Part two: Ranking the five best Kanye West albums
Christopher Parker | Monday, April 20, 2020
Here, I complete the opus I began last week of ranking Kanye West’s work. There’s no way to write this list without snubbing a few masterpieces and drawing a little controversy. Still, I’m confident that there’s no wrong way to go.
The best Kanye album
- “The Life of Pablo” — It’s definitely tough to include this one in my top five over “Graduation”: the former born in the era of Kanye West as a controversial megalomaniac, the latter a gleeful look back at the rise of a superstar. “Graduation” gave us countless hits and arguably shifted the spotlight from gangsta rap to the pop rap, making a lot of people take a second look at Kanye West. Why, then, “The Life of Pablo”? The album is special because it felt like the most vulnerable Kanye album. I don’t mean vulnerable in an emotional sense: it’s still clearly the same man who brought us “I Am A God.” It’s obvious, though, that “The Life of Pablo” was not the same type of blueprinted album that we’re used to. Kanye continued to make changes after its digital release. It had no cohesive sound, bouncing from the gospel “Ultralight Beam” to the acapella “I Love Kanye” to “Pt. 2” which is basically just a remix of “Panda.” It broods with “FML” and rises in victory with “Waves.” It felt like Kanye took a step back and let the album happen. It felt like a look at imperfection from someone who thinks everything he touches is perfect.
- “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” — I can only describe this album as an absolute roller coaster from the get-go. The album artwork, ranked #30 on Billboard’s list of the best album covers of all time, was selected from eight George Condo paintings done for Kanye that all reflect different motifs in the album. If any album needed eight different covers to reflect its fragmented personality, it would be MBDTF. On one hand, it’s loaded with emotion and self-reflection that makes it the natural follow-up to “808’s and Heartbreak”; I’m looking specifically at “All of the Lights,” an anthem of struggles with family and fame, and “Runaway,” a critical look in the mirror of an arrogant superstar which I reviewed last week. The album shows that Kanye was still reeling from the loss he suffered in his mother. However, the moment you finish “Runaway,” you’re whipped back into disrespectful hype tracks like “Monster” that remind you exactly who you’re dealing with. “POWER” can be heard playing on any given night in dozens of sports arenas. This balance shows the dichotomy that makes Kanye such a versatile artist. Besides: any album that rhymes esophagus with sarcophagus makes my top 5.
- “The College Dropout” — Kanye’s springboard from producer to rapper is a tribute to his humble roots. It carries with it the seeds of everything we come to expect from a Kanye West album. It’s real but tinged with joy, evident in the first 30 seconds of “We Don’t Care.” In it, Kanye works with established and respected artists at the time like Jay-Z, Common and Mos Def. The album struggles with religion in Kanye’s all-time greatest song “Jesus Walks.” Most of all, I appreciate “The College Dropout” because it’s an album about being young where Kanye finds his footing. Dropped in 2004, it hails from the era of skits between songs, so it makes for a fun listen. The flow is clever, the samples are melodious and if you’ve never heard the epic “Through the Wire,” it’s time you did.
- “Late Registration” — The party anthem that still shakes dorms 15 years later: “Gold Digger.” The catchy, pass-the-mic orchestral jam that you can’t help tapping your feet to: “Gone.” The song you have to listen to for years before all the warnings and messages make sense: “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix).” Much of what people love about the Kanye of years passed flourishes in this album. It’s cocky but not obnoxious, so you don’t need to cringe internally at how much you’re enjoying it. It’s well-produced but not overproduced, with many songs built on thoughtful strings and horns. It’s a great place to start with Kanye, and it’s the kind of album you never get sick of.
- “Yeezus” — Coming off two collaborative crowd-pleasers, “Watch the Throne” and “G.O.O.D. Music: Cruel Summer,” Kanye created an entire album that sounded like nothing else. There’s never been an album like “Yeezus,” intentionally stripped of everything beautiful and left with the visceral and oftentimes offensive truth of Kanye’s stardom. The stories behind its production — month long delays followed by three tracks written in as many hours, a 210-minute runtime cut down to 10 songs — remind us of the uncomfortable truth of Kanye West. As polarizing as his personal life is, as difficult as it can be to like him sometimes (or, well… most of the time), the man is a genius. Anybody who needs a reminder that good music outlasts bad politics should take a serious look at the life story of Mozart. There are plenty of comparisons to be drawn between the two perfectionists who lived comparable lifestyles by the standards of their time. Indeed, I think if Mozart had the creative freedom that Kanye does, his work might have included something not too far from ”Yeezus.” The lyrics cast the central problem of being Kanye West: how to reconcile the overdose of sex, fame and money that is his life with the nagging guilt of his social and religious concerns. “Yeezus” portrays that conflict, bare and animalistic, in every single song.