in terms of content and its use of heavy beats. 

I’m in it serves as an euphoric dancehall anthem with its razor-sharp and elongated bass drops. The same can be said with the rest of the tracks on the album, probably bar Bound 2 which is reminiscent of College Dropout with an upbeat and feel-good tone in which Kanye narrates about the phases of one of his relationships. The highlight of the album was Blood on the Leaves which features a sample from Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”. The 6 minute narrative talks about love lost from the feeling of betrayal, hatched by a rather nasty breakup. The track exemplifies how Kanye can portray vulnerability – which became a common aspect of his music as his career progressed. This track also attempted to reinstate the character’s manhood whilst his world is crumbling around him and his emotions are all over the place. Story telling is one of the most enjoyable aspects a hip-hop song can feature, but this particular one crushes the listener and instils a feeling of discomfort. In New Slaves Kanye speaks on social issues in the most vulgar of ways, taking on stereotypes while taking about the prison-industrial complex, exposing it for the shamefully systematic sham that it is. 

Yeezus also showed and expressed his complicated and doubtful view on women. With lines such as the infamously oafish “eating Asian pussy all I need is sweet and sour sauce” and “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”. Some of the most powerful moments in the album has Kanye talking about women, breaking him down, and further heightening his insecurities. The album encompasses the change that Kanye went through in his journey as greatest living rock star in the planet and it is very much evident in the context and content of the individual tracks in the album. It is borderline ineffable to compare Kanye as the personality and this album to who he was and his music during his College Dropout phase – and it’s not at all a bad thing.

2.) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010

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Kanye makes his statement as the greatest ever in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. From the Taylor Swift fiasco, to his use/misuse of social media, to GOOD Fridays and everything he did in between, the album was the culmination of Kanye West as the perfectionist, radical egoist, and creative musical genius. This extraordinary record plays between some of Kanye’s most special and distinct attributes that serves as the soul of him as a musical entity – his vulnerability and his sense of invincibility whilst being in touch with reality. The comprehensive and complex nature of the record borrows a bit of everything from Kanye’s previous albums, blowing them up to ridiculous proportions while still being in touch with his vision and reputation as a futuristic artist. The guest features in this album is also the best of any from his catalogue with hip-hop icons such as Jay-Z, RZA, and No ID along with new artists like Nicki Minaj (who delivered the hardest hitting rap verse delivered by a female artist in Monster), Rick Ross, Kid Cudi (who’s arguably even more self-destructive than Kanye) and a fresh and haunting voice in Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

Chris Rock also provides one of the highlights of the album in the outro of Blame Game. The outro of the track patented and embalmed the phrase “Yeezy taught me” in the rather humorous, but at the same time heart-breaking interaction between Rock and Kanye’s former flame. In Monster and Power, Kanye expresses empowerment, with a high degree of self-indulgence that only Kanye could masterfully balance. Runaway is the highlight of the album, encompassing his own human faults born from his own ego and selfishness. From the first ten seconds, the track is instantly haunting, and the subsequent drop completely captures you as a listener and takes you to a journey inside the mind of Kanye. His expression and highlighting of his own doubts and faults are a drastic change from what the well-documented public perception of Kanye West is. Very rarely will you see and hear someone so self-centred and self-indulgent like Kanye open up like he does in this track. Pusha T also provides a fitting verse which completes the track as a masterpiece even before the following 4 minute destructive instrumental outro.

This album is riddled with hits and features an unheard level of consistency of quality in comparison with his previous works. More importantly, this album is Kanye West. The content and the context of the album showcases him as a person and tells us more about Kanye than any other albums in his catalogue.

1.) 808s & Heartbreak, 2008

Whenever we have a historically polarising superstar like Kanye West, we see him for what he chooses to show to the world – mainly his ego and self-indulgence.  2007 was the most critical year in Kanye West’s life as he went through a split with his then-fiancée Alexis Phifer and, and of course, the loss of his mother, Donda West. Donda tragically died of cosmetic surgery failure. This led Kanye to blame himself for the loss of his mother, individualising his lifestyle – his vanity, affluence, and pursuit of glamour and glory – which ensued the following emotional nourishment that 808 provides. Musically, it presented a step in a new direction for hip-hop as the album was ridden with auto-tune and influences of electro and synth. Auto-tune, in particular, was met with prompt criticism as Kanye was branded as an ingrate bandwagoner because of the popularity of that style at that time. And of course, any sort of vocal aid never sits well with musical purists, likening the said style to pro wrestling, “Fuck it, this isn’t real”. Kanye being the innovator that he is, masterminded the use of auto-tune to craft the eerie and heart breaking car ride that is 808s & Heartbreak. The deeper exploration of the use of auto-tune and a dash of electro and synth made for a transparent album, perfectly expressing his feelings.

West implemented an 80’s vibe in the tracks Robocop, Street Lights, and Love Lockdown with the use of club-like electro patterns. As the album title suggests, heartbreak clearly was at the heart of this production with tracks like Coldest Winter, Say You Will, Heartless, and Welcome to Heartbreak. Meanwhile, Kanye also talks about the journey of life in Street Lights, which is also my favourite Kanye West song of all time. The uplifting and thought-provoking track serves as a breath of fresh air from the established theme of the album and is one of the many Kanye tracks that a lot of people can relate to. Heartless is also an amazing track. Alike many Kanye tracks, it features a narrative which takes you on a three minute journey, leaving you metaphorically (sometimes literally) in tears. Admittedly, it is not the flawless album that Late Registration and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, with lowlights such as Amazing and See You in My Nightmares seemingly sounding lost in the overall scheme of things.

With another masterpiece at hand in the form of 808’s and Heartbreak, it’s not the quality of the album that makes it the greatest LP in Kanye’s discography as Late Registration and MBDTF easily overwhelms this album in terms of hits, consistency, and variety. It’s the humanity and emotion that Kanye expresses in the 52 minute project. This is easily the most heart breaking and agonising rap album made in recent history. The whole album is a big and depressing narrative in which Kanye will never probably achieve again – not that he would want to. The experiences that encompassed the content of the tracks managed to construct the most poetic Kanye West album to date – probably ever. This record changed how we see rap with all the pain and self-destruction, and raw emotion haunting the synth and lyrics of this magnificent opus. From a rapper who is as arrogant and a well-documented egoist like Kanye West, the expression of vulnerability and heartbreak as he did in this album will never be replicated. This is a once in a lifetime project. As material things, even feelings and emotions come and go. All the heartbreak and sorrow that the album expresses tells us that nothing will last forever – the best lesson life could teach.

So there we have it. College Dropout made us glad to be alive, Graduation is the epitome of variety, Late Registration established Kanye as a superstar, Yeezus ran over us like a freight train, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is flawless, and 808s & Heartbreak rips your heart of your chest. Agree or disagree with the list? Let us know in by commenting below or hit us up on Instagram @noabbott.

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