As the rapper’s new album arrives on the usual sea of ego and controversy, we rate everything he’s done so far – from The College Dropout to The Life of Pablo.
10. Cruel Summer (2012)
As close as Kanye West has come to that least-disarming of hip-hop phenomena – the posse album – Cruel Summer was wildly uneven: stimulating and underwhelming in equal measure. Ghostface Killah and Jay-Z turned in strong work and West himself sounds imperious throughout, but all the big-name patronage in the world isn’t going to turn lesser names such as Cyhi the Prynce into premier-league talent.
9. Late Orchestration (2006)
Recorded live at Abbey Road with an all-female orchestra, Late Orchestration is more impressive as an act of screw-you ostentation than as an album in its own right. It’s certainly not bad, especially on the urgent version of Jesus Walks, but it’s not an essential listen, other than as a signifier of West’s vaulting ambition.
8. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
Devastated by romantic failure and by his mother’s death, West, who cannot sing, elected to spend an entire album doing just that, through Auto-Tune, to sparse electronic backing. The good bits are great – single Love Lockdown among them – but it’s wearyingly monotonal, so lost in personal misery that it dispenses with the wit and ambiguity of West’s best lyrics. Still, its sound continues to echo through pop.
7. Watch the Throne (2011)
West hooking up with Jay-Z was perhaps less about music than a super-sized, follow-that event, and there are moments when listening to the pair discuss how rich they are starts to pall. But some of the music boasts the same ambition as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the lyrics occasionally flame, as on New Day and Made in America.
6. The Life of Pablo (2016)
At turns infuriating, superb, utterly original and deeply flawed – occasionally over the course of the same track – The Life of Pablo is a rambling mess, liberally splattered with moments of greatness (Famous, Waves and Fade) and haunted by the sense that its failings might be less down to hubris than the fact you are listening to a mind unravelling.
5. Graduation (2007)
The least appealing of his opening trilogy of albums – the superstar narcissism tending to the-paparazzi-are-worse-than-Nazis idiocy, the sound a little too calculated in its lunge for stadium-filling vastness – but still frequently fantastic. Forget Chris Martin’s ill-judged cameo and luxuriate instead in the euphoric Good Life and the Daft Punk-sampling Stronger.
4. The College Dropout (2004)
As striking a debut album as 2000s hip-hop produced, the endlessly delayed and tampered-with College Dropout was almost as good as West claimed it was. The sugar rush of his then-signature production quirk – old soul samples sped up to chipmunk squeakiness – matched by lyrics that already hinted at the complex, ambiguous figure behind the elephantine ego.
3. Late Registration (2005)
College Dropout has better lyrics, but Late Registration just edges it in musical terms. The orchestral arrangements of Jon Brion add a new weight and depth to West’s sound, the hits – Touch the Sky, Gold Digger – are among his most impermeable, and there’s the unmistakable sense of an artist keen to reach beyond the usual confines of his genre.
2. Yeezus (2013)
Forty minutes of abrasive, distorted hostility that drags everything from bovver-booted glam to industrial music to acid house into the mix, Yeezus is faintly marred by the feeling that West’s no-filter approach to lyrics is getting disturbingly out of control. It’s a still a stunning, bold piece of work, utterly unlike anything his peers were making.
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Its sound ranges from grandiose pop to straight-up hip-hop to head-spinning sonic overload, the key to this album’s ambitions may lie in its preponderance of prog-rock samples: from King Crimson, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and Mike Oldfield, among others. Like prog, the album was dense, sprawling, complex and occasionally confounding; a gripping, brave, sometimes contradictory meditation on fame, race, sex and money made by a man who occasionally sounds at the end of his tether – witness the uncomfortable cocktail of braggadocio and self-loathing on Blame Game and Runaway. But more often, Kanye is at the top of his game: pulling together wildly disparate strands of music (it’s a rare album that features Aphex Twin, Elton John, Gil Scott-Heron and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas) into an endlessly fascinating whole that he’s yet to equal.