Kanye West: Best to Worst
Before throwing this out, I want to mention that this ranking is entirely different from what I would’ve said 6 months ago. I mean every single album’s spot changed (I’ll throw my previous ranking at the end in case you’re curious to see my thought process). So maybe 6 months down the line I’ll be telling you I think Graduation is best or something. Which goes to show how versatile an artist Kanye is.
Another cool thing about Kanye is how determined his lyrics make me to work relentlessly to get what I want. He has this recurring theme in his music about how much it took to get him to where he is, which makes me want to put as much into my goals and either achieve them or die trying.
Also wanted to throw out there that I Wonder is my favorite Kanye song which you wouldn’t think at all from reading this.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: 10/10
After heavy consideration, I think My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy holds up more effectively than any other Kanye album. Yes, apparently now I’m part of the group of people that think it’s perfect and harass Anthony via twitter over his review. (kidding, calm down.) I’ve heard this album time and time again, and it still feels like whenever I listen to it I discover more about it. The production is so layered/involved and unbelievable. It’s flawless from a lyrical standpoint, it’s packed with features that totally kill their verses, and I can’t isolate a single thing I’d change about it. It makes me feel like I’m in a fantasy world where all of my dreams are attainable and everything I’ve ever wanted is right in front of me.
It’s overwhelming trying to explain everything going on in it sonically. The buildup of synths and choirs on Dark Fantasy with its pianos flow into Gorgeous, whose fairly minimal production remains one of the most memorable moments of the record with an iconic guitar lead and fuzzy vocals. The lyrics of both serve as a reflection on the realities of fame, Power’s forceful arrangement of soulful vocals and killer percussion fade into a beat switch that feels slightly more somber and relaxed, one of the album’s reflective moments(this’ll be a beautiful death). All of the Lights’ energetic percussion, horns, and choirs are so dynamic and impressive.
Things become more personal/emotional in the second half of the record; the verses on So Appalled are easily some of the best on the whole thing. Note bars like “die and be a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain” and “would you rather be underpaid or overrated” (both courtesy of jay-z), next to dark, powerful production with its strings and sharp synths. Blame Game is also much more lyrically compelling than I remember; some of these lines killed me (specifically in Chris Rock’s part haha jk jk please don’t close the tab). I’m talking about “you weren’t perfect but you made life perfect”, or “I’d rather be by my fucking self / till about 2 am and I call back / and I hand up and I start to blame myself”. The production is twisted and emotional, with an Aphex Twin piano sample and increasingly heavy vocal distortion. I don’t even have to think for more than a few seconds to know my most played Kanye song, it’s definitely Runaway. Its dark bass and reverby drums with minimal/blissful pianos fade into this gorgeous outro of strings and distortion, and whenever I throw it on I can’t help but think about driving around at dusk back home one night the exact moment my feelings for (someone) surfaced. Lost in the World is another one of Kanye’s best songs, period; it brings all of these themes of love and fame and wonder into a satisfying and gorgeous conclusion to the record; Bon Iver’s vocals with the booming, echoing drums and keys are a perfect gateway into Who Will Survive in America.
I’m surprised that relistening to this record increased my respect for it so much, but I’m so glad that after all this time I fell in love with it.
Late Registration: 9/10
This is so out of character for me. I went from thinking this album was overrated to underrated. But to me, Late Registration is more effortlessly refined and elegant than, say, College Dropout is. The record’s polished simplicity and sophistication with its lyrical prowess makes it more rewarding to digest in the long-term; the minimal yet dense approach packs in more to discover than a project like 808s or Graduation, easily. And definitely don’t forget about these SKITS. Dear god. I’ve never enjoyed an album’s interludes more; they’re unironically laugh out loud hilarious.
Heard ‘Em Say is one of Kanye’s best songs. Don’t fight me on this, you’ll lose. Its blissful simplicity combines dancing keys and a thunderous bass, and what the hell, Adam Levine sounds so good here; these vocal harmonies are perfect. The triumphant horns and tribal drums on Touch The Sky are fantastic, with an undertone of achievement that I love. I’m sure I don’t need to convince anyone of Gold Digger’s importance, but Jamie Foxx’s impersonation of Ray Charles with the drums and handclaps with the lyrics about, well, some girl that’s not gonna mess with broke motherfuckers is legendary. Drive Slow’s lingering piano lead and horn additions have only grown on me through time; it’s one of the album’s most psychedelic and -- cuts.
Lyrical moments like Roses, Crack Music, and Addition are another big component in what makes this record what it is. The narrative element to Roses explains a time when Ye’s family was under the impression his grandmother could die at any moment. The bars about how she would’ve been fine if she’d had a more “important” job and the nurses asking for autographs while she’s literally dying force you to consider the personal effect fame has on families and individuals alike. Crack Music’s comparison of two epidemics is one of the most clever moments of the record; Addiction has this rebellious urgency that actively questions itself, using hazy, dark synths, congas, and -- in its production. Diamonds from Sierra Leone is a reflective track on fame, with glistening synths, horns, and droning bass. We Major has a similar acknowledgement of influence and features Nas on one of my favorite moments of the album, with glistening ascending and descending pianos and noisy horns. Cuts like My Way Home, Gone, and Late carry some of its most impressive lyrics as well, and reek of being underrated.
The only culprit for content that’s not up to par with the rest of the album is Celebration. I guess it just reminds me of some lackluster track on the second half of Graduation and serves no purpose to me within the album. I also don’t necessarily think this album is impressive enough to give more than a 9. Like, your musical life is not going to end, you probably won’t stop in your tracks and name it the best album you’ve ever heard. But it’s definitely one of Kanye’s best lyrical efforts, and its polished finesse is hard to deny.
808’s & Heartbreak: 8/10
So….oh boy. This album is triggering to me.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why this album was a big deal in the first place; its sad/emotional r&b flavor and autotune would go on to influence artists like Drake, The Weeknd, etc. and led to this whole new wave of r&b in hip hop blah blah blah.
On the personal side of things, I have a story here. Do I get into it? Might as well. I’m the one who runs this blog. Once upon a time there was a guy I was really into, who still has a bigger place in my heart than he should. He told me all the time to listen to this album. Like, every day. And me being me, I had other musical priorities, so I kept telling him no. And then shit happened, we stopped talking entirely. I first listened to this album at 5am on my way to work back when I lived in Ohio a few days after and you can imagine where I’m going with this, I felt some things. I’m not in contact with this guy anymore, at all. I can’t listen to 808s without feeling the same way I felt that day. It just brings me right back. Doesn’t matter where I am in life or love or anything. Not much more to say on that.
The cold, bleak tone of this record and raw display of emotion makes it Kanye’s most vulnerable and personal effort. Say You Will’s heavy autotune use, atmospheric production, tonal synths and pianos have only grown on me over time as the perfect way to begin the album. Kanye totally pours out his soul on Welcome to Heartbreak over strings, keys, and fuzzy percussion/vocals. Paranoid is hands down one of my favorite tracks here, with grimy distorted bass, strings, and polished line of synths that climax into one of the best hooks of the album. If you call out RoboCop for being chessy the way Fantano did we’re DONE, because the song is perfect, from its reverby drums to its glossy line of strings to its lyrics. I can’t think of a moment where Kanye’s been more emotionally exposed than on Street Lights, an atmospheric, depressive track that uses pianos and distortion to communicate how physically and emotionally lost he is.
Pinocchio Story is an interesting one. I’m not sure if my interpretation of it is exactly what it’s about, but it has to do with the fact that no matter how happy you are chasing your dreams/going after what you want, there’s still this thing in the back of your head telling you the personal side of life is just as valuable (dealing with relationships, friendships, family). And it’s really, really easy to get sidetracked when all of your energy goes towards that dream. I love the fact the song is live, making it feel more raw and spaced out.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that 808s’ influence and intention was better than the actual album. The effort when consumed as a whole is a lot better than any of the songs isolated. I also can’t help but feel like Amazing and Love Lockdown could’ve been better/throw me off at such a pivotal moment in the album.
The only thing I really have to say about this whole thing is I hope I reach a point where I can feel things as deeply as I did when this album hit me again.
God, writing about this sucks, I miss him.
The College Dropout: 8/10
Oh man. This was my record for so long. My favorite Kanye album. I would have defended it to the death a year ago, and it’s hard to pinpoint why I became disenchanted with it over time until it fell to an 8.
I think the main reason why so many people name this their favorite Kanye album is for its relatability. This album is the suburban, comfortable, understanding project that translates to a lot of people in this age group because we needed someone to spit these verses. Being lost young adults who don’t know exactly how to approach life yet makes it all the more appealing. A lot of us are told to go to college no matter what, even with no plan of action, which is terrible advice (yes racking up a shit ton of student loans with no idea how we’re going to use our degree is a much better plan than taking a year or two off or learning how to fend for ourselves in the job market thanks baby boomers l m a o). And yes, the record’s a blast, calling out a lot of the bullshit that comes with college.
Still, sometimes I feel like this album is bloated and a tad overrated. I want the first few songs in the album to be so much better than they are; songs like We Don’t Care and Spaceship are easy culprits for what makes it feel mediocre sometimes. They feel averagely produced, but topics like druuuuug deeeeealing just to get by or workin’ grave shifts not making shit make them more appealing. All Falls Down has grown on me, though; its pulsating guitars, bass and Syleena Johnson’s soulful vocals on the hook are fairly nice. We see Kanye more religious than usual in cuts like Jesus Walks and Never Let Me Down; Jesus Walks’ sampled gospel chant and echoing drums and Never Let Me Down’s sonorous synthetic soundscape with J. Ivy’s vocals lingering throughout are great moments as well.
The deeper cuts on this album are easily better to me on the whole. Get Em High has an infectious beat, with ringing synths and booming bass/drums; all of the features work really nicely together too. The New Workout Plan is insane, with a vigorous wailing lead, infectious bass and drums, and orgasmic beat switch. It’s just an utterly hilarious track and if you don’t like it I doubt we’re going to get along. The twisted production on Two Words with the luminous guitars, choirs, and forceful distortion make it one of the most involved/detailed cuts of the record. Through The Wire is a reflective track written after Ye survived a car crash, and is one of the most compelling lyrical moments here; I love the way the samples come together in this track. Family Business is one of the most underrated Kanye songs out there, with mellow pianos and reflective undertones; it kind of reminds me of how growing older, we value this pause in life to hang out with our families more and more as the years pass. And of course, Last Call is a 12-minute epic where Kanye goes over what got him here in the first place.
My only other two issues with the album are its skits and Breathe In Breathe Out (you win, Peter). The skits aren’t so bad, but I feel like they could’ve been condensed a little bit more effectively and sometimes feel redundant.
The intent behind this record and fantastic second half is what saves it in the end.
The Life of Pablo: 7/10
The Life of Pablo to me reads like a grab bag of experiments. Its biggest flaw is inconsistency and its track to track flow being a little awkward. Nevertheless, some of the highlights here are incredible and some of his best songs to date.
Ultralight Beam is another one of those moments where Kanye’s religious side shows through. The soulful choirs, minimal percussion, and surreal/dreary synth are gorgeous; the placement of Chance on this track is perfect too. Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 not only gave us the iconic lines “Now if I fuck this model / and she just bleached her asshole / and I get bleach on my T-shirt / Imma feel like an asshole”, its production incorporates a perfect blend of pianos, steady percussion, grimy bass and autotune. Famous’ production is absolutely pristine with its echoing percussion and atmospheric, dazzling synth sample; Rihanna’s performance here is perfect too. Feedback uses a sharp line of feedback (hahahahaha i bet that’s why it’s called feedback) & grimy bass/drums. Also gotta love the line “name one genius that ain’t crazy”.
Waves is this orgasmic blend of vocal samples that almost didn’t make the album (what the fuck) before Chance saved our asses, and I hate to say it but Chris Brown sounds great on it. I’ve continued to come back to it more than any other song on TLOP for its production and lyrics alike (about that moment you know you’re meant to be with someone; your waves never die). Real Friends has high-pitched wailing production, & analyzes shallow relationships and/or knowing you’re not doing enough of your part in a relationship to expect anything in return. 30 Hours is one of Kanye’s most underrated songs, being a reflective cut on how Kanye used to drive 30 hours for his college girlfriend that would end up screwing him over. Saint Pablo is this vulnerable call out to God that uses hard-hitting pianos, a screeching noise, and spaced-out layers of sound in its production to beautifully conclude the record.
But honestly, I don’t know why random interludes like Low Lights, Frank’s Track (no disrespect to frank ocean), and Silver Surfer Intermission were included. It just takes up space and causes the album to feel bloated. Wolves I have a love-hate relationship with; the disjointed production is mind-boggling to me, from the deafening bass to echoing percussion to drifting vocals. But lyrically it feels like two seperate songs, and Kanye’s last verse really shouldn’t have been there.
Fade doesn’t really do anything for me production-wise either and just feels very half-assed.
I’m going to get yelled at for this. I’m famous among a (certain group of people) for hating Yeezus with a burning passion, and now I just turn around and say it’s a 7? My bad feeling about this album is still there on the whole. Pinpointing why I feel this way is pretty difficult, but after a lot of speculating I think I landed on as close as it’s going to get.
There’s a dark abrasiveness/ruthlessness to this record’s beats and lyrics that makes it enjoyable at its core. Expect heavy amounts of bass, dirty layers of distortion, and other blaring synthetic experiments. New Slaves is an obvious highlight, pretty much everything about it is appealing. The contrast between its dark distortion/bass and bouncing synths with the pitched vocals towards the end and drifting outro is nearly perfect. Blood on the Leaves’ keys and heavy layers of thunderous sound are pretty compelling, and Hold My Liquor’s droning soundscape in combination with the rough screeching sound and guitars near the end are great.
But if we’re talking overarching problems, the production and vocal effects are what I keep coming back to. Sure, this is grimy, it’s dirty, it’s unconventional, but a lot of times the songs aren’t that layered or intricate. They feel like a few minimal industrial beats strung out over entire songs that still manage to feel messy and thrown together. After a listen or two, there’s nothing left to discover. I’m getting really sick of people comparing it to Death Grips because this is nowhere near as chaotic or ruthless as a dg project.
It doesn’t help that there’s such heavy autotune throughout the record that seems more tacky than anything.
Finding entirely unlikeable tracks on this album is a little difficult, because there are elements of each song that are great, but two culprits I can pinpoint are Black Skinhead and I’m In It. I don’t know what it is about the production of Black Skinhead that I’ve never, ever been down with right down to the first time I ever listened to it (when I was practically a fetus). The groove just feels like it’s trying to do two different things at once. The strange, off-kilter elements, such as the intense drumming and frightened vocal samples don’t sound right with the tribal lead and handclaps. As for I’m In It, how does one listen to this song without getting at least a slightly bad feeling in their stomach? I don’t know, I know the production and lyrics are graphic on purpose, but to me it’s not shocking or intense or interesting. It’s just uncomfortable and sort of messy.
If this album just carried the strength of the first four tracks the whole way through, this would be waaay higher up on my list.
Good Morning and I Wonder have a lavish, majestic soundscape that easily transcends most of the rest of Graduation; the lyrics on these tracks are so gorgeous and comforting. Champion’s horns, hazy layers of synths and triumphant lyrics make it another great moment here. Stronger samples Harder Better Faster Stronger so well, and Flashing Lights is another track whose production won me over, with this peppy/dancey synthpop lead. Everything I Am is nice too, I like the pianos and the verses are nice enough.
I guess I just feel like it kind of drops off with Good Life, Can’t Tell Me Nothing, Barry Bonds, Drunk and Hot Girls, etc. I don’t know what it is, but these tracks feel lazy to me. And I know that Graduation is supposed to be Kanye’s fun album that maybe you shouldn’t overthink, but I was done with these tracks after a few listens. It’s not like Kanye’s average rapping is doing much to make up for the mediocre production.
I feel like this album has never really been quite what I want it to be.