Kanye West is one of the most innovative hip hop artists of the century. He emerged in 2004 during a time when gangsta rap was the dominating sound. He brought a unique sound to hip hop through his talent as a producer, crafting beats through soul samples. He has since continued to evolve and experiment with a variety of genres, including electronica, art pop, synthpop, baroque pop and industrial house. Every time Kanye West reinvented himself it has resulted into either a classic hip hop album or a minimum-7/10 album. But of course, some are better than others.
These rankings are based on a plus-and-minus system; enjoyability is the most important factor, however that is all weighted with the other criteria. For example, if one album has average lyrics and solid enjoyability but another album has very high impact and influence it will be weigh up to rank higher.
Criteria includes: enjoyment, creativity, originality, impact and influence, lyricism, production, cohesiveness, replay value, amount of skippable songs
12. Jesus is King (2019)
Kanye’s latest endeavour sonically captures his newfound devotion, though cuts corners on all other fronts of his artistry. Jesus Is King is a triumph for West as a composer, a believable expression of the legend in his happy place. However, Kanye West fans are more than aware of his artistic abilities. While a casual fan may take and accept what they’re given, more thoughtful listeners will expect more. Jesus Is King doesn’t fulfil the maximum expectations of Kanye’s artistry, providing brilliant starter ideas that never unlock their true potential.
Best tracks: “Follow God”, “Hands On”
📌 Read the review to ‘Jesus is King’ here!
11. Cruel Summer (2012)
Considering Cruel Summer is a GOOD Music album and not a solo Kanye album it was always going to have its flaws. The collection does well to create a dark sound, a sound that’s very reminiscent of Travis Scott’s style. The big collaborations on Cruel Summer are the highlights; “Mercy”, “Clique”, “Sin City”, to name a few. My favourite song is the Kid Cudi track “Creepers”, an underrated track off the album. Outside of those selections there’s some really forgettable joints that interrupt the cohesion of the project. It’s not one to listen to start to finish.
Best tracks: “Creepers”, “Mercy”, “Clique”, “New God Flow”, “Higher”
10. Ye (2018)
West’s latest solo release is his weakest to date. Ye‘s rushed renovations are more worrisome than The Life of Pablo‘s, which did not suffer thanks to the amount of mastered tracks to enjoy. The brevity of Ye leaves little room for Kanye to deliver multiple classic tracks that every Kanye album possesses, the only one being the sensational “Ghost Town”. Moments of beauty flash on “Wouldn’t Leave” but tracks like “I Thought About Killing You”, “No Mistakes” and “Violent Crimes” are average offerings from the calibre of Kanye West. Ye represents an unsavoury moment in Kanye’s life and career rather than a timeless body of work.
Best tracks: “Ghost Town”, “Yikes”, “Wouldn’t Leave”
📌 Read the review to Ye’ here!
9. The Life of Pablo (2016)
The Life of Pablo is a creative mess as a complete album, but includes songs that could rank as some of his best. The tracklist was doubled from 10 to 20 and constantly changed since its release, but that proved to be revolutionary itself in the digital age. There’s a bit of every Kanye era in Pablo, whether it’s his religious side on “Ultralight Beam” or generally more traditional Kanye with “Real Friends”, “30 Hours” and “No More Parties in LA”. The uplifting “Waves” is another highlight as is the two-part “Father Stretch My Hands”. Plus “Saint Pablo” is the most lyrical and introspective moment of the album.
The main problem with Pablo is that there’s a handful of tracks that are totally not needed, namely “Freestyle 4”, “Low Lights”, “Silver Surfer Intermission”. Also, just like with Yeezus, Kanye hits a new low lyrically on nearly all of the songs, giving us plenty of cringeworthy lines. Pablo is a creative canvas that blends moments of genius with unnecessary tracks and bad lyrics. Hence Pablo is all over the place to fit the criteria of a cohesive album.
Best tracks: “Father Stretch My Hands”, “Saint Pablo”, “30 Hours”, “Highlights”, “Real Friends”
8. Kids See Ghosts (2018)
For Kanye’s second collaborative album he teamed up with Kid Cudi, a long-time collaborator who when paired up have always displayed marvellous chemistry. Across Kids See Ghosts, Kanye West compliments Kid Cudi brilliantly whether that’s going bar-for-bar over the masterful samples of “4th Dimension” or going full-blown rap rock on “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)”. Kanye’s guidance also brings Kid Cudi back to his excelling roots, featuring the best production we have heard both artists on for many years. However, Kids See Ghosts feels more like a Kid Cudi album than a Kanye West album, which is why it ranks towards the latter half.
Best tracks: “Cudi Montage”, “Feel the Love”, “Reborn”, “4th Dimension”, “Fire”
7. Yeezus (2013)
Regardless of being low on the list, Yeezus is a spectacular anomaly in Kanye’s career. You can sense the artistic vision and creativity in Yeezus which doesn’t overstay its welcome. Besides being his most abstract album, it challenges expectations by relying heavily on the experimental acid house production, which is loud and abrasive. “Blood on the Leaves” is the most explosive and content-filled of the lot, while “Hold My Liquor” is progressive and generates a gloomy mood. Despite being enjoyable, it is Kanye’s worst album from a lyrical standpoint.
Best tracks: “Hold My Liquor”, “Blood on the Leaves”, “I’m In It”, “Guilt Trip”
6. Graduation (2007)
This album was the beginning of Kanye’s musical experimentation that would continue for the next decade and beyond. Graduation blends soulful sample production with electronic music, creating a pleasant contrast in songs like “I Wonder” versus “Stronger”. It is perhaps Kanye’s most uplifting and positive sounding album. There’s plenty of memorable songs with unlimited replay value; particularly “Homecoming”, “Champion” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”. But I find myself listening to the songs individually rather than listening start to finish, something that is a must for an album to be higher up in this list. Also, a couple tracks are forgettable such as “Barry Bonds”, “Everything I Am” and “Big Brother”, which don’t fit the rest of the sound. For some this is Kanye’s best album, but for me, even though it’s amazing, there’s better ones.
Best tracks: “Homecoming”, “Champion”, “Flashing Lights”, “I Wonder”, “The Glory”, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, “Stronger”
5. Watch the Throne (2011)
The world weren’t ready for a Kanye and Jay Z collab album, but it happened. It was a legendary moment in hip hop at the time and a lot of the tracks have aged well. Songs like “Otis”, “Murder to Excellence” and “Gotta Have It” are the best showcases of the chemistry between the two rappers as they trade bars with each other and fit a verse after each other. Lyrically Kanye manages to impress me and at times he raps better than Jay. Watch the Throne turned out to be very experimental, incorporating dubstep on “Who Gon Stop Me” and strange electronic-trap on “H.A.M.” The production highlight of the album is “Otis” with its genius level of sampling. The only songs I don’t care for much are “Made in America” and “Why I Love You”. Kanye and Jay did a great job, and accomplished something that will never be topped again.
Best tracks: “Murder to Excellence”, “Otis”, “No Church in the Wild”, “That’s My Bitch”, “Illest Motherfucker Alive”, “Gotta Have It”
4. Late Registration (2005)
Ye’s second album builds upon the styles of The College Dropout by adding orchestral instrumentation to it. Because of these subtle differences I’ve always been torn between which album is better. With Late Registration, it’s the strings and lavish production that grabs my attention. Tracks like “Diamonds from Sierra Lone” are timeless classics, not forgetting the stand-outs “Touch the Sky” and “Gold Digger”. But there’s more quality past the bait tracks, like “Crack Music” with The Game and “We Can Make It Better”. On top of that Ye’s lyricism shows that it has improved, the content of which is generally more serious than on Dropout. I realised eventually that certain tracks get lost during the album cycle, particularly “We Major”, “Bring Me Down” and “Celebration”. This slight loss of memorability is why Late Registration miss out on the top 3.
Best tracks: “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, “Touch the Sky”, “Gone”, “Hey Mama”, “Heard Em Say”
3. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
Quality wise, 808s & Heartbreak is not better than Late Registration (which otherwise would be 3rd), but it is higher because it is the most influential album of his career. 808s & Heartbreak is essentially a polarising body of work. There would be no Drake without 808s, as it is highly responsible for creating and influencing the new wave of rap that (badly) sing on their songs and spit emotional lyrics rather than traditional, gangsta-rap bars. Kanye took a brave move with 808s by making synth-pop music and singing with Auto-Tune for 12 tracks straight. No rapping. And it turns out to be very good. The emotional lyrical themes would remind you of Take Care if you think about making that link (except 808s came first).
The minimalism of “Say You Will” is hypnotically relaxing and it is impossible to not dance to the upbeat “Paranoid”. There’s also the phenomenal masterpiece that is “Welcome to Heartbreak” with Kid Cudi, which is my favourite song of all-time, period. The combination of the strings, the infectious piano melody and Cudi’s hook is the song version of a Holy Trinity. Never have I been more infatuated with a song like “Welcome to Heartbreak”. It is the epitome of genius song-making.
The only flaw of 808s is that it starts to become forgettable towards the end with songs like “Street Lights”, “See You in My Nightmares” and “Coldest Winter”, but they’re not bad songs. They just don’t live up to the first half. That said, no other album like 808s exists in hip hop. Kanye took the craziest risk of his career with this one but managed to forge its own pocket of individuality and legacy.
Best tracks: “Welcome to Heartbreak”, “Say You Will”, “Heartless”, “Amazing”, “Love Lockdown”, “Paranoid”
2. The College Dropout (2004)
It was a close contest between Kanye’s first two albums for second place, but The College Dropout triumphs. The College Dropout was Kanye’s first album and introduced a style of hip hop in the early 2000s that was completely new. Production-wise, the use of R&B samples, “chipmunk soul” editing and gospel choirs all create a refined sound that is unique to Kanye. Lyrically this is one of his best albums, touching on personal, vulnerable topics such as self-consciousness, education and family, while also discussing religion and racism. Across the 21 tracks (14 songs) you get classic cuts like “We Don’t Care”, “All Falls Down”, “Jesus Walks”, “Never Let Me Down” and many more. The skits add character and humour to the album and the 12-minute outro tells us about Kanye’s journey to signing a record deal, the highs and lows of which mirror the production. The College Dropout is a classic and one of a kind.
Best tracks: “Through the Wire”, “All Falls Down”, “Never Let Me Down”, “Jesus Walks”, “We Don’t Care”, “Family Business”, “Last Call”
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Forget the fact that this is Kanye’s best album. Forget the fact that it’s one of the best rap albums ever. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the best albums to be released in music this century, without even considering genre. It is the definition of perfect. Dark Twisted Fantasy blends art / baroque pop with hip hop to deliver a musical masterpiece. The use of instruments is very prominent; violins and other strings, piano, electric guitar are all stand-out elements of the foundation. Lyrically the album focuses on the recurring theme of celebrity lifestyle, self-indulgence and the American Dream. On “Gorgeous”, Kid Cudi provides an amazing hook and Raekwon of Wu-Tang impresses with a verse while Kanye raps about racism in America and the subsequent social disadvantages. It’s made up of some of the best verses Ye’s ever rapped.
[Verse 1: Kanye West]
Penitentiary chances, the devil dances
And eventually answers to the call of Autumn
Inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums
Based off the way we was branded
Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon
And at the airport they check all through my bag
And tell me that it’s random
But we stay winning
“Power” is an anthem that explores self-destruction. “Devil in a New Dress” contains royal production and there’s a soothing 2-minute guitar interlude before Rick Ross spits the best guest verse of his career. “All of the Lights” is elevated through its horn instrumentation, and the way Kanye blends a dozen people’s voices together is genius (Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Drake, Alicia Keys, Elton John, John Legend, The-Dream, & way more). “Lost in the World” is a perfect closer with tribal production and triumphant sound. “Runaway” is the epitome of the album’s excellence; a progressive 9-minute piano-led ballad. The 3-minute outro is layered with effects to make Kanye’s voice sound like an electric guitar. That takes some outstanding level of artistry to accomplish.
To me, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is flawless. It’s very rare we get an album so sonically pleasant, artistic, cohesive and original. On an influential level, it set new standards for complexity and artistry in hip hop, something which Kendrick Lamar went on to emulate. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever get an album quite like this again, which is why it’s the best album Kanye has ever released.
Best tracks: “Runaway”, “Gorgeous”, “Devil in a New Dress”, “Lost in the World”, “Dark Fantasy”, “Monster”, “All of the Lights”, “Power”
This post was originally posted on June 19, 2017 and updated to accommodate West’s subsequent releases.