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The Definitive Kanye West Album Rankings: A Roundtable

Let's settle this argument once and for all.

af Noisey Staff
07 december 2015, 8:53am


Image by Paul Raffaele

For the month of November, Noisey will be remembering the buildup to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a weekly series of G.O.O.D. Friday posts. Welcome to Noisey G.O.O.D. Fridays.

Kanye West has made a lot of good albums. OK, that's an understatement: Every Kanye West album has been an event that has somehow shifted the conversation of hip-hop at large. They're all good. It's one of the most consistent catalogs in music ever, to the point that pretty much no two Kanye fans can agree on the highlights. As a result, it's also one of hip-hop's favorite arguments: How would you rank Kanye's discography? Every few weeks, it seems, the topic crops up among Twitter's rap commentariat and leaves mayhem in its wake. It's always fun to argue about Kanye, whether we're more partial to Yeezus or the Louis Vuitton Don version. So, for the final installment of our G.O.O.D. Friday series, we did exactly that.

In addition to Noisey's own esteemed panel of Kanye West scholars Eric Sundermann, Craig Jenkins, Kyle Kramer, Slava Pastuk, and Jabbari Weekes, we enlisted a few of our friends: Erika Ramirez, dope rap writer and editor at Rookie Mag and Milk Studios, Andrew Barber, the editor of Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive, and Meaghan Garvey, all-around badass rap critic and former staff writer at Pitchfork. It wasn't easy to get the definitive results. Even after we each offered up our individual rankings (find those at the bottom) and ran those through our complicated proprietary algorithm, there was still a three-way tie for fourth place/last, which required two tiebreakers (median list placement and most number one votes, respectively). But when all was said and done, we did it. We figured out the definitive ranking. This is it. There's no arguing.

6. Graduation

Craig: You’re supposed to say 808s and Heartbreak or Yeezus are the worst Kanye albums when asked, but that’s all bullshit. The least great Kanye album for me is Graduation, and it speaks to the man’s formidable discography that this is still a fucking great album. There’s more than a couple songs here that I can’t stand (Still mad Kanye finally discovers Can only to come away with “Drunk and Hot Girls”...), but you also get “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” arguably West’s finest hour as a lyricist, and the one-two punch of “Everything I Am” and “The Glory,” the latter of which is my favorite Kanye West song on most days. Hardly a bad legacy.

Slava: I've always thought of Graduation to be Kanye's third evolution as the wide-eyed beat-maker turned rapper from Chicago who got a cosign from Jay-Z: It's his Charizard. Graduation is Kanye at his most confident self, happy to have the world at his fingertips.

Andrew: He shifted the texture of music and took the soul samples electronic, challenging himself, his sound and pushing the genre forward. He also defeated 50 Cent in the legendary sales battle. The album was flawless—I even liked "Drunk & Hot Girls."

Meaghan: I won $50 when Graduation dropped in a bet with a classmate over the 50 Cent/Kanye album sales beef. So shouts out to that. But “Stronger” is mortifying, and all the cute, fun BBQ jams about summertime Chi and such have been tainted by the hoards of basics appending its lyrics to Facebook album titles. Sorry, it’s just facts.

Kyle: Yeah, this is still the Kanye that most people think of, which is unfortunate because it's by far the corniest era of Kanye. Shutter shades? That ridiculous light up suit? I admire the intent and the grandiosity of it all, the “I could show up in a Speedo and be looked at like a fucking hero” ego, but, come on.

Erika: This album definitely hypes me up, but that ego, man, that ego. Choosing pride over passion, makes me choose other albums before this one.

Eric: I think you could argue that this ego-driven period is what led him to making his later work, which is his finest. But out of Kanye’s trio of pop-rap perfection, Graduation is the best. He’d mastered how to focus his vision and make a radio hit—just go and listen to “Good Life” again.

Kyle: The “P.Y.T.” flip on “Good Life” might be his absolute best sample. But Coldplay looms way too large, and I say that as a Coldplay fan. Also I think “Flashing Lights” is his most overrated song.

Jabbari: It was about half way into “Barry Bonds” when it dawned on me that Graduation might be the first Kanye release I wouldn’t like from front to back. “Flashing Lights,” “I Wonder,” and “Champion” are some of my favorite Kanye songs ever, and like Eric said, it honed in and perfected Ye’s pop-rap sensibilities, but I share Kyle and Meaghan’s sentiments in that this album is a master compilation for the basics of Kanye’s fanbase.

5. Yeezus

Slava: This album sounds like a pile of cocaine in the best way possible. It makes me want to punch boulders and act out the type of things people do in deodorant commercials. The only downside to this album is that it inspired Travis Scott to be around, which sucks.

Erika: I was so excited when I heard this album, for the first, second, third and fourth time. But instead of growing on me, it did the reverse. There’s truth to what Kanye says on Yeezus, but I didn’t feel he felt it as much.

Meaghan: Yeezus felt really, really important at the time, and is a very Good Album, no doubt. But if I’m gonna come clean, I haven’t listened to it straight through since 2013, and when I think about the album as a whole, everything but “Blood on the Leaves” starts to blend together. Which is fine, but when people list this as Ye’s greatest album, I instantly know they’re the type of motherfucker that gets really “provocative” with their year end lists, as if anyone cares. “Bound 2” is perhaps the most poignant troll song in music history, though.

Craig: My longstanding take on Yeezus is that it’s all of Kanye’s fantastical fantasies and fears about becoming a family man wreaking havoc on his music, and my evidence is the closing bars of “I’m in It”: “Got the kids and the wife life / But can’t wake up from the nightlife.” If you’re not constantly terrified about what you’re supposed to be in this world and cooking up nightmare scenarios about how it could all go wrong, are you even alive?

Kyle: Nothing else sounds like Yeezus (please, for the love of God, can we stop acting like anything Death Grips have ever done is remotely as interesting or fleshed out as this?). It's so fulfilling because Kanye makes no concessions to anyone and just does what he feels like doing, which is, fortunately, making the perfect love song about fucking on the sink and not remembering where you first met.

Jabbari: Ahh, Yeezus…. the album that every critic seemingly latched onto as the next big influential thing in rap while the general consensus of the public was negative. I initially fell with the latter group, disappointed at what felt like a lot of half-filler/half-finished verses over industrial sonics. Still, there was something there that started connecting with me in the following weeks after its release. Perhaps it was the booming horns and tales of disastrous love on “Blood On The Leaves.” Or maybe it was the way Assassin blows open “I’m In It” with talks of spraying bullets like an aerosol can or seeing my mom--a staunch Kanye hater--sing Beenie Man’s “Memories” word for word, unaware one of her favorite tunes had been repackaged as a sample. Whatever it was, Yeezus was a grower for me and one I’ve now completely fallen in love with, second only in my heart to 808s.

Eric: I’m starting to admit to myself that maybe, just maybe, Yeezus isn’t going to have the lasting appeal I thought it would when it released.

Andrew: I liked Yeezus a lot, but it's still too early to really chart its influence. Kanye went back to Chicago and grabbed King Louie, Chief Keef and Young Chop—how could you ever be mad at that? I'd say it's his most angry and anti-establishment album to date, for sure.

Craig: Yeezus is the shit, and perhaps when it kicks up its own discomfiting wave of scabrous doom rap like 808s did with the sad robots, I’ll get to beat all its detractors over the head with its enduring influence too. (“Oh, Craig, but what about Lavish Scotch?” I don’t know her.)

Eric: I still think it’s high in the rankings because it was such a strong political statement, both lyrically and musically. With every record, Kanye has reinvented his sound—but he truly created something unlike anything else with Yeezus. This birthed the Kanye that loves Joy Division and fiercely believes how “fucking important” sweatshirts are. We cannot ever forget that.

4. Late Registration

Meaghan: Never liked it. Still don’t. I don’t get it. This shit’s lame. Ye’s swag nadir.

Eric: Without Late Registration, we wouldn’t have “Late,” which is one of Kanye’s top five songs. Sorry.

Andrew: It’s an album filled with incredible singles. It also included quite possibly my favorite Kanye song and verse ever with "Gone." Kanye grew so much as an artist between Dropout and Registration, and records like "Crack Music" are evidence of that. Kanye was always outspoken, but Registration was the moment he began to really feel comfortable doing it.

Slava: It's not quite as grown as Graduation and not quite as playful as College Dropout, making it the unloved middle child in my eyes. There are some great cuts like “Drive Slow” and “Touch The Sky,” but there are also some skippable songs. Also, the skits suck.

Kyle: People tend to dismiss this one as boring and baroque, I think? But it's the gentlest Kanye album, the one that stretches out and takes its time and rewards you with moments like when the bass drops back in on “We Major” and Kanye yells “can I talk my shit again?” or when Kanye quips that he's in the “shop class or the basket weaving, with all the rest of them motherfuckers underachieving.” I suppose most people don't tend to come to Kanye looking for a friend so much as an idol, but if there were a moment in Kanye's career where he was the former, it was here.

Craig: Late Registration has been my ace favorite Kanye album for the last ten years, and no one’s pulling me back from this ledge. I still don’t know what to do with my face, arms or hands during the verses of “Crack Music,” the pre-chorus to “We Major,” or the blackout at the end of “Gone.” At his best, Kanye West is more than a person to me, he is the joy you feel when a song is so dope you literally cannot physically function.

Jabbari: If you don’t have fond memories of spitting verbatim the hook for "We Major" out loud in a freestyle circle, car, literally anywhere with the homies I’m pretty sure you don’t love music. Can we also talk about how Kanye’s verse foretold the birth of North West?

Erika: “Roses.” Just listen to “Roses.” Kanye gave you his thoughts, unfiltered, and still kept it personal. He wasn’t too guarded or defensive to tell you that he calls his grandma “chick.” And he kept it honest, even or especially if you didn’t want to hear it (“Bring Me Down,” “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Drive Slow”). And ’til this day, I can’t listen to “Hey Mama,” without crying. No lie.

3. 808s and Heartbreak

Kyle: After a period of relative silence following his mother’s death, Kanye emerged with a ragged, howling, Auto-Tuned slab of self-flagellation that sounded like nothing he’d ever done before—in a verse on Jeezy’s “Put On.” It was instantly clear that, like Lil Wayne before him, Kanye had realized the massive potential of Auto-Tune as not a shallow party tool but a vessel for expressing misery. And then he put out this album, on which exactly one song—”Coldest Winter”—reached that same level of utter desperation (although “Paranoid” is his most overlooked moment of pop genius). 808s isn't Kanye's worst album because it uses Auto-Tune, as some people will tell you; it's his worst because it’s the only Kanye album on which he didn't fully execute the vision he had in mind.

Eric: This was the tipping point for Kanye, the moment when he stepped out of the traditions of hip-hop and realized that rap music wasn’t trapped in a box. This is Kanye’s best album because it set the course for the next decade of music. Without 808s, do we have a Future? A Drake? A Young Thug? It’s the moment in his career when he became transparent with his madness—something that’s become intertwined with the fabric of why we all love Mr. West.

Slava: I know that this album is very important and shaped the way that music sounds today. If we didn't have this album we wouldn't have Drake. But I think that it comes off unnecessarily petty at times, and it's the project that I revisit the least out of all of Kanye's work. Fight me.

Meaghan: I didn’t get 808s when it came out, or maybe I didn’t really want to get it: when your mom dies months away from this millennium’s most crushing Dead Mom Album (808s is not a breakup album, for the record), shit gets kind of weird. But 808s has revealed itself, in the subsequent seven years, as Kanye’s purest and most fascinating artistic statement. We’ve all talked its influence to death: We get it. What strikes me most today when I listen to it—and it’s probably the most reliably listenable ‘Ye album, at this point—are its flaws. The fearlessness that only rock bottom can nurture.

Erika: I want to put this higher, but It’s hard for me to listen to this album because of the emotions and the darkness. I can’t listen to it as consistently as other Kanye West albums because it makes me face my own fears of loss, and I cowardly don’t want to. I truly believe he used Auto-Tune as a shield, as if he needed to make sense of the pain, and deal, and he did but he also needed to protect himself.

Andrew: Quite possibly the most unique commercial rap album ever? I think so. It was emo, but boy was it beautiful.

Jabbari: I’ve always taken a slight offense to the ever-constant reminders of 808s’ influence on present-day rap. Its frequent usage as a footnote in the careers of a Drake or Future always comes with the snide undertone of “this isn’t Ye’s best work but it’s his most important” despite 808s being the greatest Kanye album. For me the core of this album lies in the back to back billing of “Bad News” and more pertinently, “See You In My Nightmares.” As fans we talk about the emotive prowess of Mr. West and I don’t think there’s a better showcase for this than “Nightmares” two minute mark where he briefly sheaths the Auto-Tune and screams “Tell everybody, EVERYBODY! That you KNOW!” Screw anyone else's high esteemed opinions because no Kanye album past, present or future will ever top this one.

Craig: It’s crazy to think back to how at his commercial apex, the biggest rapper of his time freaked out and made a new wave Christmas breakup album. 808s and Heartbreak is the depression journal of the Kanye West discography, and it ended up being a bastion of comfort at a time in my life where, like Kanye, people close to me up and started getting ill and passing away. I’m listening to “Street Lights” on repeat right now, and clutching the cord to my headphones, struggling to say something smart, because really when this music is happening it is all you can do to brace yourself to get lost in the waves.

2. The College Dropout

Slava: I hate skits. They normally slow down an album's flow and they often demonstrate what a terrible sense of humor your favorite musician has. The only exception to that is College Dropout. But even beyond the skits, this album feels like the most fun Kanye has ever had on a project, and sounds like the result of years of pent up talent waiting to be unleashed.

Meaghan: It’s always seemed that those clinging tight to Kanye’s earliest albums have missed the point: To be a Yeezy fan and not embrace his changes feels perverse, or at least not very fun. But even as it gathers dust, College Dropout holds up—and if it’s just sentimentalism for having spent my entire sophomore year of high school cruising around Chicago with my new driver’s license, blasting the fuck out of “Slow Jamz” with my girl friends on the way to Portillo’s. “Family Business” can still draw a tear on cue, and “Last Call” is not the best Kanye song, but it is easily one of the most important, and has at least two of the greatest one-liners of all time. And god, don’t you miss FUNNY KANYE so bad??

Andrew: College Dropout is the best. Maybe not your best, but my personal best. Kanye's sound was impeccable (and incredibly unique) and his views on the world, and what you could make happen were inspiring. I could identify with this project the most because I was in college at the time, and I felt like an underdog in my own life. I was uncertain of my future. His words on "Last Call" inspired me to follow my dreams, and motivated me to graduate despite the album title. Plus we dressed the same.

Erika: College Dropout is as potent as it is when released a decade ago. It takes you back to the you that you were when you first heard it, and surfaces new and old feelings you didn’t even know you. College Dropout was the first rap album I really connected to, I heard myself in it. I also have never heard Kanye as hungry, and raw, as on College Dropout. It’s the story of the underdog trying to claw his way to recognition, and he did so but telling you how it is (from his eyes).

Craig: The College Dropout deserves all the respect in the world as a watershed moment in 2000s rap history where the nerds stormed the school to seize control from the jocks, a shift memorialized two albums later when Graduation trounced 50 Cent’s Curtis album in their 2007 sales showdown. Dropout is packed with fantastic songs and widely recognized as a classic album, but nowadays I’m not so sure: There’s more skits here than anyone should ever be made to endure, and if we’re being real, the crutch-like overreliance on simulacrums of Dre’s “Xxplosive” drums date these records pretty badly.

Eric: Kanye knew College Dropout was a classic before he released it—listen to “Last Call” one more time. This is the album that started it all, so it feels weird to list it last on my personal list, but you know what? Just because we had Nintendo doesn’t mean you can’t like Playstation 4 more.

Jabbari: While I respect the project that introduced us to Yeezy the rapper along with classic tracks like “Jesus Walks” and dreamer's manifesto “Spaceship,” I’ve always felt like a lot of its praise is purely rooted in nostalgia. I mean are there really people out that can really say they liked “The New Workout Plan” skit? I also think another part of the problem is the heightened sense of importance attached to this project that, while certainly deserved in some cases, is ultimately the result of jaded fans displeased with how far Kanye has veered away from their personal expectations. Let it go people, those rose-tinted anniverary College Dropout write ups have got you fooled. There’s better music from Ye out there.

Kyle: Let’s talk about the feeling, man. If “Good Life” celebrates summertime Chi, this album embodies it, with those warm soul tones, the absurd shit-talking, the corny but feel-good punchlines that remain some of Kanye's best (“mayonnaise colored Benz call it miracle whip!”), the unapologetic politics that were already there. This album taught me more about race in America than all the assigned reading in high school combined. Nothing has ever hit harder than those drums on “Get Em High” the first time you heard them. Nothing written about Kanye has ever come close to the spoken word biography at the end of “Last Call,” the Gospel of Kanye, which all Western scholars should revisit at least once a year. As far as I'm concerned, this album is the reason I've never been to a Sam's Club.

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Meaghan: At this point I feel like you’re just going out of your way to be special if you don’t put MBDTF at the top (808s being the sole valid exception). Like, cool, you’re a unique snowflake. But this is the perfect storm of chaos and control, singlemindedness and collaboration, and most importantly, of frothing, rabid ego with crippling self-loathing, Kanye’s essential tension. Or maybe it’s just what happens when a few dozen geniuses “just shut the fuck up” for once. Either way, every second of the first time I heard this album is burned into my skull for life.

Andrew: It's pretty much perfect front to back, but it didn't hit me the way some of the others did. His albums affect people differently, and perhaps the timing was off in my personal life when this happened.

Slava: This album is the "perfect" Kanye album, and it feels unfair to have it third on my list, but it's almost too sterile in its surgical precision. Kanye playing for the people sounds great, but he's at his best when he's making music for himself.

Jabbari: Seeing Ye being dogged so aggressively after the Taylor Swift debacle only made me root for his return like never before, confident that he, like many of my idols, would turn in something great in his most dire moment—and as the records show, he did. Now a couple of years removed from its release and my feelings of vindication the album is still great but it has lost a bit of its luster probably in part to its over-frequent praise. But hey, “Runaway” was the first I ever learned how to play on the piano so I’ll always have that.

Erika: I wish Kanye loved this album as much as I do, I do. He channeled the best of past Kanye eras (passion and production-wise), and also brought out the best of the collaborators he worked with. Most of the artists on the album were killing it individually (Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Pusha T) and MBDTF only made them more powerful and hungrier. Everyone sounded angry (used as fuel) and confident of who they were (the good and the evils) and what they deserved.

Craig: If I might make origami out of a longer thing I just wrote two weeks ago for this very G.O.O.D. Friday series on the subject of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it is a smart if flawed album that people inexplicably flag as flawless. I’m cool with it, to be honest, because it beats the other prevailing line of rap internet Kanye thought, which is that everything he’s done since Graduation is “trash” and everything up to then is “classic.” Fantasy is cool and titanic and messy and insane, and it’s fine for it to just be all those things. Let the congregation note that Fantasy has recently jumped a spot in my Ye rankings strictly because of how weirdly College Dropout is aging, and that 2005 Craig would spit if he knew a world could exist where he would rank Dropout that low.

Kyle: “Runaway” is the best Kanye song and the most important one. It's the moment where his ego, which literally any person in the country can tell you is his defining trait, collapses in on itself. That three-minute vocoder outro is the holy grail of musical expression. Between that song and “Blame Game,” this album is the one on which Kanye truly taps into the self-loathing that works as the yin to any ego's yang and offers up his most fascinating self.

Eric: Objectively, this is Kanye’s best record, and like Meaghan said, anybody who denies that is kind of just denying reality. The story of how it came together—the summit in Hawaii with pretty much every single important musician of our time (including Elton John!)—is almost as good as the album itself. It’s Kanye’s grand opus; he took his auteur approach to 808s and refined it, delivering a sweeping piece of art kind of unlike anything we’d ever heard—just think of that goddamn guitar solo in “Devil in a New Dress.” Dark Fantasy wasn’t a release; it was an event.

Individual Lists

Slava Pastuk
1. Graduation
2. College Dropout
3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
4. Yeezus
5. Late Registration
6. 808s and Heartbreak

Meaghan Garvey
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
2. 808s and Heartbreak
3. College Dropout
4. Yeezus
5. Graduation
6. Late Regisration

Eric Sundermann
1. 808s and Heartbreak
2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
3. Yeezus
4. Graduation
5. Late Registration
6. College Dropout

Kyle Kramer
1. College Dropout
2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
3. Yeezus
4. Late Registration
5. Graduation
6. 808s and Heartbreak

Jabbari Weekes
1. 808s and Heartbreak
2. Yeezus
3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
4. Late Registration
5. Graduation
6. College Dropout

Andrew Barber
1. College Dropout
2. Graduation
3. 808s and Heartbreak
4. Late Registration
5. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
6. Yeezus

Craig Jenkins
1. Late Registration
2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
3. College Dropout
4. 808s and Heartbreak
5. Yeezus
6. Graduation

Erika Ramirez
1. College Dropout
2. 808s and Heartbreak
3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
4. Late Registration
5. Graduation
6. Yeezus

Have your own opinion? Argue with Noisey on Twitter.