The College Dropout has everything you could hope for in a hip hop record. Ambitious, deeply musical production. Clever lyricism. Passionate rapping. Wonderful guest MCs. An overarching concept that lends itself to both humor and social commentary. Moments of poignant positivity. Moments of infectious braggadocio. Surefire singles. Great slow jams. And one magnetic personality that holds it all together. As instantly appealing as every cut on Kanye West’s debut is, they’re also full of unexpected wrinkles, like the spiritual outcries of “Jesus Walks,” the prejudices of Gap store managers on “Spaceship” and the jubilantly defiant, anti-establishment sentiments of “We Don’t Care.” The album’s closer is a 16-minute block of storytelling, where Kanye recounts his rise to prominence, and the initial skepticism he faced as a producer trying to make it as an MC. The syllabic mastery on display here makes those skeptics look like fools – and we have them to thank for the fire that West injects in this, his supreme achievement.
Late Registration (2005)
(4 1/2 stars)
The reactions that I’ve heard to Kanye West’s latest ill-advised award show stunt have been disconcerting. Sure, it made him look less than dignified. But I get the feeling that people are rejoicing in his embarrassment – Jay Leno brought up his recently deceased mother in an interview with West, a pathetic attempt at a Hugh Grant redux that some folks I know thought was just awesome. I think some people have had animosity towards West since his brilliant Katrina-era Bush bashing incident, and now that they have something they can outwardly criticize that doesn’t make them look racist, they’re going to make the most of it. Me, I’m going to dig even deeper into his music, which injected some much-needed emotion and sensitivity into mainstream hip-hop, paired with some of the greatest productions that the genre has ever seen. Late Registration cemented West as a superstar, thanks to the ingenious “Gold Digger,” but there’s a lot of pain and introspection here too, like the hospital waiting room poetry of “Roses” and the parental appreciation jam “Hey Mama.” As the second installment of his higher education-themed trilogy, the album finds the artist in the middle of an especially confusing and rewarding semester – full of unbelievable success and all the self-doubt that comes with it. And it’s this kind of honesty that will keep West’s music interesting and universally palatable, no matter how many teenybopper speeches he interrupts.
808s & Heartbreak (2008)
It took me a while to really give 808s & Heartbreak a chance. I figured Kanye’s “I’m working out my personal issues with Auto-Tune and a TR-808 drum machine as a support system” album would be an interesting, but ultimately forgettable, listen. Lord, was I wrong. West embraces the chilly, impersonal nature of that technology, using it to enhance the feelings of loss, abandonment and unrequited love that dominate these tracks. And he pairs his roboticized voice with beautiful post-punk soundscapes throughout, from the heart-monitor-beep-fueled sexuality of “Say You Will” to the sweeping strings and gnashing drum machines of “RoboCop.” By fusing one of R&B’s lamest trends with the gothic, synthesized pop of bands like The Cure, Kanye West took a wild artistic gamble and created something staggeringly great. I’m just trusting him from now on.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
The American Dream ain’t what it used to be. It’s more about power than picket fences. But I’ll stop trying to define it, because Kanye West has created the ultimate tutorial – his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In lesser hands, this treatise on the glories and pitfalls of being crazy successful could sound like a Republican Party platform speech. But West’s combination of honesty, outrage, ego and phenomenal wordplay transforms the concept into an irresistible Jekyll and Hyde tale. He describes himself as a superhero and a monster, preaching that “no one man should have all that power” on his first single, while boasting “my presence is a present, kiss my ass” on his second. He’s never been this emotional on record, but he doesn’t let it stop him from writing battle-ready rhymes – for all of the wild psychoanalysis going on, one of the biggest highlights is a Family Matters reference (“Too many Urkels on your team/that’s why you’re wins low”). Musically, MBDTF is just as compellingly schizo. “Dark Fantasy’s” gospel chorus asks “can we get much higher?” Rocky soundtrack-ready synth horns propel “All of the Lights.” The slinky, Smokey Robinson-sampling “Devil in a New Dress” hearkens back to the College Dropout formula. “Monster” is an old-school rap feast, packed with top-notch guests (including a world-beating verse from Nicki Minaj). The result? The most brilliantly produced, fully realized musical vision of 2010. For hip-hop fanatics, casual pop listeners and party animals alike, it’s a garden of earthly delights – lush, intoxicating, and laced with nightmares.
As we get ready for a year’s worth of politicians explaining why the rich should get richer, we get an album from two of the most talented beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. And when you consider that on Watch The Throne, Jay-Z & Kanye West reach some spine-tingling heights on the backs of some crazy-expensive samples, this makes for a quintessentially American success story in 2011. Sure, it’s probably unfair that West might be the only producer out there with the clout to license “Try A Little Tenderness,” but there’s no use whining about it, because he also happens to be the best person for the job. The resulting cut, “Otis,” is a magnificent swash of braggadocio that boldly reframes Redding’s theme – in the place of a tender lover making life “easier to bear,” we now have obscene wealth. Both MCs egg each other on, resulting in some propulsive egomania (e.g. “Welcome to Havana/Smoking cubanos with Castro in cabanas”). It’s the precise formula we hoped for with this pairing – huge, luxurious productions, and a palpable sense of one-upsmanship on the microphone. The best example of it might be the RZA co-production “New Day,” which finds Jay and ‘Ye pleading with their hypothetical future children over a haunting beat that runs Nina Simone through AutoTune (!!!). It’s not a track by track masterpiece a la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the mix of pseudo-feminism and rock star hedonism on “That’s My Bitch” just wasn’t thought through), but on Watch The Throne, these superstars spread the wealth so generously, trickle-down economics almost starts to make sense
(4 1/2 stars)
A casual scan of a Kanye West lyric sheet or Twitter feed will make it clear that this is a man who loves fashion. So he’s probably familiar with Coco Chanel’s famous adage, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” For his album Yeezus, West looked in the mirror and removed almost everything, stripping his ornate production style down to the most visceral noises, accessorizing them only with his rampaging id, intense ego, and super-intense superego. If it’s not his best record, it’s certainly his most exhilarating, and shamelessly human. West, who co-produced Yeezus with legendary sonic reductionist Rick Rubin, uses his own gasps for breath as a percussion instrument and features a hysterical scream like it’s a guitar solo. He twists Justin Vernon’s lullaby tenor into something slimy and subterranean. When looking for a metaphor for his song about divorce, he goes with Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit.” It’s a flailing, agonizing, extraordinary experience from an artist whose refusal to be tagged and classified might come off awkwardly on talk shows, but burns bright as diamonds in his art.
The Life of Pablo (2016)
Kanye West’s seventh album is by far his messiest. It’s also his most forthcoming. For months leading up to its release, West was wracked by indecision and completely transparent about it, asking for our opinion on the title, tweeting out pics of yet another altered track list. This clear lack of direction had an obvious impact on The Life of Pablo, muddying its themes and splintering all its potential narratives. What’s amazing is that West uses the disarray to his advantage. Listening to this album is like pinballing through the maze of his mind – absurd ego and existential malaise, blue sky gospel and hamfisted sex rap, concerned fathers and bad friends. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he challenges. I certainly can’t name one that could make an album as magnificently conflicted as this.