Kanye West’s Albums, Ranked From Tenth Best Of All Time To Album Of Life

'The Life of Pablo' has come with BIG expectations. Here's how it stacks up.

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It’s been a tough week to love Kanye, and anyone hoping to separate the art from the artist is shit out of luck.

As “an icon whose music transcends genre, explodes race relations and recalibrates pop culture”, there’s perhaps no artist more intrinsically tied to his artistic output than Kanye West. Kanye’s appeal and mythology (promising young producer almost dies ahead of debut album’s release; returns from hospital with Messianic complex; discovers Twitter) is built around his unwavering ability to say exactly what’s on his mind at all times. Often, at awards shows. Mostly, he gets in trouble. Usually, he apologises. This cycle is the premise of the song ‘Runaway’ and most of his albums too: he’s not perfect, but he’s trying. Loudly.

Though regularly finding himself in controversy, that recent Tweet might be the first objectively problematic opinion he’s posed. Even if it came from Kylie Jenner as a joke, it’s indefensible. It may also keep listeners from following Kanye to the next stage of his musical evolution. The Life of Pablo was streamed for fans from Madison Square Garden last Friday and is now, finally, available on Tidal. You can’t begrudge the boycotters.

But here’s the troubling thing: when Kanye talks or tweets off the cuff about fashion, religion, Bill Cosby or his own rectum, he can’t help but induce facepalms; when he’s taken the time to thoughtfully dissect contentious subjects through his music — like class oppression, racial discrimination, his faith or his explosive romantic relationships — the result is truly awe-inspiring. His entire discography including The Life of Pablo is a testament to that.

Kanye initially tweeted that TLOP — then Swish, then Waves — was not just “the best album of all time” or “the album of the year”, but “the album of life”. Where does it really sit in his output? Here’s our ranking of Yeezy’s discography, in Kanye speak:


808s and Heartbreak (2008)

Most Kanye Lyric: “I’m amazing. I’m amazing. Yeah, I’m all that.”

Best Song: ‘Paranoid’

In a way, the electro-poppy 808s is a trailblazer which acted as template for confessional sadsacks Drake, J. Cole and all the other auto-tuned heartbreakers who followed in its wake. But the 808s is also Kanye’s nadir. Despite featuring some bona fide classic cuts — ‘Love Lockdown’, ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’, ‘Paranoid’ — it has too many moments that make you go, “Huh?” The goofy ‘Robocop’ and empty, endless ‘Bad News’ sound like the scrambling of a burnt-out songwriter. 808s deserves the occasional spin, if only to rediscover some of its lost gems, but even Kanye would probably concede this is merely the tenth greatest of all time.


Can’t Tell Me Nothing (2007)

Most Kanye Lyric: “I did an interview with the Rolling Stones. Read the interview; man, the whole shit wrong.”

Best Song: ‘Us Placers’

Released for free in advance of Graduation, this mixtape premiered the title song (back when it had a music video featuring Zach Galifianakis and Will Oldham) and 83 whole seconds of ‘Stronger’. On it, you can hear Kanye rapping over Peter, Bjorn and John’s ‘Young Folks’ as well as Thom Yorke’s ‘The Eraser’ (in ‘Us Placers’), alongside remixes of Rich Boy’s ‘Throw Some D’s’ and T-Pain’s ‘Buy U A Drank’, making this an ideal setlist for everyone’s hyper-niched 2007-themed parties coming up.


Cruel Summer (2012)

Most Kanye Lyric: “Did the fashion show, and a tour, and a movie, and a score. This is ghetto opera. Francis Foreign Car Coppola.”

Best Song: ‘Mercy’

If we learned anything from The Life of Pablo’s live “launch” on Tidal, it’s that Kanye wants us to know he has a lot of friends. This is the reason Cruel Summer exists. A compilation of work by artists on Kanye’s GOOD Music label, it was a chart disappointment despite featuring the iconic, all-star ‘Mercy’, the Kimye-confirming ‘Cold’ and hypnotic club track ‘Clique’, along with remixes of Ghostface Killah’s ‘New God Flow’ and Chief Keef’s ‘Don’t Like’. The trap-heavy Cruel Summer feels like a big-budget ensemble blockbuster, but the kind that’s actually alright, like Furious 7. With GOOD in disarray today (despite the appointment of President Pusha T), we shouldn’t expect a sequel.


Graduation (2007)

Most Kanye Lyric: “How many ladies in the house? How many ladies in the house without a spouse? Something in your blouse got me feeling so aroused.”

Best Song: ‘Flashing Lights’

The finale to Kanye’s education-themed trilogy (and the last to feature his teddy bear mascot; vale ‘Dropout Bear’) has some of his highest highs and his lowest lows. The synth-driven ‘Stronger’ (sampling Daft Punk), ‘I Wonder’ and ‘Flashing Lights’ are among the best tunes he’s ever made, with the PYT-twisting ‘Good Life’ about as triumphant as music gets. However, there’s no excising Chris Martin from ‘Homecoming’ and no deleting the droning ‘Drunk and Hot Girls’ or the underdone (and now super inappropriate) ‘Barry Bonds’. One reason for relief: Kanye cut the John Mayer-featuring ‘Bittersweet’ before release. The song isn’t bad, but appearances from Martin and Mayer on the same album would have been more than any Kanye fan could stand.


Yeezus (2013)

Most Kanye Lyric: “I am a god. So hurry up with my damn massage. In a French-ass restaurant; hurry up with my damn croissants.”

Best Song: ‘Blood On The Leaves’

Kanye’s divisive Yeezus is best known for a few specific reasons. Firstly: It’s the one he titled Yeezus. Secondly: It’s the one with all the screaming. That first inescapable fact suggests it’s him at his most self-aggrandising; the second indicates that the record — with its sparse, industrial soundscape and occasional screeching bursts — is unlistenable. Not so much. Yeezus is indeed less user-friendly than his earlier, soulful LPs, but the melodies and hooks are all there, whether driving the propulsive ‘Black Skinhead’ and ‘New Slaves’ or providing relief in the exuberant closer ‘Bound 2’. It’s pretty funny and, shockingly, self-deprecating at times too. (Bonus points for inspiring this Ronny Chieng bit.) Yeezus is also one of the most fascinating and significant political albums of its era, with Kanye making some of the most pointed statements about race relations in America you’ll ever hear on a pop star’s album, ‘Blood on the Leaves’ — sampling Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit’ — chief among them. Also: that beat-drop is pretty great.


The Life of Pablo (2016)

Most Kanye Lyric: “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.”

Best Song: ‘Ultralight Beams’

Consider this the hottest of hot takes because the album has only technically been available for 12 hours. Still, you could hear the album’s significance even over the throng at Madison Square Garden (and through Tidal’s spotty live stream). Faith-driven opener ‘Ultralight Beams’ is a legit tearjerker. ‘Famous’ (with that infamous Taylor Swift lyric) is a deserving — and catchy — thinkpiece-generator; ‘Feedback’ is, pardon the phrase, a banger; and ‘FML’ is a radio-hit in waiting. 18 tracks long, there’s not a weak link in the chain. Representing a new step in Kanye’s musical growth, it’s also his most self-aware album yet (see: ‘I Love Kanye’). Yes, he hears the criticism. No, he doesn’t care.


Watch The Throne (2011)

Most Kanye Lyric: “Doctors say I’m the illest, cause I’m suffering from realness. Got my ni**as in Paris and they going gorillas.”

Best Song: ‘Ni**as In Paris’

Kanye’s album-length duet with big brother Jay Z was meant to be a vanity project; two titans rapping about excess and game-domination (hence, the gold-plated cover). And sure, it was that. However, as giddy and outrageous as Watch the Throne turned out to be — like the rap version of The Blues Brothers –– it was also affecting and, at times, profound (thanks to ‘Murder To Excellence’ and ‘Made in America’). It’s also the last display of Jay’s rapping prowess with Kanye acting, once more, as the whizkid prodigy developing beats for his mentor. Who can resist album closer ‘Why I Love You’ when they go line for line, eventually spitting alternate words in the same sentence? It gets the people going.


Late Registration (2005)

Most Kanye Lyric: “I’ma open up a store for aspiring MCs. Won’t sell ’em no dream, but the inspiration is free. But if they ever flip sides like Anakin, you will sell everything including the mannequin. They got a new bitch now you Jennifer Aniston.”

Best Song: ‘Gone’

In following up his impeccable debut record, Kanye had seemingly nowhere to go but down. He recruited Paul Thomas Anderson’s choice composer Jon Brion for lush, orchestral arrangements to his now-widescreen musical vision. Here, his most fervent political feelings emerge — ‘Heard ‘Em Say’, ‘Crack Music’, ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’ — yet you won’t find more accessible Kanye singles than ‘Gold Digger’ and ‘Touch The Sky’. None top his best ever song ‘Gone’: an opera about celebrity, incarceration, race, death, and the state of hip-hop (with endearingly time-stamped references to the Star Wars prequels and Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston) in just six minutes.


My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) 

Most Kanye Lyric: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags.”

Best Song: ‘All of the Lights’

Pitchfork called it the best album of the decade so far, and I’m not inclined to argue. MBDTF is Kanye’s most consistent collection of tunes, with feature spots from guests as varied as Elton John, Rihanna, Fergie, Chris Rock, Bon Iver, Alicia Keys, Gil Scott-Heron and then-newcomer Nicki Minaj, stealing the album out from under everyone. His first release following a few notable events — “I’mma let you finish”; President Obama calling him a jackass; the dissolution of his destructive relationship with Amber Rose — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s unapologetic id (‘Monster’, ‘Power’, ‘Hell of a Life’) battling his regretful super-ego (‘Runaway’, ‘Blame Game’, ‘All of the Lights’). Who wins? We do, dummies!


The College Dropout (2004)

Most Kanye Lyric: “They can’t stop me from rapping, can they?”

Best Song: ‘Through The Wire’

Not as steady at MBDTF. Not as ambitious as Late Registration. Not as powerful as Yeezus. And not the product of a certified living legend, like The Life Of Pablo. But The College Dropout has ‘All Falls Down’. And ‘Jesus Walks’. And ‘We Don’t Care’. And ‘Slow Jamz’. And ‘School Spirit’. And the rest. This is where it all begins for Kanye: the sped-up soul samples; the defying of gatekeepers (here, of college; later, of fashion); the mythologisation of his origin story; the comparisons to Jesus. It’s oh so good. Best of all is ‘Through The Wire’: his most essential moment delivered through a jaw wired shut following a near fatal car crash. Ye really can’t stop speaking his mind. It’s a lesson we learned in 2004 and have kept on learning every year since.

The Life Of Pablo is available on Tidal now.

Simon Miraudo is an AFCA award-winning writer and film critic for Student Edge, RTRFM and ABC Radio. He tweets at @simonmiraudo.