Kanye West will undoubtedly go down as one of rap's greatest artists. His blend of braggadocios lyrics, creative production, and fiery public persona will ensure that nobody will be forgetting him any time soon. To date, Kanye has won 21 Grammy Awards for his 7 fantastic solo albums. But which album will be remembered as his magnum opus? Ranking his albums was like a parent choosing between their own children, but after much deliberation, I came to a conclusion.
7. The Life of Pablo (2016)
Never a stranger to visual art trends, Kanye drew inspiration for this album cover from the recent emergence of digital lo-fi art.
Kanye's most recent album The Life of Pablo had quite the tumultuous history. Originally announced in 2013 as So Help Me God, the early version of this album featured popular singles like FourFiveSeconds, All Day, and Only One. In the spring of 2015, Kanye changed the name to SWISH, and then in February 2016 changed it to TLOP, or The Life Of Pablo. Kanye himself has said that he still doesn't consider the album to be completely finished, so a remaster or reworking is not completely out of the question.
As I will explain later in the list, most of Kanye's albums have a unifying musical aesthetic. This means that throughout the album, it is musically consistent, with similar instrumentation and lyrical themes. The Life Of Pablo lacks this unifying theme, which makes it feel like less of of a coherent package and more of a collection of singles.The closest thing to a unifying aesthetic I can attribute to the album is "messy gospel". The soaring organs and themes of godhood and spirituality are featured in much, but not all, of the album. However, the album is not as consistent sonically or thematically as Kanye's other albums, which is why it is placed last. Despite this, the soulful energy mixed with classic Kanye bravado still earns this album a place alongside Yeezy's other work.
Best song: Ultralight Beam
6. 808's and Heartbreak (2008)
The sad, minimalist look of the album cover reflects the composition and themes of the album.
Kanye created 808's and Heartbreak in response to a very dark period of his life. Right off the success of Graduation, Kanye was struggling with his ascent to super-stardom, especially being constantly hounded by the paparazzi. In addition, his relationship with his fiancee of five years collapsed. Most importantly, Kanye's beloved mother Donda passed away due to complications with plastic surgery. Kanye's parents divorced when he was 3 years old, so he relied on his mother for his upbringing. His mother, an English professor at Clark Atlanta University, encouraged Kanye in his artistic pursuits. Her death absolutely crushed Kanye, and led him to create an album that was drastically different than anything he'd ever done.
808's and Heartbreak eschews rapping in favor of auto-tuned singing from Kanye. While Kanye's previous albums were complex, heavily layered efforts, the songs on 808's are intentionally composed to be as minimalist as possible. The titular Rolar TR-808 Drum Machine featured in the album produces droning, pitch-shifted melancholic tones. Combined with Kanye's auto-tuned singing and somber lyrics, this album marked a significant departure from Kanye's usual optimistic and inspiring music.In my opinion, it is an article that is best listened to when you're going through a rough patch, because its introspective lyrics allow for reflection and emotional support. The album's themes, auto-tuned vocals, and composition heavily influenced today's more emotional and vulnerable hip-hop artists such as Drake, The Weeknd, and J. Cole.
Best Song: Streetlights
5. Graduation (2007)
A little known fact about Kanye is that he adores anime (his favorite anime movie is Akira). Anime inspired the album artwork and many of the music videos from Graduation.
Inspired by mega-popular band U2, Kanye sought out to create an anthemic album that was best enjoyed in an arena with thousands of screaming fans. He dabbled in electronic music to create an album centered around inspiration and personal achievement. Kanye stepped out of his comfort zone and sampled a wide variety music outside of the soul genre, most notably Daft Punk's Harder Better Faster Stronger. He drew inspiration from the chord progressions used by iconic rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones in order to try and capture their mass concert appeal. In addition, for the first time Kanye decided not to include skits, which are short humorous interludes between songs, in an album. This deviation from hip-hop tropes was inspired by the indie/alternative rock that Kanye had been heavily listening to at the time. Graduation marked the final victory Kanye had over rival rapper 50 Cent in the war between soulful, melodic hip-hop and gangsta rap, as Graduation ended up outperforming 50's album Curtis.
Graduation's use of synthesizers and slower tempos gives it a distinct identity among Kanye's other work. The varied, bright instrumentation gives the album pop radio appeal. In addition, Kanye switched up his rapping style from percussive, hard consonants to more smooth vowel sounds in order to create a more melodic, friendly sound. The lyrical themes of the album deal with Kanye's introspection regarding his new-found fame, and how his confidence has soared through the roof because of it. Despite his inflated ego, his introspection displays vulnerability and maturity, and his words display encouragement to his fans to pursue their dreams. In his own words, "If you're a fan of Kanye West, you're a fan of yourself".
Best Song: I Wonder
4. Yeezus (2013)
Yeezus technically doesn't have an album cover. In stores, the CD case is clear with a simple piece of red tape sealing it.
Fresh off the success of his collaborative albums with Jay-Z (Watch the Throne) and his labelmates at GOOD Music (Cruel Summer), Kanye quickly went to work searching for inspiration for his next solo project. He found the most inspiration in minimalist architecture, particularly the work of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier's angular, cold style inspired the industrial abrasive sound of Yeezus. The album drew inspiration from industrial rap, in addition to 1980's house music and the then-upcoming genre of trap from Kanye's home city of Chicago.
Yeezus features the most aggressive, primal lyrics of Kanye's career. The hard-hitting, rapid fire percussion clashes defiantly with the floating, melodic vocal features and samples. The unconventional supporting instrumentation comes in and out rapidly and seemingly without structure, reminding me of similarly loosely structured rap such as Death Grips' The Money Store. The trap-inspired hi-hats and trombones feature prominently on the album, highlighting popular hip-hop's shift from more melodic beats, to abrasive rap anthems. Around the time of this album's production, Kanye began his relationship with his future wife, Kim Kardashian. The love song he dedicated to her, Bound 2, is as sweet and sincere of a love song as Kanye West could produce. The high-pitched soul samples on the song call back to College Dropout, displaying Kanye's nostalgia for his earlier style but also how he's looking forward to a dedicated relationship with Kim.
Best Song: Bound 2
3. Late Registration (2005)
Kanye's mascot Dropout Bear makes his second appearance on a Kanye album cover.
After the massive success of The College Dropout, Kanye felt that his signature sound of sped-up soul samples was being copied and overused. As such, he sought to create an album with a completely distinct sound. Kanye teamed up with acclaimed composer Jon Brion to broaden his musical horizons. They ended up composing an album around an orchestral sound, comprised of string instruments, melodic vocal harmonies, and simple, clean percussion. The breakout success of The College Dropout finally allowed Kanye to afford live string instruments, allowing him to create the orchestral album he had pictured in his head for years.
With Late Registration, Kanye sought to expose hip-hop cliches and defy them. The orchestral instrumentation of Late Registration blends Kanye's style of soul with Brion's chamber pop to create a sound that was completely new to hip-hop. Kanye utilized instruments that were extremely unconventional for rap, such as Chinese bells and harpsichords, to help forge the album's identity. Between every song, there are humorous skits that feature a fictional black fraternity called Broke Phi Broke, which prides itself on having no material possessions. Kanye is expelled from the fraternity when they discover he is engaging is heinous acts such as eating everyday and taking showers. The political commentary behind these skits is that Kanye symbolizes the Darwinistic drive for one to achieve their full potential, despite society's insistence that everyone should be similar and complacent.
Best Song: Touch the Sky
2. The College Dropout (2004)
Kanye's debut album features him dressed up as his mascot, the Dropout Bear.
By the early 2000's, Kanye West had already established himself as one of the best producers in the game. After working on the classic Jay-Z album The Blueprint, Kanye wanted to establish himself as a solo artist and rapper, rather than just a producer. At the time, his rapping skills were not taken seriously by major record labels. Because Kanye didn't fit the gangsta rap mold that was popular, labels didn't see him as marketable. Nonetheless, Kanye was determined, and he worked on the album for years before he was finally signed by Roc-A-Fella Records.
The College Dropout is Kanye West's debut studio album, and it introduced Kanye's signature sound of sped-up soul samples. Kanye took the hip-hop staple of sampling and took it to the next level, by transforming the source material beyond recognition to create brand new music. The soul samples are supplemented by gospel choirs, spoken word verses, acoustic guitars, and other features rarely seen in hip-hop. Lyrically, The College Dropout deviated from the gangsta rap themes of popular hip-hop by speaking about higher education, institutional racism, spirituality, excessive consumerism, and family. Most significantly, instead of building himself as an infallible figure, Kanye portrays himself as someone who is vulnerable and filled with self doubt. By portraying himself as an ordinary person instead of an infallible gangsta, Kanye was able to relate to hip-hop fans in a way they had never seen before. Echoing the circumstances behind the album's creation, Kanye uses The College Dropout as an opportunity to raise a middle finger against all of those who doubted him, and encourages his fans to brush off anybody who doesn't believe in them.
Best Song: All Falls Down
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
This album cover has many variations. This is my favorite of the safe-for-work ones.
Following a period of legal and public controversies, the most infamous of these being Kanye's outburst against Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye went into self-imposed exile in Oahu, Hawaii. Kanye invited his closest friends in the music industry to join him in Oahu in an effort to make his most ambitious album yet. Those involved in the recording and producing process joked that the communal production effort in Hawaii was like "Rap Camp". Kanye and his posse worked tirelessly day and night on the album, often napping in the studio to avoid having to go home. The album was composed with the idea of making Kanye's magnum opus, as it would utilize all of the signature sounds of Kanye's previous albums in order to create the ultimate experience. This included College Dropout's soul, the orchestral melodies of Late Registration, uplifting synths of Graduation, and the emotional vulnerability of 808's and Heartbreak.
In My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye combines the greatest aspects of his previous works into a maximalist celebration of the American Dream and the human spirit. The mania and extravagance of tracks like All of the Lights and POWER provide listeners with a chest-bumping ode to success in the face of adversity. The album presents a laissez faire, capitalistic view of humanity, in that one's successes and failures are their fault and their fault only, but that the success of any victory must be bombastically celebrated and boasted about. This extreme mindset serves to both parody and celebrate the ideas behind the American Dream and all the grandiosity that comes with being at the top. However, the emotional conflict present in tracks such as Devil in a New Dress, Runaway, and Blame Game serve to demonstrate that no matter how high you get, humanity shares an innate desire to form intimate connections with one another. The album presents this vulnerable desire for human beings to share their deepest emotions, fears, and desires with each other as something that is also to be celebrated. This is because emotions offer human beings their highest highs and their lowest lows, and provide a way for people to view themselves as something more than a variable in a gigantic cosmic equation. This, I believe, it what truly demonstrates the genius of Kanye West. He emphasizes and celebrates the things that make us human, and encourages us to achieve our true potential through nothing but the sheer passion of our dreams. This individualistic yet optimistic mindset towards the human spirit offers people that little bit of hope they need to jump out of their comfort zones and live the life they were meant to live.
Best Song: Devil In A New Dress