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
10. ye (2018)
Good Morning: Anticipation, anxiety, ambivalence, and, ultimately, exhaustion. These successive states characterized the extended rollout of 2016’s The Life of Pablo, and Kanye West took a page from the same playbook to promote follow-up ye. Logging on to Twitter after an 11-month layoff, West reintroduced himself to the world by way of a series of pseudo-philosophical missives he described as “my book that I’m writing in real time.”
The subsequent weeks brought a cringe-inducing parade of MAGA hats, questionable right-wing endorsements, and “dragon energy” that not only tempered fans’ enthusiasm for ye but turned that enthusiasm into an ethical quandary. It all culminated in an album listening party held on a remote ranch in Wyoming, whitest of white places, during which time emcee Chris Rock lent some perspective to the preceding weeks. “Hip-hop is the first art form created by free black men,” he reminded the crowd of journalists and rap royalty, “and no black man has taken more advantage of his freedom than Kanye West.” Cue the music.
On Sight: According to a tweet by Kim Kardashian West — how else would we receive our cultural instruction in 2018? — ye’s album artwork is a photo Kanye West took himself on the way to the aforementioned Wyoming listening party.
Kanye shot the album cover on his iPhone on the way to the album listening party 😂🔥❤️🔥🙏🏼🔥
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) June 1, 2018
It’s pretty, as far as iPhone photos of mountains go, though a lime-green scrawl complicated the scenery. “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome” reads the text, which doubles as the theme of a lean, seven-track album that begins with some of the darkest lyrics of West’s career and ends with an outpouring of fatherly love and repentance.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: ye marks a welcome return to West’s soul-sampling days. The rapper-producer spent a decade exploring a harsher and more eclectic sonic palette on albums such as Yeezus and Pablo, but he props these seven tracks up against a warm wallpaper of soul, urban gospel, and ‘60s rock that recalls his earliest solo work. The standout sample arrives with “Ghost Town” and Kid Cudi’s adaptation of the 1967 Dave Edmunds gem “Take Me for a Little While,” which contorts a pub rock melody to fit with the track’s cross-section of emo and hip-hop.
Elsewhere, West leans on Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World” (“No Mistakes”) and The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Children Get Together” to provide a backbone for his relatively bare-bones beats. It’s devastatingly effective when it hits, but the album’s relative minimalism otherwise holds it back from lasting transcendence.
New Day: If The Life of Pablo’s approach was to throw everything at the wall and see what might stick, ye offers a dose of the same manic energy in a much leaner package. This approach betrays a hint of self-awareness; West seems to understand how much patience and good will he expended in the album’s protracted rollout, and he’s careful not to waste his listener’s time here.
Opener “I Thought About Killing You” is perhaps the album’s weakest and most indulgent track, but its foray into sociopathic megalomania sets the stage for a journey that takes West through other aspects of a persona that oscillate between toxic masculinity and spiritual introspection. It’s a mixture that won’t work for everyone and one that requires a fair bit of cognitive dissonance to appreciate in light of West’s recent transgressions.
Mic Drop: West isn’t very good at Twitter, which obscures the fact that he’s often a clever and scathing lyricist when he trades the keyboard for a microphone. Sure, ye has its share of groaners (Ex. “I love your titties cause they prove that I can focus on two things at once.”), but it also proves that West hasn’t totally lost his lyrical wits. On “Yikes,” he calls out hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons with the line, “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me, too/ I’ma pray for him ‘cause he got #MeToo’d.” It’s a feisty and subtle jab at some of the patronizing criticism he’s received in the past several years, though West admits elsewhere that he’s not above reproach.
Real Friends: Notable guest appearances on ye include Kid Cudi, 070 Shake, and Ty Dolla $ign, but the most interesting spotlight is reserved for Nicki Minaj on closer “Violent Crimes.” The song closes with a voicemail from Minaj suggesting that West include her name in a rap about his daughter: “I hope she like Nicki, I’ll make her a monster/ Not havin’ ménages.” It’s a reminder of West’s complicated relationship with femininity on one hand, but also a frank admission that he borrowed the lines from Minaj herself. By giving another rapper — and a woman, just as importantly — the final say on his own album, he complicates the sexism and egomania apparent throughout his body of work.
I’ma Let You Finish: With its seven tracks clocking in at a brisk 23 minutes, Ye is ultimately too lean to stand alongside West’s greatest achievements as a producer and rapper. It’s also not incredible enough to compensate for West’s grating public persona and general jackassery. Fans who refuse to engage with ye on political or ethical grounds have a point, but the album’s music offers an undeniable taste of why they cared about West in the first place.
— Collin Brennan
09. Kids See Ghosts (2018)
Good Morning: A partnership with his once-estranged G.O.O.D. labelmate Kid Cudi, KIDS SEE GHOSTS arrived as Kanye West’s most anticipated collaboration since 2011’s Watch the Throne. A select group of journalists and fans were invited to an album listening party in a Southern California “ghost town” (get it?!) to celebrate the debut, but poor planning and logistics threatened to sap the energy from the proceedings. (It didn’t help that the album subsequently popped up on streaming services with the wrong tracklist.) Any signs of chaos were quickly counterbalanced by the music itself, which finds both West and Kid Cudi bearing the scars of their recent struggles but back at the top of their respective games.
On Sight: A far cry from the muted Wyoming landscape of Ye, the album cover for KIDS SEE GHOSTS is a technicolor nightmare sprung from the mind of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. If its rainbow hues and frenetic styling look familiar, that’s because West also collaborated with Murakami on the album artwork for Graduation. This image seems of a piece with the music itself, in the sense that it’s both reminiscent of West’s earlier iconic work and evocative of the demons — literal, figurative, who’s to say? — he’s faced in recent years.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Whereas Ye leans decisively toward soul and urban gospel in its sampling, KIDS SEE GHOSTS casts a wider and more eclectic net across its seven tracks. “Cudi Montage” loops a lonely, tinny guitar melody from Kurt Cobain’s “Burn the Rain,” a choice that speaks to Kid Cudi’s own battle with depression and continues his tradition of sampling ‘90s alt-rock superstars. That one’s bound to raise some eyebrows, but the album’s most inspired sample comes courtesy of Louis Prima’s “What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’)”, a swinging jazz recording that dates back to 1936. West warps the original song’s chorus, spinning it off into a twin meditation on sexual and audience gratification.
New Day: If Ye is West’s bipolar album, KIDS SEE GHOSTS is something a bit more muddled and complex. The album takes a multifaceted approach to the theme of “ghosts,” stuffing that word with connotations that include inner demons, former selves, and pollutions of childlike innocence. For Kid Cudi, it is quite clearly a stab at redemption, both in terms of his relationship with West and his struggle with anxiety and depression that landed him in rehab in 2017. For West, it is both that and something else — a chance for him to cast off the weight of expectations and finally be free, but in a way that doesn’t ignore that darkness of his recent years. In any case, KIDS WITH GHOSTS feels very much like a new day for two rappers who desperately need one.
Mic Drop: GHOSTS in various guises haunt this album’s verses, but none leaves a bigger impression than the Holy Ghost. Kid Cudi emerges from the personal hell of depression to croon about his faith in heaven, and his preoccupation with spirituality lends a genuinely uplifting aspect to “Reborn” and the title track. But as Yeezus reminded us, West’s relationship with Christianity is more conflicted. “Got a Bible by my bed, oh yes, I’m very Christian/ Constantly repentin’, ’cause yes I never listen,” he raps in the second verse of “Kids See Ghosts.” It’s far from a mea culpa, but for West it’s an appropriately braggadocious way to acknowledge his sins.
Real Friends: The friend that matters most here is Kid Cudi, and the two rappers’ unique deliveries and skill sets make this a far more interesting collaboration than Watch the Throne’s extended game of one-upmanship. West’s acquiescence to the role of sidekick on tracks like “Feel the Love,” “Reborn,” and “Cudi Montage” is both gracious and essential, allowing his eccentricities (“Grrrat-gat-gat-gat-gat!”) to serve their proper role as punctuations rather than the main course. KIDS SEE GHOSTS can seem at times like an intimate airing of demons between two battle-hardened friends, but Ty Dolla $ign stops by for a cathartic moment on “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)”, and Yasiin Bey lends his expansive perspective to the memorable bridge of “Kids See Ghosts.”
I’ma Let You Finish: Though it clocks in at around the same time as Ye, KIDS SEE GHOSTS arguably packs more meat onto its ethereal bones. The album doesn’t strive to tell a totally linear story, instead relying on the power of atmospherics and the fluid interplay between the two rappers to propel the arc forward. Its raps may not flex as hard as Pusha-T’s on DAYTONA, but that leaves room for some of West’s most precise, compelling production in years to shine through.
— Collin Brennan
08. Donda (2021)
Good Morning: Well, where do we start? Donda’s rollout is already the stuff of legend. Like Kanye himself, it’s polarized many because of the release date shifts, multiple versions of songs, evolving track listings, and just overall confusion. Even now, when it’s finally out to the world, there’s still controversy as to whether this is what Kanye intended for the world to hear, or just a warmup for another listening session in a packed stadium.
Donda is named after Donda West, Kanye’s late mother. As a follow-up to Jesus Is King, it’s centered around religion, spirituality, Gospel music, and yes, hip-hop. Released on a Sunday morning and heavily edited, the audience Kanye (or someone) made this for is clear. Kanye is still grieving his mother and also his marriage. This is the album where he, and all of his guest, had a little talk with Jesus and relayed all of their troubles. The only question left unanswered is whether this is the actual final version of Donda, or does Mr. West have something else up his sleeve?
On Sight: It’s nothing. Just a black cover. No name. No album title. Just black. While some may see that as avant-garde, it really speaks to the haphazard way the album came together. Even when he told us it was done what feels like months ago, it wasn’t done. The way Kanye works as of late, expect more of this if we ever get another album from him.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: “Believe What I Say” for the most obvious reason ever: Lauryn Hill. Sampling “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is a bold move because it’s one of the biggest songs of all time from one of the most successful albums in history. Kanye pulls it off and uses Lauryn’s voice beautifully, creating the background crooning that his raps need. For fans who want the “old Kanye” back, this might be their best glimpse of him.
New Day: This is an album about pain, loss, suffering, forgiveness, and joy. As such, the mood shifts from one song to the next as it is mourning and celebrating the life of Donda West, while putting us on a journey with a man just trying to find peace in his life. It’s as emotional as 808s & Heartbreaks, but with a different purpose. That 2008 album was breakup music, while Donda is music for anyone who needs to feel like they’re not alone in life and struggling to keep it together.
Mic Drop: “People sayin’ tweetin’ gonna make you die early/ how ’bout have my heart hurtin’? Hold it all inside, that could make you die early/ go on and get your best attorney.” This is Kanye West in a nutshell. He’s going to say what he says, whether we like it or not, and get his feelings out. He uses this album to do a lot of talking to God and just letting us in on the conversation. This isn’t to say his tweets are confessionals, but it’s the key insight into how all of this works for him. While he doesn’t like when people criticize him, he’s never going to stop saying how he feels. If you don’t like it, sue him.
Real Friends: Yeah, there are a lot of people on this album; a mix of old connections, like Kid Cudi, and new connections like Lil Baby and Fivio Foreign. This feels like a sequel to Cruel Summer in its sheer scope of people coming to play with Kanye. The biggest surprise is JAY-Z’s return to the fold, as he and Kanye were on the outs in recent years. Hov said this might be the return of The Throne, so yeah, look forward to that.
Courting the disgraced DaBaby and Marilyn Manson for the album though? Not a good look, considering they’re both steeped in controversy. And for an album dedicated to his deceased mother? Bad form.
I’ma Let You Finish: Donda is the end of a sentence Kanye started but never finished with Jesus Is King. It’s a solid album from a guy who struggled to do so in recent years. It’s stuffed and ambitious, sometimes to a fault, but its strengths outweigh its flaws.
— Marcus Shorter
07. Late Registration (2005)
Good Morning: Against all odds, The College Dropout had been certified Double Platinum, and West was well on his way to superstardom. With two Grammys in his, er, sock drawer for his debut record, expectations were understandably high for West’s sophomore effort. Never satisfied to settle for what succeeded in the past, the emcee sought new inspiration, enlisting Jon Brion (whose credits included production for Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith) as a producer and tapping into a symphonic sound for even more grandiose effects.
On Sight: Dropout Bear again is the focal point of the album cover, bathed in dramatic light and in front of two oversized university doors at Princeton. However, this time around, he’s front and center and standing, as opposed to slouched and looking down. While the bear appears small on the cover, the shadow he casts is large. West was beginning to loom large over the hip-hop world.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: The core soul style remained the same for West, but with a bigger budget and more creative freedom, he was able to make his sound even more multifaceted than before. West showed his ear for creating a massive pop hit by mixing Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” (on “Gold Digger”) with a thumping drumbeat. He adapted Shirley Bassey’s twinkling “Diamonds Are Forever” (on “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”) for an unexpected, meditative look at conflict diamonds. And a sped-up version of Otis Redding’s “It’s Too Late” (on “Gone”) was the perfect send-off as West waved goodbye to all the haters who doubted him.
New Day: The evolution between West’s albums is relatively subtle between The College Dropout and Late Registration. The skits with DeRay Davis are still present (centered around the fraternity “Broke Phi Broke” this time around), but are reigned in when compared to the previous record. But West went all in on making the production, employing a 20-piece orchestra on “Celebration.” The dramatic strings are a consistent presence throughout the record, also on the likes of “Gone,” “Bring Me Down,” and “Late.” West deserves enormous credit for the pastiche of sounds that effortlessly coalesce on the record. The album showcases a variety of instruments, from horns to synths, in a way that doesn’t feel overwrought or bloated. The first full track, “Heard ‘Em Say,” brilliantly shows this eclectic style, which includes dreamy piano, a subtle drumbeat, and a surreal berimbau outro.
Mic Drop: “Crack raised the murder rate in DC and Maryland/ We invested in that, it’s like we got Merrill Lynched/ And we been hangin’ from the same tree ever since.” US racial politics have always been a hallmark of West’s rhymes, and on this track the emcee brilliantly contrasts crack cocaine as a scourge of the ’hood with the fetishization of drugs and crime in hip-hop music that was increasingly being consumed by Middle America.
Real Friends: Just a few years before Late Registration dropped, Jay Z and Nas were embroiled in one of hip-hop’s most notorious beefs. West’s choice to feature Nas on “We Major” helped bridge the gap between the two New York hip-hop veterans. (“‘We Major’ is, like, Jay’s favorite song on the album,” West said with a smile in a 2005 interview.) For his part, Nas’ verse showed his maturation as an emcee as he took an introspective look at his lyrics: “Fo-fos or Black Christ?/ Both flows would be nice/ Rap about big paper or the black man plight.”
Emblematic of West’s rising star in the rap community, Late Registration featured many other notable guest spots (Jamie Foxx, Adam Levine, Common), but honorable mention goes to West introducing the masses to another up-and-coming Chicago rapper, Lupe Fiasco (on “Touch the Sky”).
I’ma Let You Finish: Ever the perfectionist, West later called Late Registration “indulgent” and “poorly put together.” This seems to be an overly harsh analysis; from start to finish, the record is well-rounded and showcased how West was coming into his own as a producer who had a strong sense of the creative vision for his works. The album runs the emotional gamut from whimsical and subversive (on “Gold Digger”) to beautifully vulnerable (on “Roses” and “Hey Mama”) to defiant and proud (on “Touch the Sky,” “We Major,” and “Gone”), all hallmarks of West’s greatest traits and flaws.
— Killian Young