This article originally ran in 2016 and has been updated. Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Yeezy country.
Over the years, Kanye West has been many things to many different people. He started off as Jay-Z’s secret weapon, a budding super-producer pumping out hits like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Takeover,” and “Encore,” prompting Jay-Z to interrupt The Black Album to shout, “Kanyeezy, you did it again, you a genius!” That was probably one of the last times West was called Kanyeezy, and one of the first times the g-word was tossed around.
In 2004, West launched his solo career and sold himself to the public for the very first time. In the beginning, he was the reinvention of backpack rap, “the feeling of A Tribe Called Quest,” contained within “this guy called West.” Lots has changed since then. West has taken turns as a civil rights activist and the Louis Vuitton Don, pushed artistic boundaries and torn up shopping malls, and transformed from devout Christian to “I Am a God” and back again.
Throughout these many evolutions, he’s kept himself a household name by staying in the headlines. Kanye West’s gift for controversy is unmatched among his peers. In the course of an album promotional cycle, he will say and do what others will not and smile as the consequences rain down on his head.
Even his most devoted fans have at times found him exasperating, and some of his most avid haters read every story about him. Kanye West is many things, but he is never boring.
Throughout these albums, both collaborative and solo, West displays a singular vision and a restless, probing ear. This is a discography that permanently altered the landscape of popular music. Love him, hate him, or just press <skip>, but you can’t ignore him forever. Kanye West will make sure of that.
— Wren Graves
13. Jesus Is King (2019)
Good Morning (Introduction): If there’s no such thing as bad press, then Kanye West has elevated the album rollout to an art form. Jesus Is King had release dates come and go without a new record, and each miss led to another round of breathless news coverage. He supplemented these stories with escalating quotes about a newfound religiosity. West gave up cursing and asked the people working on the album to refrain from pre-marital sex. A project that once was called Yandhi was rechristened as Jesus Is King. Kanye West was born again and committed to gospel music. The only question was what West’s version of gospel would sound like.
On Sight (Album Cover): Jesus Is King features the simplest album cover in Kanye West’s discography, simpler even than Yeezus’ plain CD with a strip of tape. Here, a blue LP sits in a blank white rectangle with the album’s title in yellow lettering. Perhaps this was meant to indicate a return to minimalism. Instead, it just underscores the lack of forethought that went into the project.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (Best Sample): “Follow God” is built around a sample of “Can You Lose by Following God,” released by Whole Truth in 1974. It hearkens back to the chopped and screwed soul samples upon which West built his reputation. It’s an old formula, tried and tested, but there’s still a bit of magic in it.
New Day (Overall Mood or Sound): West follows through on his evangelical mission, building sparse hip-hop out of choirs, organs, and whispered hallelujahs. The songs are short, in the tradition of ye and Kids See Ghosts, and the album only runs 27 minutes. Most of Jesus Is King is given over to praising God, but West occasionally loses the thread. In “On God,” West concludes the song by defending his choices as a businessman. “That’s why I charge the prices that I charge,” he shouts, perhaps referencing his expensive fashion line or Yeezy 350’s. “I can’t be out here dancin’ with the stars/ No, I cannot let my family starve!” It’s a curious way to end a song praising God, and moments like this make the album feel less than sincere.
Mic Drop (Noteworthy Lyrics): “Closed on Sunday/ You’re my Chick’Fil’A,” West raps on “Closed on Sunday.” He repeats the line over and over again, and even squeals “Chick’Fil’A!” at the end, in case you missed the joke. This is typical of West’s approach on Jesus Is King. First, he builds a whole song out of a single half-baked punchline. The one idea used up, the rest of the track is then devoted to lectures about how you should stay off Instagram on the Sabbath. Still, with an album as humorless as this, a half-baked punchline is better than none at all.
Real Friends (Featured Guests): There aren’t many to choose from, but the most electrifying features happen all on the same song. “Use This Gospel” reunites the Clipse, although they sound confused about their place in gospel music. No Malice raps about cocaine as Pusha T shrugs that he’s “crooked as Vegas.” But the real star of this song is Kenny G, whose piercing saxophone solo breaks the song apart. Among all the cliched lyrics and boilerplate beats, it’s wonderful to hear a real instrument for a few bars.
I’ma Let You Finish (Conclusion): The problems have nothing to do with West’s religious intentions and everything to do with the sloppy execution. He starts an idea with one breath and forgets it in the next. The last song, “Jesus Is Lord” ends abruptly, seemingly mid-track. The beats are rarely stimulating and quite often produce a narcoleptic effect. Even the truest of true believers may find Jesus Is King to be a tough, unrewarding listen.
— Wren Graves
12. Cruel Summer (2012)
Good Morning: Following just one year after his collaborative album with Jay-Z, Cruel Summer finds Kanye West pushing himself even further back into the mix, ceding ground to the likes of Pusha-T, Big Sean, and Kid Cudi. It’s not as if West suddenly abandoned his fondness for creative control; all of the above artists had signed on to his G.O.O.D. imprint, so Cruel Summer still feels like a consummate Kanye West record even when he’s content to shine the spotlight elsewhere. With that said, this compilation album lacks the visionary direction that characterizes nearly everything else in West’s catalog, and it’s best viewed as a promotional vehicle for G.O.O.D and a palate cleanser for 2013’s Yeezus.
On Sight: The cover for Cruel Summer was designed by DONDA, the creative agency that West founded in 2012. This makes a good deal of sense, as the album itself is meant to highlight West’s talents as a record head and all-around businessman. We’ll chalk this one up as a rare miss for DONDA, which would go on to top Cruel Summer’s bland artwork with the more aggressively minimalist marketing rollout for Yeezus.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: The album’s lead single, “Mercy,” features a brilliant sample of “Dust a Soundboy” by dancehall group Super Beagle. Lifted’s bombastic production lends a sinister edge to the “weeping and the moaning and a gnashing of teeth” line sung by dancehall legend Fuzzy Jones.
New Day: It’s almost unfair to compare Cruel Summer to the rest of West’s oeuvre, as it lacks the wild ambition of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the stylistic experimentation of 808s and Yeezus. The album does show a looser, more relaxed side of West’s personality and a greater willingness to pick his spots. Aside from immediate predecessor Watch the Throne, it’s his most radio-friendly work since Graduation.
Mic Drop: “R. Kelly and the God of Rap/ Shitting on you, holy crap.” Holy crap is right. West took a calculated risk in even asking R. Kelly to appear on opening track “To the World,” given Kelly’s legal troubles and less-than-favorable reputation. West compares himself to a god and asserts that all sins are forgiven in his eyes, but that’s not even the boldest thing about this couplet. The “shitting on you” line indirectly references the 2002 case in which Kelly allegedly urinated on a minor. Yikes.
Real Friends: Cruel Summer is essentially one long guest appearance, but some artists stand out more than others. It’s awesome to witness the return of ‘90s heavyweight Ma$e on “Higher,” and the Harlem rapper acquits himself admirably. Big Sean, who appears throughout the album, gets an honorable mention for his ass-related wordplay on “Mercy.”
I’ma Let You Finish: While Cruel Summer is one of the few real misses in Kanye West’s discography, it’s also the album with the lowest stakes. West’s reputation as an artist was never resting on this compilation album, though he steals the show whenever it’s his turn to grab the mic. For a rapper at the height of his power, there are worse ways he could have chosen to flex his muscles.
— Collin Brennan
11. The Life of Pablo (2016)
Good Morning: How does one introduce an album that’s already benefited (or suffered, some might argue) from one of the longest, most drawn-out introductions in the history of pop music? Let’s start with two words: Buckle in. Kanye West’s seventh studio album is a hot and holy mess that prizes the rapper’s id at the expense of his much-talked-about ego. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of ego spread across these 18 tracks, but nowhere else in his career to date has West sounded so uncoordinated, so instinctual, and so inspired.
On Sight: As with nearly every other aspect of The Life of Pablo, Peter De Potter’s artwork was subject to a bit of post-release tinkering. The final version used for the album’s Tidal release is, on first glance, a bit of an eyesore. The Belgian artist superimposed the album’s title multiple times over a creamsicle background, then haphazardly placed two juxtaposing images over the text. One of these images depicts a black family gathered for a wedding photograph; the other depicts the voluptuous backside of swimsuit model Sheniz Halil.
The contrast between the two photos is far from subtle, but it does highlight the breadth of human experience covered on the album itself. Gospel-inspired tracks such as “Ultralight Beam” seem thematically consistent with the family image, while West’s braggadocio on “Famous” and “I Love Kanye” fall right in line with a picture of a big, sexy booty. The artwork may not be pretty, but it previews exactly what we get on The Life of Pablo: a portrait of a conflicted, contradictory artist and one that isn’t always pretty.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: The Life of Pablo may be one of West’s most uneven solo efforts, but the sampling is consistently inspired and rarely misses the mark. Musically speaking, nothing tops the sample of Arthur Russell’s 1986 track “Answers Me” that reappears throughout “30 Hours.” Though the original track features sparse instrumentation and only the shadow of a melody, it’s all West needs in order to write one of TLOP’s most memorable hooks. As for samples culled from unexpected places, it’s hard to top the child’s voice at the beginning of opener “Ultralight Beam.” This one comes, of all places, from the Instagram account of a 4-year-old named Natalie.
New Day: The Life of Pablo might be West’s first solo album without a discernible theme (unless you count “unbridled creativity” as a theme). This probably has a lot to do with the rapper’s self-imposed deadline and rash of last-minute edits, all of which resulted in an 18-track album that hits its share of home runs but runs off the rails in places. You’d have to go all the way back to Late Registration to find a record that leans this heavily on West’s gut instincts and so little on his meticulous sense of image management. Seven albums into his career, West has arrived at a place where he genuinely doesn’t care what you think of him, and that attitude is reflected in TLOP’s unfiltered highs and lows.
Mic Drop: Never one to shy away from controversy, West puts on his braggadocio hat for “Famous” and fires a shot straight at pop star Taylor Swift: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.” West initially tried to pass the line off as an in-joke, but it clearly bothered Swift’s camp and led to some understandable accusations of misogyny in the press.
Real Friends: West officially claimed the King of Rap crown on 2011’s Watch the Throne, and he must feel pretty secure in that status to invite two of rap’s biggest up-and-comers to appear on The Life of Pablo. Chance the Rapper (from West’s hometown of Chicago) drops the highlight verse on “Ultralight Beam,” and Compton’s Kendrick Lamar shows up later to knock “No More Parties in L.A.” out of the park.
I’ma Let You Finish: It’s hard to shake the feeling that The Life of Pablo might have been a perfect 10-song album. Of course, that would be missing the point entirely. This is a sprawling mess of a record that revels in its flaws, whether it’s conscious of those flaws or not. No matter how many times West claims his art is above criticism, he can’t escape the reality that TLOP actually benefits from criticism. This album is many things: a thrill ride, a mission statement, a PR nightmare, et cetera. More important than all that, however, is the fact that it’s human. Triumphantly, undeniably, and — yes! — frustratingly human.
— Collin Brennan