Number Seven: Graduation (2007). While Graduation was a solid album for the time, I put it at the bottom of the list. For an artist who is essential in blazing new paths for Hip-Hop, out of all of Kanye’s albums, this one always felt the least brave, the least groundbreaking, and the safest of all of his work. It had its share of hit songs (“Stronger,” “Good Life”), as well as others that are well remembered (“Flashing Lights,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Champion”) but overall, I don’t think it really did much for Hip-Hop as a whole.
Number Six: Watch the Throne (2011). I place this album just above Graduation because out of Kanye’s catalog, I think Watch the Throne stands out just a little more. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very much rooted in Pop, but it shows off a side to Kanye that I don’t think the world had really seen before. This album came fresh off the heels of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and it was essentially just him having a blast with his good friend and long time collaborator, Jay Z. Where MBDTF was a very serious record, Watch the Throne is exactly the opposite and while not groundbreaking, it was interesting to see something we had never really seen from him before.
Number Five: 808s & Heartbreak (2008). Many would probably put this album at the very bottom of this list, but I would have to disagree with that. This album came right after the death of his mother and the end of a six year relationship, which caused a drastic change in sound from anything Kanye had previously put out. He abandoned the heavy use of major scales and employed darker, colder chords than ever before. He has stated that on 808s & Heartbreak, he didn’t feel as if he could adequately get his emotions across through rap so he turned to auto-tune. Many would go so far as to say that of all of Kanye’s albums, this one has proven to be the most pioneering and influential of all. An argument could be made that this album paved the way for artists like Future, Chief Keef, James Blake, and The Weeknd. It also marked a turning point for Kanye and I don’t think he could have made MBDTF or Yeezus without the creation of 808s & Heartbreak.
Number Four: The College Dropout (2004). This was the album that put Kanye West on the map and truly took him away from the focus of producer and into the spotlight of “burgeoning rap genius.” As he tells the listener on The College Dropout’s album closer, he always wanted to be a rapper but got sort of stuck exclusively producing because people liked his beats and didn’t view him as anything more. He finally got signed to Roc-A-Fella as a rapper and this was his debut. This is the album that put Kanye on the forefront of rap music and proved to the world that he could not only produce but rap, and rap really well.
Number Three: Yeezus (2013). While I could write an entire article on the genius that was the Yeezus “non-hype” release I’ll keep it short. In a bold move, Kanye kept everything on such low profile concerning the release of this album that the clandestine nature of it is what created its hype. There was no publicity, no singles before the release other than projections of “New Slaves” on buildings around the world, and he did no interviews until just weeks before the album’s release. He brought in producer Rick Rubin fifteen days before Yeezus was supposed to be released and together they stripped the album down to its skeleton, creating an ultra-minimal, very aggressive sound that utilized elements of Chicago Drill music, Industrial music, Acid House, Post Punk, and Trap. The result of all this was an album that is entirely unique in nature and pushes Hip-Hop’s boundaries much in the way that 808s & Heartbreak did. This album could prove to be another monumental moment for Hip-Hop, giving artists another push to take risks in their production and create something the world has never heard.
Number Two: Late Registration (2005). This was Kanye’s second album, coming only eighteen months after The College Dropout. By this point in his career he had been using his formula of soul based beats with pitched up vocal samples for a while and decided that he didn’t want to get stuck in his old ways, hired a string section and collaborated with composer and producer Jon Brion to create something far more sprawling and grandiose than anyone expected. OnLate Registration, you can catch glimpses of all sides of Kanye. There’s Soul Rap (“Touch the Sky”, “Gone”), songs bound for the Billboard Top 20 (“Gold Digger”), socially conscious protests (“Crack Music”, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”), and of course the touching “Hey Mama”. This album showed that Kanye wasn’t just a one trick pony and formed his reputation as Kanye West, the head of the pack and the trailblazer of Hip-Hop.
Number One: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010). It’s said that on MBDTF Kanye kept engineers on the boards twenty-four hours a day, working in shifts all day and night and it shows. If there ever was a perfect Hip-Hop album, this would be it. It came after the media fiasco surrounding his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards. The view on his horizon consisted of a perplexed fan base following the release of the minimal, cold, Electro-Pop of 808s & Heartbreak and the hatred of the general public. The album is his masterpiece. Many critics stated that it transcended Hip-Hop. It has a peer group of albums like OK Computer, Thriller, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, What’s Going On, etc. He had his tried and true production team and a huge crew of collaborators; some of which were to be expected were Jay-Z, Common, Kid Cudi, as well as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who was expected entirely out of left field. The album was adored by fans and critics alike. It was his magnum opus, filled with extravagance, weirdness, devotion and genius; it is a true triumph of music.