Kanye: Album by Album
[Originally posted on TIDAL Read, February 18 2016 by Jonas Kleinschmidt & Ryan Pinkard]
There will only ever be one Kanye West.
From the day he dropped The College Dropout, almost exactly a dozen years ago, we knew we were dealing with someone incredibly gifted and completely unique. Each subsequent year, album and project has only proved how much of an understatement that really is.
Upon the release of Kanye’s insanely anticipated new studio album, The Life of Pablo – streaming exclusively on TIDAL – we look back at his incredible discography, album-by-album, to remind ourselves exactly why the long wait has been so intense to get through.
There are infinite ways to dissect Kanye’s remarkable cultural impact. This review presents him as what he is above all things: an artist.
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The College Dropout (2004)
Before releasing his classic debut, Kanye West made a name for himself as one of the most exciting and innovative new producers of his generation, making hit songs for the likes of Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson and Ludacris, as well as crafting a big part of JAY Z’s seminal 2001 album The Blueprint. So naturally Kanye had a lot to prove when he finally dropped his first solo material, but as we all now know, he did just that.
On The College Dropout Kanye fully flaunts his uncanny knack for writing and producing soulful, melodic and highly idiosyncratic hip-hop. What really made the album stand out at the time, though, was the way Kanye diverged from the general alpha male persona that then dominated the scene. Instead College Dropout is told from the point of view of an average guy chasing his dreams, an underdog clawing his way to the top against all odds.
Themes like family, religion, social injustice and inner struggles are all handled with evocative lyrical flair. But Kanye also smears over a layer sarcasm and humor, both in the interludes and on tracks like “The New Workout Plan” and “School Spirit,” where, over his signature chipmunk-ized soul-sampling, he raps, “They be askin’ us questions, harass and arrest us. Sayin’ ‘We eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast’. Huh? Y’all eat pieces of shit? What’s the basis?”
Hoisting hits like “Through The Wire,” “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks” – and frequently cited as one of the finest debut albums of all time – The College Dropout is a masterful, infectious and personal introduction to an amazing talent who is only just getting started.
Late Registration (2005)
Just a year and a half after The College Dropout, Kanye West released his confident follow-up, Late Registration. While maintaining the general atmosphere and DNA of his groundbreaking debut, Kanye’s sophomore effort adds new layers to his soulful and enticing production style, creating an album that is far bigger in scope than its predecessor.
This advance in sound was partly due to the presence of film score composer and pop multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion. The result of the collaboration is a lush, ornamental and grandiose hip-hop album that lends style and instrumentation from genres not typically associated with rap.
Talking about working with Kanye, Brion said: “He’s got this sense of pop record-making which is really solid, and he likes tracks with a lot of things going on in them — which is not necessarily common for hip-hop. He was already barking up that tree. This is definitely not just a hip-hop album. But it is also by no means overtly arty, or non-hip-hop.”
The album produced five singles, including the majestic “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” featuring JAY Z, the charmingly cocky “Touch the Sky” featuring Lupe Fiasco and the infectious “Gold Digger” featuring Jamie Foxx in character as Ray Charles.
With Graduation Kanye West completed the “college trilogy” that he began in 2004. But as he’s continued to do with every new record in his career, Kanye neither stands still nor rests on his laurels. Instead he flew ever closer towards the sun.
The larger-than-life atmosphere of Late Registration is very much intact on Graduation, but Kanye takes it a few steps further creating an album of monumental anthems and arena-ready bangers. Inspired by the likes of U2, The Killers and Coldplay, Kanye aimed to create an album of celebratory and riveting hip-hop designed for being performed at stadiums in front of thousands of people, which by this point he was doing.
Lyrically though, the album is much more introspective than its predecessors. Graduation also sees Kanye moving away from the organic soul samples that dominated his first two albums. Instead he incorporates synthesizers into the beats to a much higher degree than before, creating an electronic-influenced pop and rock sound that drew comparisons to both european dance music and indie rock.
Famously pinned against 50 Cent’s Curtis in a release day sales competition that resulted in record-breaking sales for both albums – though Kanye won – the album includes highlights like the graceful “Flashing Lights,” the Daft Punk-sampling “Stronger” and the hard-hitting “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.”
808s & Heartbreak (2008)
808s & Heartbreak marks a seismic landmark in the career of Kanye West, not to mention popular music as a whole. Conceived in the wake of his mother’s unexpected passing and the dissolution of a 5-year relationship, while coming to terms with his recently achieved superstardom, Kanye found himself in a personal crisis and with a grand amount of feelings to let out.
Throwing all semblance of typical hip-hop out the window, Kanye devised a highly minimalistic aesthetic to match his mood, revolving around the heavy use of Auto-Tune and the titular Roland TR-808 drum machine.
The result is anything but a rap album, featuring electronic and R&B music and devastating lyrics about loss, fame and heartache. It’s Kanye at his most stripped-down, vulnerable and naked; an artist in great pain and inner turmoil trying to make sense of things through expression.
Despite mixed reaction from fans reeling from Kanye’s change in style, the album was warmly received by most critics and has increasingly grown in stature to the degree that he performed the album in its entirely during two very special shows at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl last fall.
More meaningfully 808s & Heartbreak set off a thematic and stylistic sea change that has birthed a new wave of rap, pop and R&B artists – from Drake, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd to Bon Iver and James Blake – who have, in their own ways, shaped music in the years since.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Trying to properly sum up Kanye West’s fifth album is like looking at the Sistine Chapel on your cell phone. And like that magnificent ceiling is to Michelangelo, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s most complex, sophisticated and lasting achievement in a career full of them.
Following a period of some public controversy Kanye had something massive to prove – both to the world and himself. Retreating to a “self-imposed exile” in Hawaii with redemption on his mind, he scoped out an album that could be called nothing less than a masterpiece. He succeeded.
Synthesizing every style he’d used up to this point, Kanye used every tool at his disposal, every color in his palette, to craft a baroque and certifiably epic monument to his own greatness. His raps are some of his most thoughtful and composed, with the tracklist ranging from apologetic and self-effacing (“Runaway,” “Blame Game”) to boastful and self-aggrandizing (“POWER”), and often in between.
“They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation. Well that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation,” Kanye spits, rationalizing that he’s only half the problem, continuing, “At the end of the day goddamn it I’m killin’ this shit. I know damn well ya’ll feelin’ this shit. I don’t need your pussy, bitch I’m on my own dick.”
Some would argue that of Kanye’s innumerable talents, none are less essential to his genius than his cunning vision to bring unlikely styles, samples and collaborators together. He’s a conductor, a stage director, an impressionist juxtaposing unlikely elements like Bon Iver, symphonic music and the spoken word of Gil Scott-Heron to uniquely showcase standout performances by an incredible guest list of talent, including Nicki Minaj, JAY Z, Rihanna, Pusha T, John Legend, Kid Cudi, Raekwon and Rick Ross.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is when Kanye was fully realized as the most fearless and powerful artist of his time, modernizing an old adage that he continues to live by: if you’re going to call yourself THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME, you better live up to it.
Watch the Throne (2011)
From the heart-thumping drums on opener “No Church in the Wild” to the last note on epic closer “Why I Love You,” Watch the Throne – the collaborative effort between JAY Z and Kanye West – is one helluva joy ride. Doubling down on the universal recognition Dark Twisted Fantasy earned him less than a year prior, Kanye recruited his mentor-turned-equal to solidify their combined and unequalled powers into a braggadocious victory lap like no other.
Majestic and opulent in every sense, the album is packed with bangers and larger-than-life beats, boasting a sparse all-star guest list that includes Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, The-Dream and – is that Otis Redding?! And though Watch the Throne is very much a party of an album, as best exemplified on “Niggas in Paris” and “Otis,” it does take a couple moments to slow down and seriously reflect on subjects like fatherhood and race on the subtle and earnest “New Day” and “Made In America.”
Production is handled by an all-star team that – besides Kanye – includes The RZA, The Neptunes, Q-Tip, Swizz Beatz, Jeff Bhasker, 88 Keys and Mike Dean. The result is a an epic soundscape in line with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, if decidedly more concise in spirit, intention and length.
In the middle of it all stands JAY Z and Kanye and it’s clear that they’re having fun, as evidenced by some of the two rapper’s best one-liners.
JAY: “I ball so hard mothafuckas wanna fine me. First niggas gotta find me.”
Kanye: “Doctors say I’m the illest, cause I’m suffering from realness.”
And in case there was any remaining uncertainty that these two were the bona fide royalty the album’s title suggests, their subsequent Watch the Throne Tour went on to become the highest grossing hip-hop tour in history. Who gon’ stop me now?
Good Music Cruel Summer (2012)
As the flagship of his ever-expanding creative fleet, Kanye West founded his record label GOOD Music (Getting Out Our Dreams) shortly after dropping The College Dropout in 2004, which has featured Kanye, Common, Kid Cudi, Big Sean, Pusha T, Q-Tip, Yasiin Bey and John Legend on its past or present rosters.
Featuring Pusha, Sean, Cudi and Legend, as well as younger GOOD signees like Travi$ Scott, Teyana Taylor and CyHi the Prynce, Good Music Cruel Summer is a shining testament to the team of talent Kanye has cultivated outside of his own career.
Kanye only raps on seven of Cruel Summer’s twelve tracks, but the album has his fingerprints and unmistakable production all over it – and even when he’s not there, you can feel his presence lurking in the shadows. When he does appear, he’s as distinctive and inspired as ever, delivering some of his all-time best punch lines. Case in point: “Went from most hated to the champion god flow. I guess that’s a feeling only me and Lebron know.”
Still, Kanye’s self-omission leaves room for his buddies and progeny to shine. “New God Flow. 1” is Pusha T and Ghostface Killah at their best while JAY Z shines on the bombastic and infectious “Clique.”
While Cruel Summer may not be as coherent or wholesome as any Kanye West solo album, it’s not supposed to be. Rather, there’s a sense of urgency, variety and sheer vitality to these 12 recordings that makes for an extremely fun and impressive ride, with Kanye acting as ringleader in presenting some of the most skillful rappers out there performing at the peak of their ability.
“Yeezy season approachin’. Fuck whatever y’all been hearin’,” Kanye sneers on the razor-sharp, buzzsaw grinding opener “On Sight.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Yeezus blew everything else away.
For his follow-up to the utter perfection of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye was wise enough to know his next album had to be something completely different.
And indeed, Yeezus is a new breed entirely: a raw, jarring and uncompromising juggernaut of an album that merged elements of paranoid industrial techno, excruciating acid house, wobbly-yet-nightmarish dancehall and intoxicating, thunderous electro-punk. The result is unlike anything from planet Earth, let alone any other Kanye West album.
Guest appearances include – among others – Justin Vernon, Lupe Fiasco, Frank Ocean, Chief Keef and Kid Cudi, as well as additional production from the likes of Daft Punk, Arca and iconic superproducer Rick Rubin, who was called in just 15 days before the album’s due date.
“He feels otherworldly. He talks about being a god and shit, and his confidence in himself is inspiring. But at the end of the day, he’s a musician working in the lab,” said Justin Vernon discussing his work with Kanye. And this time around Kanye cooked up something truly unique and unexpected in his lab, proving that his ability to surprise may well be endless.
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Now, after the hardest wait yet, the newest addition in the Kanye West album saga is finally here. Without further ado, we present The Life of Pablo – streaming exclusively on TIDAL.