It’s well over a decade since Kanye West redefined hip hop with the release of his debut album ‘The College Dropout’. It was the sound of a producer extraordinaire (he’d previously sprinkled magic on the likes of Jay-Z’s ‘The Blueprint’ and worked with Nas and Mos Def) announcing himself on the world stage as an artist in his own right. It was also an accessible invitation for indie-rock fans into rap. Millions of album sales later, his standing as a complex and contrary genius has been firmly cemented.
And, on first listen, his eighth album ‘YE’ – sort-of released last night via a listening party in Wyoming and a temporary app, which has now expired – seems to continues in that grand tradition. There are blissed-out soul samples, outrageous lyrics and guest stars aplenty. But where does it rank in his oeuvre? Let’s be honest: you can’t judge a Kanye album on first listen. So, while we digest it, here are where we reckon the first seven stand.
7: ‘Graduation’ (2007)
Kanye would probably tell you that his albums are like children, and that they’re all as sublime as each other. But 2007’s ‘Graduation’ is the only one of West’s library which saw him treading water. It lacked the charm, continuity and self-awareness of his two previous efforts, instead straying into lumpen, stadium rap in parts. Kanye’s head was inflating. Coldplay’s Chris Martin even turned up on the turgid ‘Homecoming’. It’s by no means a total stinker, though: ‘Stronger’ is on it, so is ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ and ‘Flashing Lights’, but as NME’s review pointed out at the time ,”‘Graduation’ feels more and more like the work of a follower, not a leader.” Not a situation Kanye often finds himself in.
6: ‘808s & Heartbreak’ (2008)
Funny how time can shape the reputation of an album. Even to die-hard West fans, 2008’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ felt like real hard work. Kanye, still hurting following the recent death of his mother and the break-up of his relationship, channeled his pain into the album. Musically it was a curveball. With almost no rapping, Kanye dumped his hyperventilating flow, instead singing over the top of sparse, electronic R&B. At the time – especially having watched him play it live – it felt like a very brave move. But in hindsight, with the rise of Frank Ocean or The Weeknd, it’s clear that its influence has been significant.
5: ‘The Life of Pablo’ (2016)
Yes, it’s all over the place, but Kanye’s scattershot opus – which takes in mental health, failed past relationships and that Taylor Swift line – rewards deeper listening. In the NME review, we said at the time: “Dangerous, sparse, surreal, disjointed, hyper-realistic, cokey and constantly second-guessing its audience, it’s a carnival of self-portrait that accurately depicts the psychic confusion of its author simply by being, itself, slightly confused.”
4: ‘Yeezus’ (2013)
‘Yeezus’ was met with blanket critical approval. That’s because it’s arguably Kanye’s most immediately likeable release to date. The hooks are huge and the lyrics are biting. It’s also one of Kanye’s shortest records (though nothing compared the seven-track, 23 minute, 45 -second ‘YE’). Lyrically, instead of looking in, this is Kanye looking out, rallying against race and commercialism among other big concepts.
3: ‘Late Registration’ (2005)
Any album which can boast a trilogy of brilliance like ‘Heard Em Say,’ ‘Touch The Sky’ and ‘Gold Digger’ is onto a winner. And of course ‘Diamonds Of Sierra Leone’. It may rattle on a bit too long but ‘Late Registration’ also features some of Kanye’s most underrated work, the particularly touching ‘Roses’ and ‘Hey Mama’. After the huge splash created by his debut, Kanye made easy work of that ‘difficult second album’.
2: ‘The College Dropout’ (2004)
Rap music in 2003 was a tired place. 50 Cent. D12. Nelly. And then arrives Kanye West, this Chicagoan dweeb, with a concept album about leaving school. It was a brilliant alternative to those harping on about being in da club, and Kanye knew it. “Drug dealin’ just to get by/ Stack your money till it gets sky high/We weren’t supposed to make it past 25/jokes on you we still alive“, he rapped on ‘We Don’t Care’, making fun of the cliched state of the genre. ‘All Falls Down’, ‘Jesus Walks’, ‘Slow Jamz’, ‘School Skit’ and breakthrough track ‘Through The Wire’, all ensured this would become a legendary debut. It earned Kanye respect, and a ton of cash to go out and indulge in his spectacular ideas.
1: ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (2010)
After Taylor Swift-gate (“I’mma let you finish, but…), his public criticism from President Obama (“jackass”) and the cold-ish reception of ‘808s & Heartbreak’ Kanye took his first real step away from the limelight. In fact, for a short while, he stopped making music entirely and went and studied fashion. But, in the long run, thank goodness for all that negativity, because Kanye channeled it all into ‘MBDTF’. Extraordinarily raw, masterfully produced, it’s one of the all-time great hip hop albums. It wasn’t just Kanye giving the performances of his career – Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z’s turns were also among their best. NME’s review at the time said: “It’s an utterly dazzling portrait of a 21st-century schizoid man”.
Commercially it may be his least successful album to date (it failed to birth a top ten single in the US), but the statement it made was much bigger. After the humiliation, the doubt around his abilities and worries over his mental state… Kanye was back, on top and on fire.