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  • Kanye West Albums From Worst To Best
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4. Watch The Throne (2011)

There were so many reasons Watch The Throne should have failed. Two of rap's biggest self-mythologizers, with a history of competitiveness and hurt feelings (see: "Big Brother" and the hubbub over who featured Chris Martin first), were attempting to function as a team. (It's no wonder LeBron and D-Wade got a shout-out on "Gotta Have It.") Jay was in the thralls of post-retirement mediocrity; Kanye was still basking in the afterglow from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. So many of these collaborative albums end up being less than the sum of their parts -- just ask Jay-Z how his records with R. Kelly turned out. And how could two middle-aged men swimming in Scrooge McDuck money pull off a monument to their own opulence while most of their audience fingernail-scraped its way out of a recession? Fortunately for Jay, 'Ye and everyone who spent 2011 bumping "Niggas In Paris," Watch the Throne beat those long odds. Mr. West is clearly the guiding hand: pushing the music into inventive directions, his creative energy inspiring Mr. Carter to some of the most vital microphone turns of his career. Let's not discredit Jay-Z for pushing Kanye, either; their chemistry on "Otis" is intoxicating. Yes, they broadcast their absurd wealth via braggadocious lyrics, expensive samples, and fashionable guests. But in light of the rags-to-riches backstory "Niggas In Paris" alludes to, it feels like the kind of triumph we all can share in.

Hip-hop wasn’t exactly bereft of do-it-all visionary control freaks before Kanye West showed up — just ask Chuck D, the RZA, or DJ Quik — but nobody took the auteur approach to Yeezy’s extremes. Of all the ways Mr. West has contributed to rap’s evolution over the past decade, to me the most exciting is the way he has maintained and escalated the concept of album as art project, and rarely at the expense of enjoyment. Kanye is an expert curator, and his records are painstaking monuments to his inspiration. Each one is designed to be nothing short of an event and a new addition to the canon — short-term smash, long-term masterpiece. In the former respect he always comes through; the latter, more often than not.

Thom Yorke famously sang, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” and sure enough, all the self-important fanfare has accumulated Kanye heaps of derision to go along with the money and acclaim. (In one of his goofiest lyrics, he laments, “People talk so much shit about me in barber shops, they forget to get their hair cut.”) But in Kanye’s case it’s just as accurate to say transparency is what makes him look ugly. He is an ideal rapper for the social media era, churning out solipsistic hip-hop treatises the way some people write awkwardly confessional Facebook updates or pour their hearts out on YouTube. In “Runaway,” he let his pathos hang out to the extent that he might as well have sent us all a picture of his dick. (It’s remarkable that it took him this long to end up on reality TV.) What’s revealed through our collective window into Kanye’s life is often obnoxious, even grotesque, but it’s presented with an artfulness that elevates it beyond mere narcissistic blather. He blasts the tensions that drive him to mythic proportions and puts them on a museum pedestal. His records work because those tensions are a compelling splatter of humanity — and because he’s a musical genius.

But the tensions! The most prominent is the battle between Kanye’s massive ego and his deep self-doubt, a conflict whose communication has escalated from something like diary entries to something more like Star Wars intro text over the course of his catalog. A psychology class could spend days dissecting a line like “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it,” and that’s a relatively subtle example of the Kanye self-esteem ouroboros. By the time My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy rolled around, he might as well have been projecting his neuroses on the moon.

There’s also the whole “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack” thing — the tension between the expectations of clashing cultures and the demands of his muse. Kanye detonated the boundaries between rap’s flossy, hedonistic mainstream and its grimy, ideologue underground with The College Dropout. It was a ballsy move; I sometimes forget just how revolutionary it was because the distinction is all but moot in the hip-hop landscape Kanye helped create, one where T.I. lends his platinum drawl to a skronking El-P beat and nobody blinks. Yeezy’s tendency toward flouting genre taboos and redrawing the map didn’t stop after his debut; the AutoTuned wailing of 808s & Heartbreak was even ballsier, and it basically invented Drake.

Those and Kanye’s other left turns (dalliances with symphonic tropes, club music, prog rock) were conscious artistic decisions, even as they functioned as vehicles for the impulsive mind that gave us “Taylor, I’m a let you finish” and “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He’s a loose cannon, but in the studio he finds a way to funnel those outbursts into meticulously crafted tours de force. The wide-eyed kid from Chicago (no need to fill in his pre-fame backstory, just listen to “Last Call”) has accumulated an astonishing wealth of music over the course of less than a decade in the public eye. His body of work is well worth poking and prodding in order to fully appreciate the scope of what he’s accomplished. Let’s do it.

Start the Countdown here.

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Comments (140)
  1. woozefa  |   Posted on Nov 28th, 2012 +3

    no bon iver?

  2. Errr, you forgot the Top 2?!

  3. Late Registration should be #1, Graduation should be higher. Opinions!

  4. No way in hell 808s is better than Graduation, and Graduation was decent at best. Late Registration is a better album than MBDTF, and blah blah blah and whatever.

  5. 1. MBDTF
    2. Late Registration
    3. College Dropout
    4. Graduation
    5. Watch the Throne
    6. Cruel Summer
    7. 808s and Heartbreak

  6. “Graduation is typically seen as a minor entry in Kanye’s catalog…”

    By who?

    That album was huge. It spawned the Glow In The Dark tour. “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights” are ace singles. “I Wonder” is one of my all-time personal favorite Kanye tracks. He samples Can for chrissakes. And I think “Barry Bonds” is amazing.

    Oh wait, that’s my opinion. *shrug*

    • tons of artists have sampled can.

    • I was starting to think I was the only one who had that as one of my favorites. IMO, Graduation was Kanye’s last chance to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.

    • Graduation was my favorite for a long time, but it just stopped clicking for me at a certain point. From my vantage point the consensus online (at least among the online landscape Stereogum inhabits) is that Graduation has not aged well, which I agree with. The songs are still quality, but not necessarily classic Kanye quality; outside the singles it feels a little like a B-sides collection to me. Definitely wouldn’t ask somebody to turn it off, though!

      • Every time I revisit Graduation I find myself surprised by how well it holds up. I really don’t see how Graduation has aged any worse than “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration” — I mean you’ll always have rap lyrics that reference current events that will age an album and featured spots by artists that seem stuck in a specific timeline. I mean, if Adam Levine still wasn’t around how can a song like “Heard ‘Em Say” not sound aged and dated. Same goes with “Crack Music” with The Game. I feel like that song hasn’t held up as well as “Drunk and Hot Girls”.

        This also goes along the lines of my minor complaints against King Kendrick this year. When “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration” came out I SWEAR one of the complaints against those albums were the skits. “Take out those skits and you’d have a masterpiece” was something nobody said but I certainly thought! So for me “Graduation” was seen as a massive refinement. No skits, so many singles, so many great hits. Getting from Track 1 to Track 9 on “Graduation” seems effortless but is fully loaded with some of my favorite Kanye tracks. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is even more fun now because Ye DID get his money. And what do you know…

        But when I listened to “Graduation” again yesterday, in retaliation of this list, I noticed something that I recently noticed when listening to “We Major”. You can hear the Kanye on MBDTF evolving on “Graduation”. Namely, his knack for extending the outros of songs. I feel “We Major” is the earliest sign of current Kanye, but one of the coolest parts of “Stronger” was when he broke down that Daft Punk sample at the end. Then again on “I Wonder” when he drops out and builds that beat back up. Most importantly, to me, is that it’s his last album where he got to talk about his momma while she was still alive.

        Now I’m gonna end this with a dream I had. I in a Target for some reason and Kanye West was there. Sitting in an aisle really bummed out. We were walking back to the front of the store and he asked me what my favorite album by him was. (Pretty typical Kanye question right?) I thought about it for a moment and I said “Graduation” — my dream thought process was that it had the biggest impact and also some of his best singles. It is in fact the finale of his College Dropout trilogy.

        Kanye nodded. Immediately after telling him “Graduation” was my favorite I added, “Oh and you can’t forget 808s!”

        Kanye said, “No you can not.”

        *see below gif for shrug*

        • My experience with Graduation just isn’t like that at all, but I definitely appreciate your thoughtful defense of it, and your awesome dream.

        • I don’t understand your criticism of Heard em Say or Crack Music feeling dated because of the artists they feature. Heard em Say just sounds great, period. If he wasn’t singing well it’d be one thing, but Levine fits the song. As for Crack Music, Game is hardly on the track. He literally says 9 words. How can his presence be a negative?

          As for the rest of graduation, it has some really good tracks and a handful of great ones, but that puts it low on the Ye totum poll, to me. I don’t feel Big Brother at all; straight cornball. Champion has a terrible beat, and The Glory/Everything I am are pretty dull in 2014. (Homecoming is too, tbh)

    • dammit, if only i’d put my #kanyeshrug gif under THIS comment!

      Good call though RJ. Graduation was the Kanye album that made the parties get REALLY messy.

      oh what the hell…

  7. Too bad that now that he’s bangin KK that we’ll probably never see another Twisted Fantasy. I felt the same way when Eddie Van Halen married Valerie Bertanelli. My head tearfully bowed down and my ’80′s jean jacket fell to the floor like James Brown’s cape that day, and then in came the synths.

    But as for your #1 pick, its obvious, pure, unbridled genius…like said in simple terms within the written description, “…a true experience.”

    • There was a good chance we’d never see another MBDTF regardless of who he’s dating. It was a perfect storm of everything that happened the previous years from his mother’s death, his breakup, the Taylor Swift thing and 808s’ lukewarm reception. It was his phoenix rising up from the ashes.

  8. Swap 808s and Graduation and I’d be happy as a clam.

  9. Realistic and less comment bait than usual.

  10. I do always forget about Graduation and I’m not sure why

  11. Pretty standard in fairness, move Watch The Throne to second last and we’re laughin’.

  12. 808s never gets the credit it deserves. It’s a great album by anyone’s standards.

    • Agreed. “Paranoid,” “Robocop” and “Street Lights” are all great pop songs.

      The former two are also fun(ny) as hell, so I don’t think of the album as entirely diary-like howlings.

  13. I always felt MBDTF never gets the credit it deserves. Sure, critics and Gummers love it but go up to someone and say MBDTF is not only a great album it’s probably the greatest hip-hop album every and they’ll look at you as if you’re crazy. I also kinda feel Watch the Throne took the shine off MBDTF since people got their Kanye fill but in a more straightforward type of hip-hop.

  14. i dont see the top two?

  15. I honestly didn’t realize that people don’t love Graduation as much as I do. I guess its because I never really listened to Kanye West until a good friend’s older sister gave him a copy of that album. Every time I hear Champion I still think of that summer. Anyways, enough romanticizing, here’s my list that no one will agree with:
    1. MBDTF
    2. Graduation
    3/4. College Dropout and Late Registration tie
    5. 808s and Heartbreaks
    6. Watch the Throne

  16. Too soon, maybe this doesn’t need to be a weekly feature.

  17. This is actually the first list I have seen that has Graduation properly assessed on the low end of Kanye’s musical output, in my opinion. The good fellas at Complex always name it as Yeezy’s magnum opus and so do most artists who comment about the Louis Vuitton Don’s discography, most recently ASAP Rocky. Never understood the admiration of it. I believe Mr. West accomplished his goal with that album but I don’t think his goal was to make the best music he could as much as it was to make the BIGGEST music he could and it shows. MBTDF succeeds as the album where he accomplishes both, and to me, is only behind Illmatic when it comes to greatest hip-hop albums ever.

    ^yes, I tried real hard not to refer to ‘Ye in the same way twice. and I did it. I fucking did it.

  18. I would put it no higher than #4 (College Dropout, Late Registration, and MBDTF are top 3 no matter how you want to order it) but I find myself liking 808s more and more, the more I listen to it. I likened it to Pinkerton to a few of my friends (confessional album originally seen as a misstep but growing in stature since it’s release, inspiring lots of underdeveloped copycats (Pinkerton is to confessional mall emo as 808s is to Kid Cudi-esque stuff)) and while I don’t know if that comparison holds up, I guess it speaks to how much I enjoy both albums.

    Also, reading through this list, I’m struggling to think of another artist with as extensive a discography, for whom I know the ins and outs of each album as much as I do for Kanye (even Cruel Summer I listened to enough to have an opinion on each song and I fuckin’ love the singles). Maybe Radiohead (though even with them, I can’t name more than 2 songs off of Pablo Honey) or Fugazi (I don’t know End Hits or Instrument that well at all, though). I guess it probably has to do with being too young to have been around for/willing to give a try to the very weakest releases by Radiohead, Fugazi, other bands I really love with extensive discographies.

    • I made the exact same 808s to Pinkerton comparison after that album came out. I really love it and would happily call it my favorite.

  19. 808s is my favorite Kanye album and even though I can’t defend it, objectively, emotionally it is incredibly resonant, I just wish people wouldn’t deride my taste after I’ve told them.

  20. The Flaming Lips Albums From Worst To Best
    Spiritualized/Spacemen 3 Albums From Worst To Best
    Blur Albums From Worst To Best
    Brian Eno Albums From Worst To Best
    Tom Waits Albums From Worst To Best

    Please.

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  22. I might switch Watch the Throne and 808′s, but this list got it SPOT ON otherwise.

    Well-played Stereogum

  23. I agree with some of the above posts. It is too early to start creating legacy posts for Kanye. Plus, it is kind of absurd to make a best of list for Kanye West because we can all agree all of his albums are the best work in the past decade.

    #ChannelingKanyeWest Comparing Kanye West’s best albums is to comparing Jesus’ best miracles.

  24. Stop sectioning your lists off as parts of a photo album!

  25. The only problem I have with MBDTF is how the intros/skits/sketches are integrated.The Minaj intro (which I don’t particularly like) should be separate from Dark Fantasy, ditto for the Chris Rock skit stuck on the end of Blame Game. On the other hand, the All of the Lights interlude should just be a part of All of the Lights, and the Gil Scott Heron speech should be a part of Lost in the World. Look at the fucking nits, I’m picking! It’s that good.

  26. But the question remains, CAN WE GET MUCH HIGHER?!

  27. 808s > Graduation???? Oh yeah guys this is wrong.

  28. 1. Late Registration
    2. MBDTF
    3. 808s
    4. The College Dropout
    5. Graduation
    6. Watch the Throne
    7. Cruel Summer

  29. You know the dude’s got a good discography if Graudation is his second worst album

  30. 1-MBDTF
    2-Late Reg
    3-College Dropout
    4-Graduation
    5-808s
    6-WTT
    7-Cruel Summer

    Graduation was lower but then .. ‘Flashing Lights’

  31. I can’t see what numbers 2 and 1 are, but I assume they’re both MBDTF

  32. I hate Hip-Hop discussions, man. Booo! Everyone’s list is poop!

    Unrelated note, I sincerely think that every one of Kanye’s album is special and perfect, especially if you grew up with Kanye on the radio. Kanye, you magnificent bastard.

  33. Graduation is definitely better than 808′s
    Graduation is probably better than Watch the Throne
    Late Registration is slightly better than MBDTF

    …Other than that, we’re cool.

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  35. 1. MBDTF
    2. College Dropout
    3. Late Registration
    4. Watch The Throne
    5. 808
    6. Graduation
    7. Cruel Summer

    Oh, that is almost the same list. Nice!
    I just think it’s remarkable how consistent his albums are, and now matter how diverse they might be, quality (almost) always prevails! I’m not a big fan of Graduation as an album, but boy, does it have some amazing tunes. Cruel Summer is OK as a side project, 808 is brilliant in many ways, but he didn’t quite manage to pull it all the way. Still, all of these albums would be 7/10 and up

  36. MBDTF
    Late Registration
    College Dropout
    Graduation
    808s
    WTT
    Cruel Summer
    cruel summer’s singles were great, but the rest of the album wasnt good enough to pass up his other stuff. also MBDTW is one of my favorite albums of all time; the rest of his work is fantastic, but nothing comes close that

  37. I really like 808s and Graduation, so it kind of complicates things for me when trying to make a list. I can’t say I’m all that opposed to your list, but I would put all his main albums in front of WTT and Cruel Summer.

  38. completely agree with this order.

  39. Watch the Throne is the only relevant work Kanye has put out because it has dubstep on it and everyone knows dubstep is how you become rich and popular in today’s music scene.

  40. List is on point, son! Perfect.

  41. Can we keep the “Counting Down” feature to only artists that have been putting out albums for at least a decade?

    Seems kinda weird doing this for Kanye…maybe I’m alone…so alone…

  42. I enjoy seeing people commenting that they think Kanye won’t come through now because “A,B,and C, etc.”, but his new track “White Dress” is absolutely gorgeous, College Dropout-esque hip-hop.
    As someone who got on the Kanye train after Late Registration, I’ve learned to stop doubting his genius.

  43. got a lot of chicks around the same time graduation came out. it always reminds me of good times. only 2nd to MBDTF. Which happens to be the best album (any genre) released during my small time here on earth.

  44. Every time someone calls a Kanye West album a “concept album” an angel shoots itself in the face. Why are we pretending anything he makes is The Dark Side of The Moon like come on. Just play Gold Digger and watch white girls get slutty, don’t need to make it out to be a seminal moment in music.

  45. Kanye is mediocre. Outkast is much more deserving mainstream rap group for a best of list.

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