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Every Kanye West Album Ranked

Looking back at the emotional exhibitionism that defines the rapper’s work, it’s starkly clear how much of himself he’s put into it.

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Kanye West
Photo: Def Jam

Kanye West has come back from the precipice of what feels like certain career suicide more than just about any other popular music artist. But his tendency toward self-defeat—on full display during our cruel summer, which saw him pursuing a dubious presidential bid, announcing another new album that never materialized, and waging “war” against record labels that led to him tweeting out his entire contract with Universal Music Group—is an essential part of the divisive, frequently infuriating, and resolutely genius work that he’s amassed over the last 15-plus years. West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, would only have half a title if things were otherwise; the Black Power lingua franca of Yeezus wouldn’t be nearly as galvanizing without the juxtaposition of base carnality that shocks its politics into a realm of raw human expression; and The Life of Pablo, West’s most uninhibited and soul-baring album, reaches its highs through knotting grace and grotesquery into a mercurial self-portrait that’s rarely flattering but always magnetic.

The path from “Jesus Walks” to Jesus Is King has been a willfully discursive one, a journey from hip-hop’s hard beats to gliding electro-rap, from 808s & Heartbreak’s Auto-Tune croon to the industrial rave soundtrack of Yeezus to, ugh, the #MAGA hat. And in recent years, ever since West’s bipolar diagnosis became public knowledge, every volatile career move that he makes is necessarily met with an earnest concern for the man’s mental health. That concern has steadily been occupying more and more real estate in fans’ minds this summer, especially without any artistic output to counterbalance it. And maybe that’s a good thing: Looking back at the emotional exhibitionism that defines West’s incredible work, it’s starkly clear how much of himself he’s put into his art, but less clear how much more he can afford to give. Sam C. Mac



Ye

10. Ye (2018)

Ye’s emotional claustrophobia is at times effective: As a chronicle of living with mental illness, this is Kanye’s most unsparing work to date. “Sometimes I think really bad things,” he confesses on the stark, harrowing opener “I Thought About Killing You,” his voice dipping into an artificial chopped-and-screwed baritone. “Really, really, really bad things.” But when he departs from quasi-unfiltered monologues to structured verses, the results are uninspired. “If I pull up with a Kerry Washington, that’s gon’ be an enormous scandal,” from “All Mine,” is a clunker of a line, even coming from the guy who struck internet-meme gold by rhyming “croissant” with “French-ass restaurant.” Since Yeezus, Kanye has trafficked in minimalism, paring back his once-grandiose arrangements until the seams are visible and selling the results as raw unfiltered honesty, but Ye’s slapdash construction feels less like an artistic choice and more like a cry for help. Zachary Hoskins



Jesus Is King

9. Jesus Is King (2019)

The music on Jesus Is King is as impeccably produced as that of just about any Kanye release to date, but the shift toward gospel, while occasionally captivating and even convincing, more often proves that it’s more difficult for Kanye to apply his particular narrativizing gifts to faith than it is to the exploits of outsized celebrity caricatures, or the episodes of his own tabloid-baiting life. The album’s prevailing mood is braggadocio, ever Ye’s true north, and the greatest basis for his boastfulness is, familiarly, the resilience with which he’s carried himself on the path to commercial and personal success. The particulars of this message run counter to the ostensible thesis of Jesus Is King. Kanye doesn’t seem to have quite figured out how to translate his spiritual awakening to his music as confidently as he has nearly every other experience in his life on previous albums. Mac



Yandhi

7. Yandhi (2019, unreleased)

Like Prince’s Black Album, Yandhi was pulled from release at the very last minute and shelved because its creator felt that its content was too explicit. (Apparently couplets like “New ass, new tits/New bitch, who this?” didn’t jibe with his newly rediscovered Christianity.) Thankfully for fans, all of the songs from the album’s original tracklist have leaked (either as demos or finished but unmastered tracks) along with others from the sessions, and have been configured into various bootleg compilations. If that sounds way too outside the realm of canonization, consider that Kanye burned that bridge sometime around the sixth “update” delivered to streaming services of his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, or when he replaced an entire beat on 2018’s Ye days after its release. In short, thinking of latter-day Kanye West albums as fluid is more than appropriate. Yandhi is also far from Ye’s worst album, thanks to the indelible earworm “New Body”—which features a salacious and table-turning verse from a prime-form Nicki Minaj and a beat by Ronny J that sounds like a tin whistle—along with “Hurricane” and “City in the Sky,” which both do more interesting things with their gospel influences than just about anything on Jesus Is King. Mac



Graduation

7. Graduation (2007)

Kanye’s sampling choices remained basically citational on Graduation, even as his production adopted a beefy, synth-glam sheen. “Stronger” is one of the more galvanizing moments of contrast to the filtered soul of “Through the Wire” and “Touch the Sky.” Instead of trying to placate his oft-mentioned elders with Curtis Mayfield and Chaka Khan, the menacing Vocoder samples of Daft Punk cut through the hazard tape of “Stronger” and, if nothing else, form a much more appropriate match for Kanye’s blustering hubris. Still, you couldn’t find a campus library cavernous enough to annotate “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” in which Kanye attempts to satirically undercut his supposedly self-deprecating biographical exorcism and ends up in a deep confusion, or the swooping drama queenery of “Flashing Lights,” in which he compares his media experience to what it must’ve felt like to be “Katrina with no FEMA.” Eric Henderson



808s & Heartbreak

6. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

After a series of micro-evolutions, 808s & Heartbreak marked Kanye’s first hard pivot away from his soul-sample-heavy brand of hip-hop. The album’s narrow aesthetic boundaries—including minimalist keyboards, steely string passages, and, of course, tribal 808s—highlight Kanye’s limitations as a vocalist. But while Auto-Tune might be the worst thing to happen to popular music since Kanye’s ego, it makes his pitiful crooning sound like that of a despondent robot. And that ego, like the singing rapper’s heart, isn’t so much broken as it is deflated like the balloon on the album’s cover, making for purposeful (mis)use of the pitch-correction software as a symptom of said heart defect. Sal Cinquemani



The College Dropout

5. The College Dropout (2004)

Who says rap can’t be insecure and hopelessly neurotic? Kanye proved the possibility of this kind of finicky introspection without losing a hint of swagger, hopping from big issues to self-involved bluster, always with one eye on the mirror, second-guessing himself all the way to the top. Before the ego-infused outbursts, before the anti-academic motifs became hopelessly stale, The College Dropout found Kanye as a relatively blank slate, as well as the first rapper to score a hit single with his jaw wired shut. Jesse Cataldo



The Life of Pablo

4. The Life of Pablo (2016)

“We don’t want no devils in the house,” squeaks a sampled Christ-worshipping pipsqueak in the first seconds of The Life of Pablo, and unsurprisingly her words go unheeded: After the benedictory blessing of “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye is back to his sinning ways. The Kanye of this album is the least likable one yet, and even more repelling for his apparent proximity to the real Kanye: Unlike those of the “monster” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the “god” on Yeezus, there’s always a sense that the narratives here—the one about Taylor Swift, the shot at Ray J, etc.—are his own. But the thing is, amplification is Kanye’s art: Sounds are always getting bigger and sharper, production progressively more expansive and diverse, and emotional honesty is taken to the most vivid of extremes. The Life of Pablo is a masterwork because it pairs Kanye’s best executed musical ideas with the most revealing expression of his character. Mac



Yeezus

3. Yeezus (2013)

As raw and straightforward as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is sparkling and expansive, Yeezus is another self-deifying shrine to an artist so much more sensitive than his stature should allow, turning everything he releases into a messy blend of the personal and the political. Never has this been clearer than on stellar songs like “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves,” which conflate personal and historical traumas into one chaotic mixture, communicating both the insidious, lingering effects of a racist culture and the unmistakable imprint of an artist who refuses to be quieted by his own insecurities. Cataldo



Late Registration

2. Late Registration (2005)

Though his public appearances and constant blogging demonstrated an ego run so amuck it headed right into South Park fish-in-a-barrel territory, signing up to co-produce a rap record with Jon Brion was a pretty genius move. Brion’s strings and general sense of kooky bombast make for a consistently challenging album that never forgets that it’s still a pop record. Despite a tinge of melancholy on tracks like “Hey Mama” and “Roses,” or the outrage of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Late Registration mostly captures the joy that can only be found in creative invention. Jimmy Newlin



My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Insisting, on whatever grounds, that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of rap’s great milestone’s doesn’t do the album justice, at least insofar as doing so invites impossible challenges (is it really better than Fear of a Black Planet or Illmatic? Who could definitively say?) without drawing due attention to the strengths on which the album might meet them. So let me offer the following, slightly less generous superlative: No rap album I’ve heard can boast better production than this one. The music is exhilarating, often abrasive, never predictable, at times stunningly gorgeous. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy allows Kanye a thematic palette broad enough to confront his pride and anguish. The album dwells on the surreal (“Dark Fantasy” imagines a shopping-mall séance and a sky eclipsed by herons) and the religious (next to Kanye himself, it’s Satan who gets the most name-drops here). It’s all in the service of an exhausting contest between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, Kanye embracing his singular pop-star/super-villain persona while struggling to connect with the creative potential that made him worth our attention to begin with. Matthew Cole

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