Kanye West often lands himself in hot water due to his exploits outside of music, and, subsequently, he has become a polarising figure through a series of high-profile antics, including working with monstrous musicians and threatening to murder his ex-wife’s new beau. You either love him or loathe him, there is no in-between when it comes to Kanye West.
Despite continually tarnishing his public image, most would struggle to talk down West’s achievements as a musical artist. There’s a case to be made for the enigmatic producer-turned-rapper to be labelled as one of the most influential contemporary artists on the planet, and his repertoire of material speaks for itself.
West’s career saw him begin life in the music industry as a producer, working his way up the hip-hop ladder quickly after word spread of his futuristic approach to beat creation. It was an ethos that allowed West to become one of the most sought-after producers in the world. Despite his rich successes behind the desk, his aim from day one was to become a rapper, and despite doubts about his capabilities to make the step up, West proved them wrong with apparent ease.
Although his most recent releases have been a little off the boil, commercially and critically, as this list alludes to, Kanye is an artist that has proven time and time again that you can never write off a true innovator. Following College Dropout in 2004, fans loved and embraced his authenticity, which shined through from then on. West has made albums that are always challenging and dripping with artistic integrity.
West made the jump from behind the mixing desk to the front of the stage masterfully and, since that moment, he has released nine solo albums that have made him one of the most important artists of the century.
Kanye West’s albums ranked from worst to best:
10. Jesus Is King (2019)
Picking ninth place on this list was easy thanks to Kanye’s misfiring pivot to the land of Christian hip-hop. Say what you will, but the record simply doesn’t hit the same way as the rest of his work.
There are moments on the album when West shows glimpses of his genius from a production standpoint, but more often than not, he misses the spot.
Jesus Is King isn’t the profound entity that West clearly believed it to be. In reality, the project feels like the half-baked musings of an incomplete theory. Here’s hoping that the record is a blip on West’s record, and a return to form awaits around the corner.
9. Ye (2018)
Ye only has a running time of just over 23-minutes, but West crams it with intensity and fire at the beginning before failing to keep the momentum, slipping off into mediocracy. ‘No Mistakes’ is a searing effort, as is ‘Yikes’, and there are elements of the album which could have transformed into a masterpiece, but overall, Ye veers too far into self-indulgent territory.
Some seminal albums have been created by artists who enter this territory, but the high-risk strategy doesn’t always pay dividends. The quality filter is non-existent on Ye as the album slopes off towards the end with ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Violent Crimes’.
Overall, the album feels an awful lot longer than it is in actuality and that is never a good sign.
8. Donda (2021)
The album begins with a repeated chant on Donda’s name from R&B singer Syleena Johnson and sprawls out from there. The LP has a massive tracklisting (27 songs) and runtime (twelve minutes short of two hours), tons of features and collaborations, and an overwhelming scope. Multiple songs have second parts later in the album, and the overall sound ranges from the autotune pop of 808s and Heartbreaks to the sparse stripped-back edginess of Yeezus.
The most impressive aspect of Donda is that it’s able to ride that line and never go up in flames. The album is way too long, and would have greatly benefitted from stripping away the glut of guests, instead focusing on Kanye honing in on his mother’s effect on him. It’s self-aggrandising and self-flagellating.
But in the same way that congregations build extravagant churches to honour their gods, Kanye has built a massive testament to his mother’s legacy, from a Chicago suburb to one of the biggest albums of all time. That’s quite a journey.
7. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
Following his delicious triumvirate of records in his arsenal before releasing 808s & Heartbreak, West took a gamble that largely paid off with his fourth record. He didn’t stand still and produced an album that would help define hip-hop for the next decade. However, due to the sheer strength of West’s canon, it’ll have to settle for seventh place here.
There’s no doubting the admirable bold ambition of the record and, of course, that it started a new chapter in his career. West didn’t want just to rap anymore, he had a desire to experiment with melody, but 808s & Heartbreak would mark the start of an exciting era for Kanye rather than the peak of that period.
6. The Life Of Pablo (2016)
The Life Of Pablo can, on some terms, be considered the sister album to Yeezus. On this record, West gets even messier than its predecessor and creates an LP that’s deliberately difficult to listen to but continuously has gems scattered throughout it.
West pushes boundaries again on the album, and tracks like ‘No More Parties In LA’ are up there with anything he’s made. However, there is an unavoidable coherency to the record as West revels in creating a record as twisted as he can, which can be divine one minute, and dark as hell the next.
5. The College Dropout (2004)
There’s no denying that West’s The College Dropout is a sublime record, and on another day, the LP would be placed higher on the list. 99% of artists would struggle to improve upon a debut album like this, but West grew with artistic confidence and defied the career trajectory that most musicians face.
West was still finding his feet as a rapper and hadn’t fully found his groove, but he was only inches away from greatness. Overall, it’s a stunning LP with very little to fault about it, and as debut albums go, it’s right up there.
The College Dropout helped set a new benchmark in hip-hop as West innovated the genre for the first time, but not for the last.
4. Yeezus (2013)
West was the biggest rock star on the planet going into the release of Yeezus, and he proved why he was the notorious one with this album. He opened up his world to a list of names from all over the musical spectrum by enlisting the likes of James Blake, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Travis Scott, Frank Ocean and many more on Yeezus, who all helped to create this genre-bending piece triumph.
The album again was West operating ahead of the curve and setting the pace for every other artist. Ye adopted a more aggressive sound than ever before and showcased a whole new side that split opinion — some even saw it as commercial suicide as there was no traditional radio single.
Kanye West knew that the days of radio were soon to be obsolete, and here his self-indulgent side paid off dramatically.
3. Graduation (2007)
After his first two records, West rounded off a hat-trick in style with Graduation, which cemented his place as the King. Kanye brought the synthesizer to the forefront of his work as he made a sonic departure from his first two records, and it helped seal a new era of hip-hop from a production perspective.
Graduation showed that hip-hop didn’t need to be a binary beast, it could be served up in an endless number of ways and alongside as many side dishes as you could think of.
From a lyrical standpoint, West dealt with the dark side of fame and paints an honest yet bleak view of life at the top. It’s the album that confirmed Ye was about to become an icon.
2. Late Registration (2005)
Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout, marked him out as a special talent, but on Late Registration, he upped the stakes and proved that he was here to stay. The orchestration on the album is heavenly, and West’s use of sampling is unrivalled.
Ye gets more expansive both musically and lyrically on the album than he did on his first effort. He grew into himself and proved that he was the real deal. Late Registration is a dopamine inducing masterclass from West that flows together beautifully and takes you on this exhilarating ride as a listener that is rare to find.
West beautifully balanced integrity and crossover appeal on Late Registration in a way that made him a talent impossible to ignore — whatever your musical preferences.
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
West has only eclipsed the balance he pulled off on Late Registration on one occasion, and that’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. If you doubt whether Kanye West is a genius, then you’ve probably stopped reading already, but this album is all the proof you need if you’re still not convinced on Ye.
Nowadays, it’s become all too common for West to talk the talk rather than walk the walk. Here, however, he emphatically delivers the goods. There’s an implicit biblical feel to the album, and every single track on the record is killer as West throws standard conventions to the wind. It is a pop album, undoubtedly, but like all the best pop music, the chart had moved to him rather than Kanye consciously chasing commercial acclaim.
It’s a swaggering effort that remains the benchmark for his career and is the cultivation of West’s evolving sound across his first four records, blending to create a show-stopping work of art that became Kanye’s magnum opus.