11. Cruel Summer (2012)
Good Morning: Following just one year after his collaborative album with Jay-Z, Cruel Summer finds Kanye West pushing himself even further back into the mix, ceding ground to the likes of Pusha-T, Big Sean, and Kid Cudi. It’s not as if West suddenly abandoned his fondness for creative control; all of the above artists had signed on to his G.O.O.D. imprint, so Cruel Summer still feels like a consummate Kanye West record even when he’s content to shine the spotlight elsewhere. With that said, this compilation album lacks the visionary direction that characterizes nearly everything else in West’s catalog, and it’s best viewed as a promotional vehicle for G.O.O.D and a palate cleanser for 2013’s Yeezus.
On Sight: The cover for Cruel Summer was designed by DONDA, the creative agency that West founded in 2012. This makes a good deal of sense, as the album itself is meant to highlight West’s talents as a record head and all-around businessman. We’ll chalk this one up as a rare miss for DONDA, which would go on to top Cruel Summer’s bland artwork with the more aggressively minimalist marketing rollout for Yeezus.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: The album’s lead single, “Mercy”, features a brilliant sample of “Dust a Soundboy” by dancehall group Super Beagle. Lifted’s bombastic production lends a sinister edge to the “weeping and the moaning and a gnashing of teeth” line sung by dancehall legend Fuzzy Jones.
New Day: It’s almost unfair to compare Cruel Summer to the rest of West’s oeuvre, as it lacks the wild ambition of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the stylistic experimentation of 808s and Yeezus. The album does show a looser, more relaxed side of West’s personality and a greater willingness to pick his spots. Aside from immediate predecessor Watch the Throne, it’s his most radio-friendly work since Graduation.
Mic Drop: “R. Kelly and the God of Rap/ Shitting on you, holy crap.” Holy crap is right. West took a calculated risk in even asking R. Kelly to appear on opening track “To the World”, given Kelly’s legal troubles and less-than-favorable reputation. West compares himself to a god and asserts that all sins are forgiven in his eyes, but that’s not even the boldest thing about this couplet. The “shitting on you” line indirectly references the 2002 case in which Kelly allegedly urinated on a minor. Yikes.
Real Friends: Cruel Summer is essentially one long guest appearance, but some artists stand out more than others. It’s awesome to witness the return of ‘90s heavyweight Ma$e on “Higher”, and the Harlem rapper acquits himself admirably. Big Sean, who appears throughout the album, gets an honorable mention for his ass-related wordplay on “Mercy”.
I’ma Let You Finish: If Cruel Summer is indeed the weakest Kanye West record to date, it’s also the one with the lowest stakes. West’s reputation as an artist was never resting on this compilation album, though he steals the show whenever it’s his turn to grab the mic. For a rapper at the height of his power, there are worse ways he could have chosen to flex his muscles.
10. Watch the Throne (2011)
Good Morning: How does a rapper top his most critically successful album? Bring in Hov, of course. While My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy seized much more attention than The Blueprint III, which dropped a year before, both rappers were the biggest in the world at the time. Much to fans’ benefit, they decided to capitalize on that fact. Watch the Throne was originally supposed to be a mere five-track EP, but once the duo got the creative juices flowing, it expanded to a full-length project.
On Sight: At first, it seemed a little too obvious that an album bearing the name “throne” would be completely covered in gold. But since the album is completely permeated with luxury rap, no image is better suited. The opulent cover was designed by Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy’s Italian creative director. Because Tisci is known for conceptual fashion, it’s no surprise he was tapped for Watch the Throne, a conceptual album more or less.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: One of Kanye West’s greatest producing strengths is finding obscure vintage samples and amplifying them to luxurious proportions. Of his entire discography, Watch the Throne displays this strength best. Most essential to the album’s identity are the soulful nuggets, namely James Brown’s “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul (Remix)” and Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”. However, the most interesting samples are the subtle ones. Beneath all the bling and braggadocio lay snippets from The Color Purple soundtrack (1985) and Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South (1969), which speak to the album’s nostalgia and West’s production cred.
New Day: Brimming with orchestral and prog rock influences, Watch the Throne is a more decadent version of MBDTF. Much of West’s fame can be attributed to his departure from shallow themes of gangsta rap, but that’s generally forgotten on Watch the Throne. Certainly, more serious tracks like “Murder to Excellence” and “Made in America” offer a candy-coated version of West’s social commentary. By-and-large, though, Watch the Throne swaps anger and darkness for opulence and commercialism.
Mic Drop: “Sunglasses and Advil/ Last night was mad real.” As non-poetic as this YOLO-esque line sounds, it’s delivered with so much emphasis on top of the album’s coolest beat that it has become internet history. It’s excessive and a bit childish, but so is Kanye West.
Real Friends: Leave it to Frank Ocean to get us thinking about life’s big questions on a luxury-themed pop rap album. “Human beings in a mob/ What’s a mob to a king/ What’s a king to a god,” he asks on “No Church in the Wild”. When this brooding track dropped, it was the first time the ever-elusive Ocean surfaced after releasing Nostalgia, Ultra, and it was refreshing to hear from our old friend again.
I’ma Let You Finish: Watch the Throne is a highly underrated album, and that’s mostly likely due to its timing in West’s career. If it weren’t cast inMBDTF’s shadow, it probably would’ve be seen as a more pivotal record. In honor of Yeezy Season, I encourage everyone to give this gold-plated opus the relisten it deserves (preferably while wearing a Margiela jacket in a Rolls Royce Corniche).
09. The Life of Pablo (2016)
Good Morning: How does one introduce an album that’s already benefited (or suffered, some might argue) from one of the longest, most drawn-out introductions in the history of pop music? Let’s start with two words: Buckle in. Kanye West’s seventh studio album is a hot and holy mess that prizes the rapper’s id at the expense of his much-talked-about ego. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of ego spread across these 18 tracks, but nowhere else in his career to date has West sounded so uncoordinated, so instinctual, and so inspired.
On Sight: As with nearly every other aspect of The Life of Pablo, Peter De Potter’s artwork was subject to a bit of post-release tinkering. The final version used for the album’s Tidal release is, on first glance, a bit of an eyesore. The Belgian artist superimposed the album’s title multiple times over a creamsicle background, then haphazardly placed two juxtaposing images over the text. One of these images depicts a black family gathered for a wedding photograph; the other depicts the voluptuous backside of swimsuit model Sheniz Halil. The contrast between the two photos is far from subtle, but it does highlight the breadth of human experience covered on the album itself. Gospel-inspired tracks such as “Ultralight Beam” seem thematically consistent with the family image, while West’s braggadocio on “Famous” and “I Love Kanye” fall right in line with a picture of a big, sexy booty. The artwork may not be pretty, but it previews exactly what we get on The Life of Pablo: a portrait of a conflicted, contradictory artist and one that isn’t always pretty.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: The Life of Pablo may be one of West’s most uneven solo efforts, but the sampling is consistently inspired and rarely misses the mark. Musically speaking, nothing tops the sample of Arthur Russell’s 1986 track “Answers Me” that reappears throughout “30 Hours”. Though the original track features sparse instrumentation and only the shadow of a melody, it’s all West needs in order to write one of TLOP’s most memorable hooks. As for samples culled from unexpected places, it’s hard to top the child’s voice at the beginning of opener “Ultralight Beam”. This one comes, of all places, from the Instagram account of a 4-year-old named Natalie.
New Day: The Life of Pablo might be West’s first solo album without a discernible theme (unless you count “unbridled creativity” as a theme). This probably has a lot to do with the rapper’s self-imposed deadline and rash of last-minute edits, all of which resulted in an 18-track album that hits its share of home runs but runs off the rails in places. You’d have to go all the way back to Late Registration to find a record that leans this heavily on West’s gut instincts and so little on his meticulous sense of image management. Seven albums into his career, West has arrived at a place where he genuinely doesn’t care what you think of him, and that attitude is reflected in TLOP’s unfiltered highs and lows.
Mic Drop: Never one to shy away from controversy, West puts on his braggadocio hat for “Famous” and fires a shot straight at pop star Taylor Swift: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.” West initially tried to pass the line off as an in-joke, but it clearly bothered Swift’s camp and led to some understandable accusations of misogyny in the press.
Real Friends: West officially claimed the King of Rap crown on 2011’s Watch the Throne, and he must feel pretty secure in that status to invite two of rap’s biggest up-and-comers to appear on The Life of Pablo. Chance the Rapper (from West’s hometown of Chicago) drops the highlight verse on “Ultralight Beam”, and Compton’s Kendrick Lamar shows up later to knock “No More Parties in L.A.” out of the park.
I’ma Let You Finish: It’s hard to shake the feeling that The Life of Pablo might have been a perfect 10-song album. Of course, that would be missing the point entirely. This is a sprawling mess of a record that revels in its flaws, whether it’s conscious of those flaws or not. No matter how many times West claims his art is above criticism, he can’t escape the reality that TLOP actually benefits from criticism. This album is many things: a thrill ride, a mission statement, a PR nightmare, et cetera. More important than all that, however, is the fact that it’s human. Triumphantly, undeniably, and — yes! — frustratingly human.
08. Kids See Ghosts (2018)
Good Morning: A partnership with his once-estranged G.O.O.D. labelmate Kid Cudi, KIDS SEE GHOSTS arrived as Kanye West’s most anticipated collaboration since 2011’s Watch the Throne. A select group of journalists and fans were invited to an album listening party in a Southern California “ghost town” (get it?!) to celebrate the debut, but poor planning and logistics threatened to sap the energy from the proceedings. (It didn’t help that the album subsequently popped up on streaming services with the wrong tracklist.) Any signs of chaos were quickly counterbalanced by the music itself, which finds both West and Kid Cudi bearing the scars of their recent struggles but back at the top of their respective games.
On Sight: A far cry from the muted Wyoming landscape of Ye, the album cover for KIDS SEE GHOSTS is a technicolor nightmare sprung from the mind of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. If its rainbow hues and frenetic styling look familiar, that’s because West also collaborated with Murakami on the album artwork for Graduation. This image seems of a piece with the music itself, in the sense that it’s both reminiscent of West’s earlier iconic work and evocative of the demons — literal, figurative, who’s to say? — he’s faced in recent years.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Whereas Ye leans decisively toward soul and urban gospel in its sampling, KIDS SEE GHOSTS casts a wider and more eclectic net across its seven tracks. “Cudi Montage” loops a lonely, tinny guitar melody from Kurt Cobain’s “Burn the Rain”, a choice that speaks to Kid Cudi’s own battle with depression and continues his tradition of sampling ‘90s alt-rock superstars. That one’s bound to raise some eyebrows, but the album’s most inspired sample comes courtesy of Louis Prima’s “What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’)”, a swinging jazz recording that dates back to 1936. West warps the original song’s chorus, spinning it off into a twin meditation on sexual and audience gratification.
New Day: If Ye is West’s bipolar album, KIDS WITH GHOSTS is something a bit more muddled and complex. The album takes a multifaceted approach to the theme of “ghosts,” stuffing that word with connotations that include inner demons, former selves, and pollutions of childlike innocence. For Kid Cudi it is quite clearly a stab at redemption, both in terms of his relationship with West and his struggle with anxiety and depression that landed him in rehab in 2017. For West it is both that and something else — a chance for him to cast off the weight of expectations and finally be free, but in a way that doesn’t ignore that darkness of his recent years. In any case, KIDS WITH GHOSTS feels very much like a new day for two rappers who desperately need one.
Mic Drop: Ghosts in various guises haunt this album’s verses, but none leaves a bigger impression than the Holy Ghost. Kid Cudi emerges from the personal hell of depression to croon about his faith in heaven, and his preoccupation with spirituality lends a genuinely uplifting aspect to “Reborn” and the title track. But as Yeezus reminded us, West’s relationship with Christianity is more conflicted. “Got a Bible by my bed, oh yes, I’m very Christian/ Constantly repentin’, ’cause yes I never listen,” he raps in the second verse of “Kids See Ghosts”. It’s far from a mea culpa, but for West it’s an appropriately braggadocious way to acknowledge his sins.
Real Friends: The friend that matters most here is Kid Cudi, and the two rappers’ unique deliveries and skill sets make this a far more interesting collaboration than Watch the Throne’s extended game of one-upmanship. West’s acquiescence to the role of sidekick on tracks like “Feel the Love”, “Reborn”, and “Cudi Montage” is both gracious and essential, allowing his eccentricities (“Grrrat-gat-gat-gat-gat!”) to serve their proper role as punctuations rather than the main course. KIDS SEE GHOSTS can seem at times like an intimate airing of demons between two battle-hardened friends, but Ty Dolla $ign stops by for a cathartic moment on “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” and Yasiin Bey lends his expansive perspective to the memorable bridge of “Kids See Ghosts”.
I’ma Let You Finish: Though it clocks in at around the same time as Ye, KIDS SEE GHOSTS arguably packs more meat onto its ethereal bones. The album doesn’t strive to tell a totally linear story, instead relying on the power of atmospherics and the fluid interplay between the two rappers to propel the arc forward. Its raps may not flex as hard as Pusha-T’s on DAYTONA, but that leaves room for some of West’s most precise, compelling production in years to shine through.
07. ye (2018)
Good Morning: Anticipation, anxiety, ambivalence, and, ultimately, exhaustion. These successive states characterized the extended rollout of 2016’s The Life of Pablo, and Kanye West took a page from the same playbook to promote follow-up ye. Logging on to Twitter after an 11-month layoff, West reintroduced himself to the world by way of a series of pseudo-philosophical missives he described as “my book that I’m writing in real time.” The subsequent weeks brought a cringe-inducing parade of MAGA hats, questionable right-wing endorsements, and “dragon energy” that not only tempered fans’ enthusiasm for ye but turned that enthusiasm into an ethical quandary. It all culminated in an album listening party held on a remote ranch in Wyoming, whitest of white places, during which time emcee Chris Rock lent some perspective to the preceding weeks. “Hip-hop is the first art form created by free black men,” he reminded the crowd of journalists and rap royalty, “and no black man has taken more advantage of his freedom than Kanye West.” Cue the music.
On Sight: According to a tweet by Kim Kardashian West — how else would we receive our cultural instruction in 2018? — ye’s album artwork is a photo Kanye West took himself on the way to the aforementioned Wyoming listening party.
It’s pretty, as far as iPhone photos of mountains go, though a lime-green scrawl complicated the scenery. “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome” reads the text, which doubles as the theme of a lean, seven-track album that begins with some of the darkest lyrics of West’s career and ends with an outpouring of fatherly love and repentance.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: ye marks a welcome return to West’s soul-sampling days. The rapper-producer spent a decade exploring a harsher and more eclectic sonic palette on albums such as Yeezus and Pablo, but he props these seven tracks up against a warm wallpaper of soul, urban gospel, and ‘60s rock that recalls his earliest solo work. The standout sample arrives with “Ghost Town” and Kid Cudi’s adaptation of the 1967 Dave Edmunds gem “Take Me for a Little While”, which contorts a pub rock melody to fit with the track’s cross-section of emo and hip-hop. Elsewhere West leans on Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World” (“No Mistakes”) and The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Children Get Together” to provide a backbone for his relatively bare-bones beats. It’s devastatingly effective when it hits, but the album’s relative minimalism otherwise holds it back from lasting transcendence.
New Day:If The Life of Pablo’s approach was to throw everything at the wall and see what might stick, ye offers a dose of the same manic energy in a much leaner package. This approach betrays a hint of self-awareness; West seems to understand how much patience and good will he expended in the album’s protracted roll out, and he’s careful not to waste his listener’s time here. Opener “I Thought About Killing You” is perhaps the album’s weakest and most indulgent track, but its foray into sociopathic megalomania sets the stage for a journey that takes West through other aspects of a persona that oscillate between toxic masculinity and spiritual introspection. It’s a mixture that won’t work for everyone and one that requires a fair bit of cognitive dissonance to appreciate in light of West’s recent transgressions.
Mic Drop: West isn’t very good at Twitter, which obscures the fact that he’s often a clever and scathing lyricist when he trades the keyboard for a microphone. Sure, ye has its share of groaners (Ex. “I love your titties cause they prove that I can focus on two things at once.”), but it also proves that West hasn’t totally lost his lyrical wits. On “Yikes”, he calls out hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons with the line, “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me, too/ I’ma pray for him ‘cause he got #MeToo’d.” It’s a feisty and subtle jab at some of the patronizing criticism he’s received in the past several years, though West admits elsewhere that he’s not above reproach.
Real Friends: Notable guest appearances on ye include Kid Cudi, 070 Shake, and Ty Dolla $ign, but the most interesting spotlight is reserved for Nicki Minaj on closer “Violent Crimes”. The song closes with a voicemail from Minaj suggesting that West include her name in a rap about his daughter: “I hope she like Nicki, I’ll make her a monster/ Not havin’ ménages.” It’s a reminder of West’s complicated relationship with femininity on one hand, but also a frank admission that he borrowed the lines from Minaj herself. By giving another rapper — and a woman, just as importantly — the final say on his own album, he complicates the sexism and egomania apparent throughout his body of work.
I’ma Let You Finish: With its seven tracks clocking in at a brisk 23 minutes, Ye is ultimately too lean to stand alongside West’s greatest achievements as a producer and rapper. It’s also not incredible enough to compensate for West’s grating public persona and general jackassery. Fans who refuse to engage with ye on political or ethical grounds have a point, but the album’s music offers an undeniable taste of why they cared about West in the first place.
06. Late Registration (2005)
Good Morning: Against all odds, The College Dropout had been certified Double Platinum, and West was well on his way to superstardom. With two Grammys in his, er, sock drawer for his debut record, expectations were understandably high for West’s sophomore effort. Never satisfied to settle for what succeeded in the past, the emcee sought new inspiration, enlisting Jon Brion (whose credits included production for Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith) as a producer and tapping into a symphonic sound for even more grandiose effects.
On Sight: Dropout Bear again is the focal point of the album cover, bathed in dramatic light and in front of two oversized university doors at Princeton. However, this time around, he’s front and center and standing, as opposed to slouched and looking down. While the bear appears small on the cover, the shadow he casts is large. West was beginning to loom large over the hip-hop world.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: The core soul style remained the same for West, but with a bigger budget and more creative freedom, he was able to make his sound even more multifaceted than before. West showed his ear for creating a massive pop hit by mixing Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” (on “Gold Digger”) with a thumping drumbeat. He adapted Shirley Bassey’s twinkling “Diamonds Are Forever” (on “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”) for an unexpected, meditative look at conflict diamonds. And a sped-up version of Otis Redding’s “It’s Too Late” (on “Gone”) was the perfect send-off as West waved goodbye to all the haters who doubted him.
New Day: The evolution between West’s albums is relatively subtle between The College Dropout and Late Registration. The skits with DeRay Davis are still present (centered around the fraternity “Broke Phi Broke” this time around), but are reigned in when compared to the previous record. But West went all in on making the production, employing a 20-piece orchestra on “Celebration”. The dramatic strings are a consistent presence throughout the record, also on the likes of “Gone”, “Bring Me Down”, and “Late”. West deserves enormous credit for the pastiche of sounds that effortlessly coalesce on the record. The album showcases a variety of instruments, from horns to synths, in a way that doesn’t feel overwrought or bloated. The first full track, “Heard ‘Em Say”, brilliantly shows this eclectic style, which includes dreamy piano, a subtle drumbeat, and a surreal berimbau outro.
Mic Drop: “Crack raised the murder rate in DC and Maryland/ We invested in that, it’s like we got Merrill Lynched/ And we been hangin’ from the same tree ever since.” US racial politics have always been a hallmark of West’s rhymes, and on this track the emcee brilliantly contrasts crack cocaine as a scourge of the ’hood with the fetishization of drugs and crime in hip-hop music that was increasingly being consumed by Middle America.
Real Friends: Just a few years before Late Registration dropped, Jay Z and Nas were embroiled in one of hip-hop’s most notorious beefs. West’s choice to feature Nas on “We Major” helped bridge the gap between the two New York hip-hop veterans. (“‘We Major’ is, like, Jay’s favorite song on the album,” West said with a smile in a 2005 interview.) For his part, Nas’ verse showed his maturation as an emcee as he took an introspective look at his lyrics: “Fo-fos or Black Christ?/ Both flows would be nice/ Rap about big paper or the black man plight.”
Emblematic of West’s rising star in the rap community, Late Registration featured many other notable guest spots (Jamie Foxx, Adam Levine, Common), but honorable mention goes to West introducing the masses to another up-and-coming Chicago rapper, Lupe Fiasco (on “Touch the Sky”).
I’ma Let You Finish: Ever the perfectionist, West later called Late Registration “indulgent” and “poorly put together.” This seems to be an overly harsh analysis; from start to finish, the record is well-rounded and showcased how West was coming into his own as a producer who had a strong sense of the creative vision for his works. The album runs the emotional gamut from whimsical and subversive (on “Gold Digger”) to beautifully vulnerable (on “Roses” and “Hey Mama”) to defiant and proud (on “Touch the Sky”, “We Major”, and “Gone”), all hallmarks of West’s greatest traits and flaws.