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From Great to Greater: Ranking Kanye West’s Six Albums

Revolt Staff

 // Feb 11, 2016

Adrien Vargas // REVOLT

A few weeks ago, Kanye hopped on Twitter to hail his as-yet-released seventh studio album as “the best album of all time.” A mere two days later, he’d shake things up further by declaring the set as not album of the year, but “album of the life.”

Coming from a man, whose strong discography has spawned one of the most illustrious streaks in music ever, this kind of candor was frank enough to strike up a debate over at the REVOLT offices regarding which album is Kanye’s greatest.

Such a ranking is a tough task, considering that we're talking about a catalog that’s arguably redefined hip-hop and pop culture as a whole (808s & Heartbreak and College Dropout anyone?). So to properly do the G.O.O.D. discography justice, we lined up 'Ye’s six solo full-lengths against one another from — drum roll — great to greater.

As ’Ye’s secretly-titled LP makes way this Thursday (February 11), REVOLT takes on the grueling task of ranking one of music’s most talked about catalogs with special week-long rollout. Releasing two rankings a day, up until T.L.O.P's arrival , we bring you From Great to Greater...

6. Yeezus

Released: June 18, 2013

YEEZUS YEEZUS YEEZUS YEEZUS...

We collectively voted this the worst of his best but honestly... it's peak 'Ye, ALL CAPS KANYE, the croissant-demanding audio architect. Kanye at his most unabashedly braggadocios, spitting poisonous venom over fire beats.

Many of my techno heroes nabbed production creds: Arca, Brodinski, HudMo, Gesaffelstein, etc... and to quote West's July 20th, 2013 tweet... "I open the debate… The 2nd verse of New Slaves is the best rap verse of all time….meaning … OF ALL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RAP MUSIC, PERIOD". #ALLPRAISETHEMOSTHIGHYEEZUS — Hannah Rad

5. Graduation

Released: September 11, 2007

Good morning! What better way to begin the end of Kanye West’s academically-themed trilogy. Graduation day is the time to get dressed up, put a tassel on your cap and start feeling yourself. ’Ye’s junior effort exudes just that.

After two albums of struggling and tribulations, Graduation flaunts a collection of bright, braggadocios, feel good records. With chart-topping anthem hits like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Stronger” and “Good Life” matched by star-studded appearances from Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Mos Def and Chris Martin, it’s difficult to find flaw with this project. But alas there is one gleaming issue with the masterpiece: Yeezy sticks too closely to the theme and the mood of the album is left feeling very one-note and lacking dynamic. Balance is key, word to DJ Khaled.

Unlike Kanye’s other albums where he undoubtedly pushes the limits of his creativity, Graduation hits cruise control and rides his very familiar sampled soundscape to success. But even though both sonically and lyrically the project plateaus, you can’t deny that Graduation is filled with hits. Take one glance at the tracklist and it’s difficult to find a bad record. Who doesn’t want an album full of bangers? — Trisha Cummings

4. The College Dropout

Released: February 10, 2004

Twelve years later and it’s still an unthinkable notion to call College Dropout a classic, mainly because it is. Not only was it our initial introduction to the artist that would go on to shape the state of music and culture further than our expectations could envision, but rather a timestamp of Kanye West stripped of ego and full of passion. The soul-heavy sounds championed an introspective of higher learning and consciousness, that pretty much scored every student’s day-in and day-out hard knocks and reality. It was an album that succeeded in showcasing the vulnerability behind the glossy mainstream hip-hop sheen and bringing light to education.

Carefully sprinkling in A-list features such as Jay Z, Mos Def and Common, College Dropout is his ace in the hole of his signature cozy sound. As a producer, he shuttled back and forth between stuttering Mid-West bounce and classic-soul grace, while approaching the mic in a conversational tone. Dusted with soul samples, gospel chants, and Bernie Mac impersonating skits, it’s an album that will run in syndication to the continued revolution. And Kanye's journey “Through the Wire” has seized to inspire. — Shanté Merida

3. Late Registration

Released: August 30, 2005

If there ever was a Kanye that gave us hope, it’s Late Registration ‘Ye (and maybe in 2020, Presidential ‘Ye… wait on it).

Serving as the perfect follow up to The College Dropout, he did—dare I say the impossible? Let’s be reminded, for a moment, of the pressures that come with a second album… especially when your debut was such a hit! But, he did it. The opening interlude immediately catches your attention. And then that beat drop into the second song? Flawless. No Beyoncé.

With the help of co-producer Jon Brion, ‘Ye delivered quality sound and content (we miss that, bro). The live orchestrations paired with features like Nas, Adam Levine, Brandy and Paul Wall on the album brought forth ‘Ye’s storytelling and further introduced him to to those who would soon love and/or hate him.

Let’s end this with a trip down memory lane. Scene: 2006 Grammys. Award: Best Rap Album. We want that old thing back, ‘Ye. — Kymmi Cee

2. 808s & Heartbreak

Released: November 24, 2008

So many people get caught up in trying to remake their first album and it's impossible for me to make another College Dropout, but I could make the best Graduation and best 808's that I could make. And that's how you, I think, keep advancing as an artist…” — Kanye West, VH1 Storytellers (February 2009)

Don’t say you will, say you do. Or, as far as the earlier quote is concerned, say you did.

In 2008, Kanye West didn’t say he was welcoming the world into his heartbreak hotel. He just did it. With the death of his mother Donda West weighing on his conscious and a bad breakup with ex-fiancée Alexis Phifer plopping his heart down his sleeve, the enigmatic superstar channeled all of these inner-blues into the coldest story ever told.

Completed in three weeks, whilst scrapping rap in favor of digitized mewling, Kanye’s stripped-bare fourth studio album was a radical departure from his scholastic-themed predecessors. Within its 12 brooding and minimalist tracks, West forwent everything that thrusted him to the hip-hop summit. The soul-samples were stripped. The “Diamonds” were tucked away. The skits, the signature Dropout bear, and the braggadocio were all tossed to the wayside. Instead, he opted for a frigid pool to soak in the self-doubt and caustic distress, while exhaling desolate rumination over chilly sonic polarscapes. And so, on 808s, Kanye became musical machine.

Exuding the kind of same slate-cleaning technique that musical godbodies like Marvin Gaye did before him on 1978’s Here, My Dear and David Bowie on 1977’s Low, ’Ye created a game-changer that was as much a definition of beautiful pain as it was an electro-pop masterpiece.

Through exposed-soul lyrics and cavernous production, Kanye kept it real — too real, in fact — all the while masterfully playing the victim. “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs” remains one of the most genuine lines within his canon. From the grueling “Welcome to Heartbreak,” which introduced the world to the undeniable powers of Kid Cudi, to the riveting “Pinocchio Story” and the bleak “Coldest Winter,” Kanye didn’t invite the world into his heartache, he showcased it for all to hear and feel.

What originally threw listeners for a loop, ultimately became the prominent blueprint for what’s taken place in music in the seven years since its arrival. From the Drake’s to the Weeknd’s, and the evol monster Future, 808s far-reaching influence is as pervasive as Kanye’s cultural presence. Now, that’s an example of advancing as an artist. — Ralph Bristout

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Released: November 22, 2010

Somewhere between "I'ma let you finish…" and the release of "Power," the first offering from 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West, slumped but not defeated following his 2009 VMAs stage storming, decided that misery wasn’t as comfortable as an all-red Phillip Lim suit.

It's hard to remember now just how reviled Kanye West was after he cut Taylor Swift off to declare Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies" clip as "one of the best videos of all time."

The takes were, to borrow from Ras Kass, "hotter than Solé with gonorrhea in Ghana."

For a goofy stunt, it sure had a long tail. Kanye apologized with Jay Leno. He apologized again. And again. He left the country to concentrate on fashion. He might have even apologized again!

Then, ‘Ye reached the point where he had enough. West always felt like he was misquoted or misunderstood by the media. Now, he was being vilified and couldn’t control the narrative.

Taking a cue from the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St., West went, well, west. He holed up in Hawaii with a gaggle of contributors (RZA, Q-Tip, Pusha T, S1, etc.) and emerged with his magnum opus: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. His art was his ammo and he was finally armed to fight back.

"Power" was searing, taking aim at critics and soundtracking a triumphant 'Ye ("Reality is catching up with me/taking my inner child I’m fighting for custody/With these responsibilities that they entrusted me/As I look down at my diamond encrusted piece"), a precursor to the role he was assume on later projects like Yeezus and Watch The Throne.

"Devil In A New Dress," "Monster" and "So Appalled" lit the Internet on fire as a part of his G.O.O.D. Fridays series, that actually delivered week after week leading up to the album's release.

Here he was giving everyone his genius runneth over, in real-time. Songs transformed from their release to the versions that ultimately appeared on the album. He premiered "Runaway" at the 2010 VMAs, going from zero to hero in a calendar year. West's sheer creative audacity was towering, one visual ("Power") was a moving portrait and another ("Runaway") was a film short. Drake and the next generation (his children, to be clear) may have been nipping at his Louie Vuitton’s but in this moment, with this album, Kanye was better at making music than Kobe Bryant was at playing basketball or James Cameron was at making movies.

His antics almost threatened his career (let's not forget his co-headlining tour with Lady Gaga was canned) but with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his talent was too much to ignore. He landed atop nearly every year-end list for best album. And after he was snubbed for an Album of the Year nomination by the Grammys, those same critics that dismissed him cried foul for him. He took it all in stride at the telecast and teased a rant from the podium but smiled instead. Back on top.

It was "Gorgeous."—Jayson Rodriguez

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