During a 2013 interview with the New York Times, Kanye West discussed his discography in a way he hadn't done before. It wasn't quite as pat as Jay Z photographing all of his albums in an ordered stack, but it did shed light on how Kanye thinks of his output. He said that 808s & Heartbreak "redefined the sound of radio," while admitting that "the fact that I can't sing that well is what makes 808s so special." Meanwhile, he called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a "backhanded apology."
Almost immediately his comments were absorbed into the ever-evolving conversation that overtakes the timeline with regularity, about how one ranks Kanye's discography. Which is his weakest album? Which is his best? He has one of the most impressive rap catalogs ever, spanning seven solo records and two collaborative efforts, and of course there's no denying his place at the bow of American culture.
With the one-year anniversary of The Life of Pablo approaching, we're revisiting the topic to offer our ranking of Kanye West's albums, from worst to best.
9. 'Cruel Summer' (2012)
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Che Pope, Andrew "Pop" Wansel, Anthony Kilhoffer, Boogz & Tapez, Dan Black, Hit-Boy, Hudson Mohawke, Illmind, Jeff Bhasker, Ken Lewis, Lifted, Mano, Mannie Fresh, Mike Dean, Mike Will, The Twilite Tone, Tommy Brown, Travi$ Scott, Young Chop
Features: R. Kelly, Teyana Taylor, Jay Z, Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Cyhi the Prynce, Kid Cudi, D'banj, DJ Khaled, The-Dream, Mase, Cocaine 80s, John Legend, Travis Scott, Malik Yusef, Marsha Ambrosius, Chief Keef, Jadakiss
The best teams are said to be greater than the sum of their parts. Cruel Summer actually feels lesser than the sum of its parts. Released on September 14, just six days before the end of Summer 2012, the G.O.O.D. Music collective album is widely considered a failure, despite the fact that it boasts two smash hit singles in "Mercy" and "Clique," two legitimate bangers in "Cold" and "New God Flow," as well as an all-star remix of Chief Keef's massive "I Don't Like."
Cruel Summer's undoing is its unchecked, aimless grandiosity, from the R. Kelly album opener to that unbearable "Sin City" spoken word interlude. It suffers from lack of focus. Who exactly was part of the G.O.O.D. Music crew at this point? One of the most prominently featured artists on the album, 2 Chainz, is not. Nor are Mase, Ghostface, Raekwon, Marsha Ambrosius. You know who is a part of the crew? Kanye West. Guess who we wish was on the album more. —Rob Kenner
8. 'Late Registration' (2005)
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Jon Brion, Devo Springsteen, Just Blaze, Warryn Campbell
Features: Adam Levine, Lupe Fiasco, Jamie Foxx, Paul Wall, GLC, Common, the Game, Brandy, Jay Z, Nas, Really Doe, Cam'ron, Consequence, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Rhymefest
Generally, people who love Late Registration most rank Graduation at the opposite end of Kanye's discography. People who consider Graduation to be peak-Kanye often think of Late Registration as the weakest of the solo releases. But the first time I heard Late Registration, I heard the Kanye West album I'd wanted to hear since before College Dropout arrived: A lush, beautiful hip-hop chamber pop album, full of brilliant hooks and train-stopping lines that could vacillate from hilarious ("Gold Digger") to serious ("Diamonds") to poignant ("Heard 'Em Say") and double-back again, into expertly distilled Kanye braggadocio.
The best part about revisiting Late Registration—an album that has aged beautifully, and doesn't date itself at every possible juncture (hello, Graduation, with its Daft Punk and its Chris Martin and its painful Weezy verse)—being reminded of all the album's contributors that everyone often forgets. Sure, you've got Adam Levine doing the opening hook, Jay Z throwing up the Roc, and Jamie Foxx doing his Ray Charles schtick on "Gold Digger," but what about Nas, on "We Major," on the same album as Jay, at the height of their feud?! Or Killa Cam's knock-knock verse on "Gone"? Brandy? Lupe Fiasco's career-launching verse on "Touch the Sky"? And, most notably, the presence of producer Jon Brion across the album, lending Kanye a level of technical expertise and pop mastery that he had yet to achieve on his own. Clearly, this album was crucial in terms of Kanye's career development. Is it perfect, though?
No. Hell no. The Paul Wall/Common/Game midsection suite is a trifecta of clunker beats and clunker guest verses. [Ed. Note—This is insane. "Drive Slow," "My Way Home," and "Crack Music" are as strong a string of songs as Kanye has ever recorded. But I'll let Foster finish.] And do us Late Registration fans really think that any of these songs match up to the sheer genius of "Can't Tell Me Nothing" or "Champion," or that "Heard 'Em Say" compares to "Good Morning"? Of course not. But that's also why we love Late Registration: It's imperfect. It's flawed. In a lot of ways, it's quaint.
It's the last Kanye album to follow any kind of conventions, like album-spanning skits. It's too long by at least five songs. But it's also the last time we heard the mortal rapper Kanye on the mic, as opposed to stadium-status Kanye, broken-hearted-robot Kanye, outcast-monster Kanye, or demon-deity Kanye. And the socially consciousness Kanye raps—from the "Allahu Akbar and throw 'em some hot cars" bars that start the album to the first verse of "Roses" to "Diamonds," and so on—are as contradictory and nuanced as they'd ever be, at least until the extremist reckoning that is Yeezus. But the reason fans really love this album is best summed up by the album's closer, "Gone." It's odd. Why put Cam'ron on a closing track? Or let Consequence deliver a filler verse? Especially on this, the original Kanye-Otis Redding sample song, that already has so much going on?
Kanye's resounding response is Why not? In many ways, it's just another solid rap song, and yet, it transcends another-solid-rap-song norms, with Kanye slapping together bars too clever for their own good, and overindulging his guests. But at the end of the track, he runs through a theoretical scenario in which he abandons rap and imagines what that would be like for us, the listeners. Given the drastic tidal shift Graduation represents, the foreshadowing couldn't have been more prescient. Because that Kanye, the mortal rapper Kanye, did basically disappear after that. Years later, it still stands out as one his best verses. And it's been forgotten by many, too. "Gone" in its own way. But it's representative of the smallest (but a key) reason why we love Late Registration: Because you don't know how to. And that's fine by us. —Foster Kamer