2018 has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. Just ask any Kanye West fan.
In 2018, West’s high-wire act finally reached its breaking point. He voiced support for President Trump, promoted alt-right figures and called slavery “a choice.” Even former fans started to agree with some of West’s harshest critics — maybe he was just a rich, out-of-touch bigot, or, to quote Barack Obama, a “jackass.”
How did the man who declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” publicly support Donald Trump a little more than a decade later? This question might not be answered any time soon. Some have justifiably asked why we are waiting for an explanation at all, especially after so much of West’s worst behavior is excused and ignored.
West’s superpower — and curse — is his penchant for turning every public moment into unhinged performance art. Even the most mundane celebrity events, from awards shows to Twitter promotions to late-night interviews, became unmissable cultural moments. No artist in the 21st century has matched his combination of album sales, critical acclaim, influence and general attention. Ironically, only one of the few to come anywhere close to that is Taylor Swift.
Now may be a poor time for a career retrospective, as West’s career is more fragile than ever. However, ignoring his influence somehow feels dishonest. As wrongheaded as many of his statements are, West’s legacy as an unapologetic, brilliant black artist is wrong to completely dismiss. I don’t blame anyone who wants to be finished with West’s work. Yet I predict it’ll be a long time before pop culture can say the same thing.
For this ranking, I will only include West’s eight solo studio albums. (That excludes collaborative albums like “Watch the Throne,” or production credits like “Daytona”). I placed them in descending order, from worst to best. Of course, this is completely subjective, so feel free to tell me how I’m wrong in the comments. While you’re at it, let me know your what favorite Kanye tweet and word pronunciation are (mine is this and “Abercrombie”).
8. “ye” (2018)
All things considered, it could have been worse. After Kanye spent months of trolling in every possible way, “ye” won some brownie points for being a semi-coherent album. West’s recording process has been haphazard for most of this decade, but “ye” is the first time his finished product felt incomplete. It’s telling that the album’s best track, “Ghost Town,” is so packed with features it’s barely a Kanye West song. Most of West’s raps are thoroughly obnoxious, mixing references to his latest idiotic public statements with shallow, unsatisfying bouts of self-reflection. While West remains a gifted producer, the musical ideas on “ye” are uninspired retreads from earlier, better albums. Here, even dedicated fans are bound to wonder if West’s music is worth the constant drama behind-the-scenes.
What do you do after releasing two of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed rap albums of the century? A victory lap seems in order. Ending the unofficial trilogy of his first three albums, “Graduation” is at its best when it leans in to pure exuberance — such as on album highlights “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights.” These songs are transcendent, but on the whole, “Graduation” feels slight compared to the rest of West’s discography. The lyrics are much thinner than his ornate career highs, and the electronic-inspired production has aged poorly compared to West’s true classics.
6. “808s and Heartbreak” (2008)
At this point, “808s and Heartbreak” is as much about origin story as it is about the musical content. Reeling after the death of his mother and a major breakup, West retreated into the studio, creating a moody, melodic album drawing on emo and synth-pop. It should have been a disaster — singing is not one of West’s many talents. Instead, it became the most influential album of the past ten years and solidified West’s reputation as a capital-A artist. A whole host of rappers, from Drake to Kid Cudi to XXXTentacion, can directly tie their lineage to “808s’” raw, emotional content, icy, sonic blueprint and genre-defying approach to hip-hop. Ten years later, “808s” remains an imperfect, sometimes confounding work. It is not a particularly fun or inviting experience. Yet no album better proves West’s innovation and vision.
5. “The Life of Pablo” (2016)
Here is an album in which West goes back to church for exactly five minutes and 21 seconds. “The Life of Pablo” opens with a typically West-ian concoction — a sample from a random Instagram video, a bone-rattling gospel choir and a star-making guest verse from Chance the Rapper. In the incredible “Ultralight Beam,” West leads a bona fide religious revival, and it remains a high point of his entire career. If the rest of the album does not live up to its promise — or its piety — “The Life of Pablo” is still thrilling, occasionally brilliant and compulsively listenable. Musically, West is as sharp as ever with “Pablo.” He turns skeletal blueprints into surprising, emotionally evocative songs, making the most out of features from a high-pedigree roster including Sia, The Weeknd, Rihanna and Frank Ocean. Is West’s now infamous album tweaking a sign of insanity or a sly commentary on the ever-shifting nature of art? Why not both?
4. “Late Registration” (2005)
In the inspired, expansive “Late Registration,” West enjoys his last time as hip-hop’s everyman. Here, West still tries to connect with the Chicago kid he used to be — delivering odes for the poor, ambitious and too-smart-for-his-own-good. This humble populism now feels like a distant memory, but on “Late Registration,” West already hints toward the complexities that would make his later work so fascinating. West sounds equally comfortable with trenchant social commentary, goofy party jams and confessional personal narratives. If you need an unexpected emotional punch today, watch this video of West singing “Hey Mama” with his mother Donda, who died two years later. If this album lasts a touch too long, it is only because West was unwilling to leave any musical ideas or lyrical subject matters left unexplored. With producer Jon Brion, Kanye both rejects and expands the best techniques from “The College Dropout,” crafting an exuberant maximalism later perfected on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
3. “Yeezus” (2013)
Let the record state: I’m a “Yeezus” apologist. No West album polarizes fans quite like this one, and it’s easy to understand why. “Yeezus” is both West’s least and most subtle album. On the one hand, the music on this album equates to a sonic sledgehammer — all abrasive synths and churning industrial noise with only occasional moments of melodic relief. On the other hand, West’s lyrics here are the most daring and confounding of his entire career — he trusts listeners to suspend disbelief and follow his abrasive, ironic explorations of race and politics. West dares to push the sacrilege to its most uncomfortable extremes, creating something compelling, provocative and maybe even beautiful. He references slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, espouses some profoundly ugly views on women and raps over a bastardized sample of “Strange Fruit.” It’s disturbing, repugnant, abrasive and viscerally effective. Five years later, “Yeezus” still has the power to shock, and in light of West’s recent politics, it may be harder to stomach. Still, it also feels like an appropriately ugly soundtrack for ugly times. Let’s have a toast for the douche bags.
2. “The College Dropout” (2004)
Sure — at this point, West still had room for improvement as a technical rapper. We probably could have done without some of the skits. “The New Workout Plan” should have never left the studio. Yet, “The College Dropout” remains irresistible. On this album, West just sounds hungrier than anyone else — he is so excited to finally have a voice that every song is elevated by his pure joy. “Joy” is a good word to describe “The College Dropout” in general, from its signature “chipmunk soul” production to its winningly juvenile punch lines. While West’s talents as a producer were already well-known — and “The College Dropout” really does sound great — West proves his natural talent for narrative craft from the very first track. Whether rapping about materialism, crappy jobs or Jesus, West’s verses are relatable, funny and honest. “The College Dropout” is a timeless breath of fresh air and a reminder that West really is a one-of-a-kind artist.
- “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010)
What else could the top album be? “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is an essentially perfect album — West at his most symphonic and hyperbolic. Each song is a miniature masterpiece of sonic richness and lyrical brilliance. “All of the Lights” turns domestic drama into a pop opera. “Power” is a Greek tragedy and the best arena rock song you’ve ever heard. “Runaway” transforms a ridiculously simple piano melody into a startlingly powerful meditation on progress and pain. For all of West’s supposed egotism, his best moments come from collaboration — “Monster,” for instance, includes both a haunting interlude by Justin Vernon and an astoundingly good feature from Nicki Minaj. There are a thousand different ways to listen to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” but each new listen reveals new hidden meanings, perfect turns of phrase or brilliant musical touches. It is a reminder of hip-hop’s limitless potential and of why West might be worth putting up with in the first place.
We made a Spotify playlist with some of Kanye West’s best songs. Check it out here.