In the 10 years since The College Dropout dropped, Kanye West has gone from a guy whose name I used to pronounce Kay-Knee to arguably my favorite rapper (it’s either him or Ghostface) and inarguably the most important person in music today. He is, at this point in his career, cultural icon, cultural arbiter, cultural thermometer, and Kardashian concubine; a singular zeitgeist whose talent is matched by his talent’s ability to partition.
But which Kanye album is the best?
We know which is the most polarizing (Yeezus), the most universally loved (College Dropout), the most critically acclaimed (MBDTF), and the most likely to be re-released by Drake in 12 years (808s). But, if you had to rank each album (and yes, Watch the Throne and Cruel Summer count) which would be first? Or third? Or even last?
Fortunately, I’m here to ask the tough questions you never thought to ask and provide the gritty answers you never really cared to ask for.
(In reverse order)
Having an album rate last on a list insinuates you either hated it or thought it just wasn’t any good. Neither is true with 808s, an album whose biggest crime was it being released a year after Graduation. It was such a contrast from what we expected to — and wanted to — hear from him that it became impossible to objectively assess. So we all collectively decided it sucked. Which is a shame because it paved the way for the “Wait, is he singing or rapping? And, wait. Is that even a song?”-style that’s dominated the last five years of pop culture.
Easily the most paradoxical album in Kanye’s career.
To wit, Watch the Throne would have been better if it was a Kanye solo album…but the album’s best track (“Who Gon Stop Me”) is dominated by Jay-Z…but the best line on the song ( “Heard she f*cked the doorman/Well that’s cool I f*cked the waitress“) is Kanye’s.
Also, it’s Kanye’s most expensive sounding album…but it sounded rushed…but each of the bonus tracks were hot…but they sounded like they should have been on a separate album.
The most overrated album of Kanye’s career, Graduation is the anti-808s because it’s remembered favorably for effectively ending 50 Cent’s career. Which made it impossible to objectively assess. It’s still a very good album with a couple great songs — “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights” are two of the top 20 songs Kanye’s ever created — but it’s not great, and anyone who believes that needs to get their heads out of Angel Melaku’s ass.
5. Cruel Summer
I know, I know, I know. It’s more of a crew album than a Kanye album, the four best songs were already heard by everyone months before the album was released, and there’s too much Big Sean — the charter school gym class of rap music. And while I could argue that it doesn’t matter when individual singles were released when assessing a collective album, I’ll concede each of those points.
While (somewhat) neglected historically, Late Registration may be Kanye’s most important album. Not the best, but the most important. It was the follow-up to The College Dropout, an album that while critically and commercially lauded, still felt gimmicky. It wasn’t Kanye’s rapping that made the album. It was the production, the features, and the concepts behind some of the songs. His actual rapping, though, was more “I guess he’s not that bad” than anything else, and there was still a bit of skepticism over whether he could repeat that success.
And while Late Registration had its flaws, it ultimately proved Kanye needed to be taken seriously as a full-fledged rap artist. It also had a video with Nia Long and Tracie Ellis Ross in it, a shout out to Bougie Black Girls everywhere.
Although Complex already said everything that needed to be said about this album, I’ll add one more thing:
The five song stretch from “All Falls Down” to “Spaceship” to “Jesus Walks” to “Never Let Me Down” to “Get Em High” is the best five song stretch on any rap album, ever.
One of the reasons why Lebron James remains the most fascinating player in NBA history is that he’s completely impervious to prediction. While he manages to maintain his usual 25-28 points, 6-8 assists, and 6-8 rebounds per game average, when watching him play you have absolutely no idea if you’re going to get “oddly disinterested” Lebron who’ll give you a half-assed 17, 6, and 4 or “vengeance” Lebron who’ll have 30, 8, and 9 by halftime.
My appreciation for Kanye follows the same thought. If Jay Z or Drake or Rick Ross or Beyonce released a new track at midnight tonight, you’d have an idea of what it was going to sound like before you’d even hear it. You’d have even more of an idea after seeing the title of the song and who was featured on it.
I’ve listened to Kanye for 10 years now — hundreds of Kanye-produced and/or Kanye starred tracks. And I still have no idea what new Kanye tracks (and albums) are going to sound like. None.
No album better exemplifies this imperviousness than Yeezus (our clearest journey into Kanye’s id), and no track better exemplifies this than “Hold My Liquor” — a song that features Chief Keef on the hook, Justin Vernon, a minute-long electric guitar solo, references to “Deepak Chopra” and “skinny bitches with no shoulders”, and also somehow happens to be the most beautifully melancholy song I’ve ever heard. It sounds like something Radiohead would have created if Radiohead was from PG County.
I really wanted to put Yeezus first. Like, really, really, really wanted to. And then I listened to “All Of The Lights” again. When done, I listened to “Gorgeous” again.
And then I remembered that Kanye’s single best song, “Hell of a Life”, was also on this album.
And then I came back to my senses.
—Damon Young (aka The Champ)
***At 12:30 today, join John Legend and other special guests (me included) for #DreamRiseDo – a conversation about why we need more Black men teaching***