Kanye West is undoubtedly one of the most controversial figures in hip-hop. His rise to fame was meteoric, and he found himself showered with accolades for some of the most important and exciting work in the hip-hop genre for many years. However, as his behaviour in the public eye became increasingly erratic and he began to consider potentially ill-advised bids for political office, the focus on what should have been important – his music – fell by the wayside. That’s a shame, because Kanye’s work is enduring even to this day. Here’s our definitive ranking of every major Kanye West studio album from best to worst.
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010, Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam)
Nothing other than this maximalist masterpiece was ever going to grace the top spot. Kanye’s fifth album is where upstart hopeful Nicki Minaj first cut her teeth, and she does such a superb job of proving herself that she effortlessly upstages heavy hitters like Rick Ross and Jay-Z on “Monster”. The production is where this record really shines; it’s everything-all-of-the-time pomp and circumstance, brilliantly undercut by Kanye’s insecure boasting and smart wordplay. A work of genius through and through.
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2. Yeezus (2013, Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam)
Some might call giving Yeezus the number 2 spot controversial, but we’re confident in our choice. Kanye’s industrial-inflected ode to alt-hip-hoppers Death Grips is industrial, abrasive, and quite brilliant. From unconventional love song “Bound 2” all the way through to braggadocious anthem “Black Skinhead”, Yeezus once again oozes Kanye’s confidence, but it doesn’t have the pained insecurity of its predecessor. That said, large amounts of machinery-influenced swag are no mean replacement for human foibles. We’re still waiting on the true sequel to Yeezus; Ye outdid himself with this record, and hasn’t quite managed to top it since.
3. Late Registration (2005, Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam)
The second in a trio of Kanye albums themed around education, Late Registration earned him the somewhat unfair title of backpack rapper. All that title actually amounts to is “hip-hop artist willing to talk about real issues”, and Late Registration certainly has plenty of that. “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” integrates Shirley Bassey’s classic “Diamonds Are Forever” expertly, while “Gold Digger”, “Heard ‘Em Say” and “Touch the Sky” are instant classics. Throw in some impressive guest spots from the likes of Lupe Fiasco, The Game, and Nas, and you’re looking at a certified mid-2000s hip-hop masterpiece.
4. The College Dropout (2004, Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam)
Ranking Kanye’s first three albums really is a matter of preference; they’re all brilliant, and you could perhaps take numbers 2, 3, and 4 on this list as a sort of unified second place. To our ears, however, The College Dropout just about lacks some of the swagger and self-assuredness present on Late Registration. Of course it does; it’s Kanye’s first record, so he has a lot to prove. Not that “Jesus Walks” or “Through the Wire” aren’t instantly gripping; they’re hauntingly produced and full of West’s painful lived experiences, metaphysical in the former case, very physical in the latter. Kanye had produced for other artists before, but this is where he came into his own.
5. Graduation (2007, Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam)
Although still an excellent work in its own right, Graduation clearly shows Kanye growing somewhat tired of the overarching concept of his first three records. Lead single “Stronger” interpolates a Daft Punk sample to great effect, while elsewhere, “Homecoming” and “Flashing Lights” continue Kanye’s blissful officiation of the marriage between complex beats and clever wordplay. This one’s a little weaker than the other two, though, and not quite as overstuffed with potential radio hits. It’s starting to look a little filler-y, which is why 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy invigorated West’s career and elevated the artist’s profile to the degree that it did.
6. Ye (2018, GOOD Music, Def Jam)
Ye looked like it might be a turning point for Kanye. After 2016’s The Life of Pablo, Ye saw Kanye turning inwards. Its stark, almost unbearably poignant cover (which simply reads ‘I hate being Bi-Polar, its awesome [sic]” tells a tale of the kind of music to be found within. While Kanye doesn’t quite bear his soul on this album, it’s certainly more experimental and less maximalist than his previous releases, and at just 23 minutes and 41 seconds, it suggests an artist making music more for personal therapy than anything else. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its intriguing setup; its songs sound more like sketches than complete works, which is very un-Kanye.
7. The Life of Pablo (2016, GOOD Music, Def Jam)
Unlike My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which couldn’t have stood to lose a single track, The Life of Pablo is in dire need of an editor (which is perhaps why 2018’s Ye is so short). The album has 20 songs on it, and about half of them are memorable enough to stick around after a few listens. At 66 minutes, The Life of Pablo could easily have lost 20 minutes from its running time and would not have suffered in quality terms. That said, “Father Stretch My Hands” and “Ultralight Beam” are brilliant, and lead single “Famous”, while not without its controversies, is a compelling listen. Also, this album has Chance the Rapper on it, and prior to 2019’s The Big Day, that was something to get excited about.
8. 808s & Heartbreak (2008, Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam)
We’re placing 808s & Heartbreak so low on this list only because it gave rise to the cringeworthy and irritating “emo rap” movement spearheaded by Drake and his ilk. Kanye was, to put it simply, better than this; “Love Lockdown” has an irresistible beat and piano refrain, but it’s hard to remember a lot of 808s’ other tracks. Kanye’s flirtation with Auto-Tune here became a fully-fledged relationship, and to put it simply, he can’t sing. This means his warbling on tracks like the aforementioned “Love Lockdown” comes across as ineptitude, something the rapper has never before had to acknowledge or deal with.
9. Jesus Is King (2019, GOOD Music, Def Jam)
Oh, Kanye…what went wrong? While a Christian rap album from hip-hop’s erstwhile production king isn’t necessarily a bad idea in and of itself, Jesus Is King continues Ye’s problem of having demos instead of songs, only here there’s no personal introspection to save the project. Instead, the album comes across as a half-baked paean to a belief system only Kanye can really understand. His love for God isn’t evident here; instead, it sounds like he’s at war with himself, trying to reconcile a history of personal turmoil with a spiritual side. While that sounds exciting, believe us when we say Jesus Is King’s turgid songs find a way to make it dull.