Kanye West is a visionary genius whose career will be remembered as one of the most superior documents of this thoroughly bizarre era. His egotism is part of his artistic genius, because both draw from the same traits: total confidence and limitless ambition. If you don’t appreciate him, your punishment is that you don’t get to enjoy him.
I am a Kanye scholar and I am prepared to objectively rank these albums. All judgments made in this piece are correct. No dissent, please. I left out any collaborative stuff like Watch the Throne or Cruel Summer; they would have been tied for last, anyway.
7. Graduation. This album was a calculated swing at conquering the mainstream, which isn’t necessarily bad — I like “Good Life” as much as the next guy — but it boils Kanye’s complexity down to foot-stomping arena jams. Kanye’s best music is about tension, both within his own psyche and between himself and the world. Graduation is his least tense album; on it, he sounds splendidly satisfied. Also, “Drunk and Hot Girls” is probably the single stupidest song with the word “Kanye” on it. For these reasons, Graduation is his creative nadir.
6. 808s and Heartbreak. Since everyone agrees that this album is minor Kanye, it’s become weirdly underrated; after all, no matter how much you like 808s, its somber mood all but guarantees that there’s another Kanye album you prefer. I actually kind of love this album, not least because of the balls it must have taken Kanye to embrace Auto-Tune at a time when it could not have been lamer. 808s is grief expressed through synths and drum machines. Play it again on a rainy day.
5. The Life of Pablo. Until this point, Kanye’s albums had all been unified by some theme, like the baroque compositions on Late Registration or the electronic gloom of 808s. This album, however, abandoned that approach; it bounces wildly from gospel to electro, familial love to self-obsession, divinity to profanity.
Don’t mistake that for Kanye getting lazy. The best parts of Pablo hit the pleasure center as directly as his music ever has, especially the gospel stuff — “Waves” is the Holy Spirit brought to Earth for three minutes — and Kanye anchors the whole thing by mixing in crude sexual chest-thumping and a dose of his Rushmore-sized ego. Despite limitless wealth and fame, he’s still asking the same questions he was in 2004: am I responsible to my family? Am I a good man? Why are there people who still don’t recognize my talent?
Points deducted for being too disorganized, sporting a weird cover and having the single worst set of skits on a Kanye album (and that’s saying something).
4. The College Dropout. His most fun album, bar none. I miss when he would joke around with his persona like this. In a way, College Dropout has been a curse, since some fans who loved this version of Kanye would have had him spend his career remaking Dropout over and over rather than develop and grow. Effectively perfect, but it’s not his best album because later he would mature. Human beings in general learn things as they get older; I think the idea that anyone would peak in their mid-twenties is profoundly depressing.
3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The key tactic used on Fantasy was to brew together and exaggerate the best parts of Kanye’s work. By synthesizing the elements of his sound and packaging them into an ambitious epic, he effectively told the world, “This album is my legacy.” Recorded as a swing for the fences at a time when his public credibility was at an all-time low, it fits perfectly into his story, too: the world-beating, comeback smash.
I think Fantasy is flawed in ways that maybe sometimes don’t get brought up—it’s too long, too arty, has too many weak guest spots — but would never deny its excellence. I’m really not trying to be a contrarian by putting it third, I just never listen to “Runaway” because it’s really repetitive and nine minutes long. As any English teacher will tell you, it’s important to be concise.
2. Late Registration. One of the most underrated projects the man has been a part of is a live album called Late Orchestration, released right after Registration, where he recorded its songs with a seventeen-piece, all-female orchestra. The concert video captures a young Kanye at his apex, backed by concert violinists in black cocktail dresses. It’s my favorite incarnation of Kanye, and his breathless verse on “Gone” is my favorite Kanye moment: in real time, he fully accepts, acknowledges and steps into his role as a global superstar.
Thanks to the orchestral flourishes and sampling ingenuity, Late Registration is Kanye’s sound at its most intricate and refined. On this album, he reimagined hip hop as a lush fantasy world and dared to infuse the genre with subtle beauty.
1. Yeezus. Yeezus is the best Kanye album because it’s the most direct, the least pretentious and the bravest. Its minimalist approach — no skits, few guest features, no radio songs — will only look better and better with time.
Unlike every other Kanye project, Yeezus contains no weak songs. All ten, including “I’m In It,” must be there. Yes, parts are distasteful; yes, parts are hard to listen to. But his willingness to challenge his audience is essential to Kanye’s greatness. Above all else, Yeezus is ambitious and fearless. It most exemplifies the qualities that make Kanye who he is, and most clearly lays out the tension that underlies his body of work. Therefore, it is Kanye’s best album.
Max Van Zile is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.